[A translated excerpt from a propaganda cartoon published by China’s anti-corruption body featuring party cadres questioning emergency responders. Source: CCDI Wechat Account]
“To control the epidemic, the national disciplinary inspection and supervision authorities are in action!” So reads the headline of an article posted on the official WeChat account of China’s anti-corruption body on January 26, 2020. By then, the death toll of the coronavirus had climbed to 81 according to Chinese government tallies. The number of confirmed infections stood at 2,827. A February 3, 2020 government report puts the death toll at over 425 with more than 20,000 confirmed cases and infections being recorded worldwide, including in the US.
In a rare admission, China’s President Xi Jinping said that the virus is a “major test” for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s way of governance. The widening scope of the crisis compels the government to show that it is activating all possible resources. To orchestrate the government’s response, Xi established a dedicated leading group led by Premier Li Keqiang and has taken a series of dramatic actions including shutting down Wuhan, a city with a population of 11 million that is the epicenter of the outbreak. Local communities and governments are also going to unusual lengths to respond to the spread of the disease by, reportedly, locking building gates at night or barricading entrances to villages. As Ian Johnson argues, some of these extraordinary steps, at both the local and national levels appear to be, at least in part, “action for action’s sake.”
The painful irony is that the local government actually suppressed reporting by physicians who noticed infections weeks before the government acknowledged the problem. The government is now punishing those who do not report. Questions about the adequacy of the official response are whirling around Chinese social media. While most public anger continues to be directed at the city and provincial officials, the central government in Beijing is on notice.
To shape the discourse in the Party’s favor, in particular the central leadership’s favor, China’s anti-graft body has been activated. A flurry of posts appeared on government websites pledging the support of the conjoined National Supervision Commission (NSC) and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), China’s superagency responsible for monitoring bureaucratic ills and enforcing loyalty to the Party.
Controlling Behavior, Prices, and Stockpiles
China’s anti-graft bodies have struck key elements of the government response already. On January 27, 2020 the Southern Weekly reported the punishment of 33 officials for behavior related to the outbreak. When a child with cerebral palsy died after his caregiver was placed under quarantine and could no longer tend to him, the discipline and supervision authorities punished two local officials. Leaders at the Hubei Red Cross Society have been investigated and dismissed. Several such cases have been described on the websites of the national or provincial-level supervisory and disciplinary bodies and pushed out via party propaganda channels in an effort to highlight behavior the Party sees as problematic or to show that it is doing something to ensure a proper government response to the epidemic.
According to People’s Daily, in Daye City, less than a two hour drive from Wuhan, three local party cadres are under investigation by local supervision authorities. The article describes the complaint: “Not only were they not wearing masks, they were getting together to play cards!” (Separately, a video circulated showing local police in China smashing a mahjong table and dispersing a group of players). The Party is now on high alert and issuing notices about appropriate cadre behavior and signaling the urgency of compliance with orders. Wearing a face mask is no longer just principally a method of preventing infections—it is also a matter of party discipline.
The CCDI-NSC wants to show that it is scrutinizing efforts to record the full scope of human movement and keep track of possible infections. The Global Times reported that three local officials in Yangxin County, Hubei Province were being processed by the local supervision and discipline inspection commissions for failing to register individuals who had returned home from Wuhan. A local official elsewhere was issued a warning for failing to have returnees fill out the “Return to Hometown Examination Registration Form.”
The CCDI-NSC has rolled out a PR blitz aimed at signaling that it is helping keep medical services running smoothly. It published images of inspection teams visiting facilities. In a post, the CCDI-NSC describes the work of several city and provincial-level supervision and discipline inspection commissions in supporting, mostly by monitoring, the emergency response efforts of local party officials:
"Hotels are places where travelers gather—they are key places—did the health department promptly investigate, monitor, and provide early warning regarding the epidemic? Have the relevant units jointly adopted measures for prevention and control? Have businesses taken on the responsibility of assuring the provision of emergency supplies?"
To that end, Chengdu’s supervision and discipline inspection commissions, for example, has reportedly set up 6 inspection teams which have fanned out to villages and townships and inspected hotels, guest houses, and travel agencies. In Fujian Province, the local disciplinary organ monitored the coordination of emergency responses after a local coronavirus infection was discovered. Similar efforts appear to be underway across nearly all provinces.
In addition, inspection groups are monitoring factories that produce important emergency supplies such as face masks and disinfectant. In Henan Province, for instance, Feng Dongmin, the head of the Discipline Inspection and Supervision Team of Zhoukou’s discipline and inspection commission embedded in the local Administration for Market Regulation reportedly scrutinized the production of face masks and other supplies of nine companies as part of a larger “defensive war.” By being embedded in the market regulation agency, the Henan Provincial supervisory commission claimed to be monitoring the price of food staples such as oil, eggs, meat, and vegetables. Despite this, there have been troubling reports of major shortages of medical equipment and other supplies.
The Party's Ability to Treat its Own Ills is Tested
“To win the fight against the epidemic, we must resolutely avoid formalism and bureaucratism, and unswervingly implement all the decisions of the Party Central Committee.” —CCDI-NSC
The Party has long struggled with “formalism” and “bureaucratism”—party member sluggishness that includes a variety of behaviors “such as being indifferent or turning a blind eye to the suffering or complaints of the public.” The problem was perceived so severe that in 2018 a major campaign was launched to address the issue. These are ills that bog down governance under normal circumstances but could represent dangerous obstacles in managing an emergency. The CCDI-NSC is now doubling down.
The Party is worried about the potential embezzlement of funds allocated for emergency relief. Corruption has been a long-standing challenge for the Communist Party and when Xi Jinping came into power in 2012, he launched a far-reaching campaign that entangled millions of local officials and brought down hundreds of high level officials and in doing so bolstered his political standing. To that end, several local commissions have issued notices that they are on high-alert regarding corruption that might affect epidemic control efforts. A town in Sichuan Province issued a notice describing how it will crack down on corruption and embezzlement by implementing a so-called “one case, three investigations” policy, whereby the person “directly” responsible, the person “mainly” responsible,” and the leader will be investigated. The Nanchang City disciplinary and supervisory body embedded within the local Health Commission, for instance, reportedly inspected facilities as a preventative measure to ensure funds are not misallocated. Other local commissions are emphasizing the need for reporting such behavior. The supervision and discipline inspection commissions of the city of Huangshi in Hubei Province put out a call encouraging people to report delinquent behavior.
The message is clear: The onus is on local government officials to get the situation under control. Indeed, the involvement of the CCDI-NSC highlights a central problem in Chinese governance—coordination between central and local governments. Are central government orders implemented properly? Are local governments reporting information accurately? Are censorship directives being ignored anywhere in the chain of command? How this tension between local and central government is resolved, and the public perception of it, will determine who the central government holds responsible for mismanagement of the crisis.
The CCDI-NSC recently reaffirmed that one of its main roles is to “uphold Xi's position as the core of the [CCP] Central Committee and the whole Party, as well as the authority of the [CCP] Central Committee.” The CCDI-NSC has proven itself especially pliable to the central government’s many needs. The anti-corruption body has been inserted into the flailing Belt and Road Initiative and leveraged to foster party loyalty in China’s universities. Indeed, the list of issues the CCDI-NSC intervenes in—via inspection teams able to embed themselves in every nook and cranny of the Chinese bureaucracy—is so expansive it is essentially a multi-purpose oversight organization for and of the CCP. In doing so, the CCDI-NSC is channeling the ethos of one of its principal architects, Wang Qishan—a kind of Swiss Army knife cadre—one of China’s highest ranking officials with an especially close relationship to Xi Jinping and the president’s go-to crisis manager.
None of this says anything about the efficacy of the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak of the Wuhan virus (nor the truthfulness of government statements). However, it does say something about how the Party seeks to build trust and distribute power and impose accountability in moments of crisis. The deployment of the CCDI-NSC appears aimed at bolstering dwindling trust in the Communist Party just at a moment when trust is needed the most. What all this means for the outcome of the coronavirus is yet to be seen.