Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
Generations of journalism students have been told that if a plane crashes, it’s news – but that if, as usual, it doesn’t crash, it’s not. That’s why the news tends to be bad news.
So it isn’t surprising that much of the reporting on the coronavirus currently afflicting China has been focused on the numbers of infections and deaths, which climb every day.
But before she took questions on Feb. 6, spokeswoman Hua Chunying told the members of the media gathered at the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s daily briefing that there was information from the National Health Commission that she wished to share: During the 24 hours of Feb. 5, 73 people died, but 261 patients had been cured and discharged. Newly confirmed cases – excluding those from the province of Hubei, the disease’s epicentre – “declined for a second day starting from Feb. 4.”
It was a daring move, reflecting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s confidence. When Mr. Xi met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen the day before that news conference, he informed him that China’s “most thorough and rigorous measures” to fight the outbreak were “producing results.” And at a Jan. 28 meeting with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, the Chinese leader said he was personally in charge of the campaign against the “devil” virus. Beijing has also worked to show how an authoritarian government – without the need to answer to such pesky annoyances as media or legislators – can marshal resources in this battle.
And so, starting on Feb. 5, the Foreign Ministry has begun its briefing with a good-news report. The figures seemed to bear out the official optimism; after 10 days, the virus appeared to be slowly but surely coming under control.
However, last week’s events demonstrated that Beijing may not have given the devil its due.
On Feb. 17, the state news agency Xinhua announced that the annual parliamentary meeting scheduled for March – normally held alongside the annual meeting of the country’s top advisory body and attended by thousands of delegates – would likely be postponed. They have not been postponed in 25 years.
Doing so makes some sense. After all, in 2003, when another virus lurked in China, the meetings went ahead with deadly consequences: Thousands of delegates from around the country descended on Beijing, bringing with them the SARS virus, and the capital became seriously infected. Clearly, China doesn’t want this to happen again.
On Feb. 19, Mr. Xi convened a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, a seven-member body at the apex of the Communist Party, which listened to reports on the campaign against the epidemic and studied the co-ordination of epidemic prevention and economic development. After studying “relevant opinions,” it decided to refer the matter to the full 25-member Politburo.
The decisive Politburo meeting, again presided over by Mr. Xi, was held two days later; it ruled that “a turning point in the development of the national epidemic situation has not yet arrived." This was no doubt disappointing but probably realistic, in view of outbreaks in hospitals in the capital, clusters of infections in at least four prisons across three provinces, and a release issued after the meeting highlighting “all-out epidemic control efforts in Beijing."
On Sunday, Mr. Xi delivered a major speech in which he called the current coronavirus threat the country’s “biggest public health emergency” in 70 years. He made it clear that fighting the virus alone was not enough because of the simultaneous need to advance on the economic front, after a month in which much of the economy had been locked down.
Mr. Xi still voiced confidence in eventual triumph, although he acknowledged shortcomings in the party’s response, that it was a crisis and that there would be “a considerable impact on the Chinese economy and society.”
This has all left Mr. Xi waging a two-front war. On one hand, China can’t let its guard down where the virus is concerned. On the other hand, it has to revive its economy, the basis for its global influence.
The stakes are high. The global audience is watching as China battles two foes at the same time but cannot afford to lose either struggle. The final outcome will be big news indeed.
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