Party Watch Annual Report 2020: Covid-19 and Chinese Communist Party Resilience
During the first few months of 2020, the future looked grim for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The outbreak of a new coronavirus in the city of Wuhan forced much of the country into lockdown just before China’s Lunar New Year festival. As Covid-19 made its way across China and cropped up in cities around the world, it proved deadlier and more infectious than initially understood. Emerging facts about the early days of the virus exposed the CCP to accusations that it had covered up the severity of the outbreak with disastrous public health and economic consequences at home and abroad.
Outrage from Chinese academics, health officials, and netizens over the government’s handling of the outbreak was discussed by some observers as “herald[ing] a new strain of political dissent with potential to outlast the current emergency.” In a particularly striking moment, Chinese people publicly mourned the Covid-related death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who was silenced by the Wuhan Public Security Bureau when he tried to sound the alarm on the outbreak. Sometimes referring to the outbreak as China’s “Chernobyl moment,” observers argued that the crisis could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the CCP and rattle Xi Jinping’s grip on power. Indeed, Xi Jinping admitted at a 3 February Politburo Standing Committee meeting that the epidemic was a “great test” for the regime.
To make matters worse, this test could not have come at a more inconvenient time. 2020 was the year the CCP vowed it would reach its goal of making China a “moderately prosperous society,” a major step toward the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049. The Party had big plans to eradicate poverty by the end of the year, among other goals. But due to the pandemic, the CCP announced in May that it would drop its annual growth target for the first time since it began issuing annual GDP targets in 1990. For a regime whose rule is largely predicated on its ability to deliver economic growth, the abandonment of growth targets made a legitimacy crisis an even more distinct possibility.
In retrospect, any suggestion that the epidemic posed a serious challenge to Xi’s leadership or CCP rule appears to have been premature. Since the initial months of 2020, the CCP has leveraged its ability to bring the epidemic under control at home—and the failure of other countries to address it effectively abroad—to reinforce nationalist sentiment and portray China’s political system as possessing superior advantages in responding to crises. At the last Politburo meeting of the year, the body declared that this year had been “an extraordinary year in the history of New China.” In the face of severe challenges, the CCP “maintained strategic determination, accurately judged the situation, carefully planned and deployed, acted decisively, worked hard, and responded in a way that satisfied the people and attracted global attention.”
The Party Watch Annual Report 2020 discusses how the CCP recovered from such a bleak start to the year and ended 2020 with its legitimacy arguably strengthened.
In the first section, Andrew Nathan discusses why public support for the CCP remains high in spite of the coronavirus outbreak and other apparent challenges to CCP legitimacy this year, most notably the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In addition to several “obvious” reasons for resilient regime support—information control, policy performance, nationalism, and fear—he outlines three “less obvious” factors: cultural norms that influence Chinese people’s view of democracy, the complicity of the population in the regime’s systems of rule, and personal identification with the regime. Nathan describes how each of these factors influenced the Chinese public’s response to the events of 2020.
In the second section, Bruce Dickson discusses an additional factor completely out of the CCP’s hands that may have saved Chinese public opinion on the CCP’s handling of the epidemic: the total failure of most countries outside of East Asia to effectively respond to the pandemic. The CCP’s propaganda apparatus seized the opportunity to portray China’s response as effective compared to other countries’, causing the Chinese public to reevaluate their initial criticisms. For this reason, Dickson argues that the CCP emerged from the crisis with its legitimacy strengthened.
In the third section, David Gitter details the response of the Party's propaganda apparatus to the crisis during its worst period, between mid-January and mid-March 2020. He identifies the three core phases in the Party’s propaganda campaign: shielding central leadership from blame, public opinion guidance via censorship and dissemination of positive narratives, and promoting foreign origin theories to absolve domestic responsibility. The propaganda response may have appeared frenetic and desperate to the outside observer, but Gitter asserts that the effort to protect the Party’s reputation was probably successful in some regards, such as its redirection of blame away from the CCP center. He concludes by noting potential adjustments the regime may make to more effectively protect its reputation in future moments of crisis.
In the fourth section of this report, Heike Holbig challenges the assumption that the abandonment of growth targets this year and the looming economic slowdown directly implicates the CCP’s legitimacy. In fact, facing the inevitability of slower economic growth, the CCP has been trying for some time now to shift away from growth-based performance legitimacy in favor of qualitative measurements of prosperity. While the Party has found it difficult to deemphasize growth targets in the recent past, Holbig argues that the Covid-19 crisis helped the CCP accelerate this transition by emphasizing the idea that other objectives on the Party’s agenda beyond merely hitting growth targets are also important measures of performance.
While the Party has largely managed to rescue its image domestically, all authors agree that it was less successful at recovering its reputation internationally. In the last section, Drew Thompson discusses Chinese diplomacy in the wake of Covid-19. In 2020 Chinese diplomats have navigated this unprecedented period by drawing on two new “tifa” or concepts that inform how the CCP understands its place in the international order: “profound changes unseen in a century” and “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.” Thompson argues that this static and ineffective approach to foreign policy can help explain why the CCP was unable to recover from a steep decline in global public opinion this year.
Download the full report here:
Introduction: Covid-19 and Chinese Communist Party Resilience by Julia G. Bowie
Culture, Complicity, and Identity: Why Public Support for the CCP Remains High After 2020 by Andrew J. Nathan
Better Than the Alternative: How Foreign Countries' Lackluster Responses to Covid-19 Bolstered CCP Legitimacy by Bruce J. Dickson
A Great Test: The CCP’s Domestic Propaganda Campaign to Defend Its Early Covid-19 Fight by David Gitter
Covid-19 and the Moving Target of a Moderately Prosperous Society
by Heike Holbig
Implementing Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy During Covid-19
by Drew Thompson