For China’s leaders, pop-up hospitals are about politics as much as health


Across China, from the outbreak’s epicenter of Wuhan to Harbin in the north and Shenzhen in the south, Chengdu in the west and Wenzhou in the east, these kinds of “hospitals” have been going up at astonishing speed to accommodate some of the 40,000-plus people infected with the novel coronavirus.

Authorities have turned gyms and stadiums around Wuhan into “square cabin” hospitals, using the term for medical facilities erected during military field operations, and deployed thousands of medics from the People’s Liberation Army.

The facilities have a clear health-related purpose. They are part of an epic attempt to stop the spread of a virus that has proved more contagious and more stubborn than officials realized.

But they have a clear political rationale. Communist Party leaders in Beijing, facing a domestic crisis of proportions unmatched at least since the Asian financial crisis more than two decades ago, need to be able to show an increasingly agitated public that they are taking action.

“The central government is making sure their response is visible,” said Taisu Zhang, a professor at Yale Law School and an expert on contemporary Chinese politics.

Beijing has turned to the kind of mass mobilization of people and massive construction projects that have been the hallmarks of Communist rule since Mao Zedong was leader.

The two makeshift hospitals constructed in Wuhan have been held up as examples of the party’s resolve in the “war” against the coronavirus. Their construction was live-streamed in China and lauded by the state broadcaster.

The People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, declared the first Wuhan hospital to be “a miracle in days.” Dozens of others have been built from scratch or refashioned from existing hospital wards.

Here in Fujian province, sandwiched between the regions worst hit by the virus outside Hubei, two makeshift coronavirus units have gone up, one in Fuqing on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Fuzhou, and another an hour away in the city of Putian.

The one in Putian was still largely a construction site dotted with excavators when The Washington Post visited, but the staff insisted it would be completed within days.

On a recent day, workers were putting the final touches on the Fuqing unit, two rows of two-story prefabricated boxes that come installed with electrics and plumbing ready to be hooked up. This being authoritarian China, video cameras had been installed, too.

Eric Toner, a pandemic emergency specialist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that the speedy construction was impressive but that it was a stretch to call these units “hospitals.”

“They seem to be more like assessment and treatment centers for people who are suspected cases,” he said. “It seems those people who are really sick are being sent to real hospitals.”

For Chinese President Xi Jinping and his cadres, the most pressing thing is to be seen to be acting in the face of a threat that outranks the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2002, the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 or the Wenzhou train crash of 2012. The test for the party-state is greater even than the pro-democracy rebellion in Hong Kong and global condemnation of China’s mass detention of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

“None of those things even amounted to domestic crises,” Zhang said. “This is the first thing that’s been completely visible and seems to touch everybody’s basic welfare.”

The crisis has brought health risks that have radiated out across the country and economic damage that experts say will be much more severe than that inflicted by President Trump’s trade war.

The disruption also threatens to derail Xi’s political agenda. There is speculation that the Two Sessions, the year’s biggest political meetings, set to start on March 5, will be delayed.

With mounting domestic criticism of the government response to the crisis, especially after the death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang last week, the central government appears to be trying to pin as much blame as possible on local authorities.

Local officials have occasionally tried to push back.

Embattled Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang was accused by some of not acting quickly enough to release information about the virus. “As a local government official, after I get this kind of information I still have to wait for authorization before I can release it,” Zhou told the state broadcaster late last month, stressing that his hands were tied by the system.

The big question now is whether the lessons of the coronavirus outbreak serve to change China’s system, which has become increasingly authoritarian and centralized under Xi, who took power at the end of 2012.

Many commentators have asked, in the days since the doctor’s death in Wuhan, whether the unprecedented public anger could become a tipping point. The sense that the state is not acting for the people, which has flourished after Li’s death from coronavirus — despite intensive efforts to censor such sentiments — is a dangerous one for an authoritarian regime.

But if the Chinese government manages to bring the outbreak under control relatively quickly, many experts think it could encourage Xi to become even more iron-fisted.

The central government may also claim vindication for some of its more draconian initiatives of recent years, said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

“In the name of ‘stability preservation,’ they’ve been gathering information on residents and increasing monitoring, and actually those kinds of equipment and technologies and practices have come in really handy during this outbreak,” Yang said, referring to the constant surveillance of modern Chinese life, whether through facial-recognition cameras or people’s cellphones.

Chinese authorities have used such surveillance to keep tabs on people and find out who has been into infection hot spots, sometimes forcibly quarantining them.

Yang said he thought the party authorities would see a need to continue investing in Internet controls, propaganda systems to “guide public opinion” and the training armed police. “In fact, the messages from the top leadership now are all about the elevated risks, so they are broadening the concept of national security to include everything, including health,” he said.

Much will depend on who shoulders the blame for the epidemic.

Yale’s Zhang looks back to the Black Death plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. Worried about the threat to its existence, the English aristocracy banded together to tighten controls.

“You could see that happening in China, particularly if the elites begin to see a fundamental threat to their legitimacy and their political survival,” he said. “They could coalesce rather than splintering. That, to me, is the most dangerous scenario.”

Wang Yuan contributed to this report.


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