- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2020

The Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus demonstrates the vast powers accorded to it under its authoritarian structure. Tens of millions of Chinese citizens — an astonishing number of people — in and around the central city of Wuhan are under physical quarantine, barred from leaving. Imagine attempting that in a democratic country. The deadly pneumonia-like ailment that is spreading rapidly across the world emerged from Wuhan, apparently from a wet market where wild and domesticated animals are slaughtered on site.

And after the physical quarantine came the information quarantine. On Friday morning, I received a message over WeChat, the Chinese chat app, from a Chinese friend in Beijing. He told me that China has blocked Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), the unofficially tolerated apps that allow users to bypass the so-called Great Firewall, which blocks content unfriendly to the Chinese government. And so he wanted to know: What’s going on with coronavirus? How many cases are there? Think of the absurdity of the situation: A person in China asking me, some six thousand miles away, what’s actually going on in China.

How serious is the coronavirus? Well, let’s look at what the economists called the “revealed preference” — the actions people take regardless of what they say or perhaps even think. One must be wary of accepting the Chinese government’s statistics about the spread of the virus. Honesty is not their strong suit. But the Chinese government’s revealed preference — what it’s actually doing, rather than saying — suggests that coronavirus is very, very serious indeed.

That goes beyond the blocking of VPNs, which is an obvious attempt to control information flow and prevent mass panic. More telling is that Beijing has decided to sacrifice economic growth — essentially, to stop all economic activity — in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus.

It can’t be overstated how important economic growth is to the Chinese government. It is the lynchpin of everything and undergirds its very legitimacy. Beijing’s implicit bargain with the Chinese people is this: You’ll sacrifice your liberties, and in the meantime, you’ll get steadily rising living standards and economic growth. For four decades, the bargain has held.

But now Beijing is implicitly saying something unprecedented in the decades since Deng Xiaopoing kicked off China’s capitalist revolution: there is something more important than economic growth. That is stopping the coronavirus.

It’s not just the tens of millions of Chinese citizens under quarantine — citizens who can’t work, can’t shop, can’t travel. It’s also the thousands of factories across the country that have been idled. It’s the sharp reduction in travel between Hong Kong and the mainland. It’s that even cities still relatively untouched by the outbreak are basically shut down. Beijing, with only 139 confirmed cases in a city of of more than 20 million, is more or less shut down, according to my local contacts. Many restaurants are closed, and the stores and other public spaces that are open have sharply reduced their hours of operation. American companies have pulled back as well: More than half of the Starbucks in China are shuttered.

The American political reaction to coronavirus has so far been oddly muted. (One can imagine candidate Trump, as opposed to President Trump, making a huge issue of it.) But if it continues to spread, that won’t last long. The utter seriousness with which Beijing is treating coronavirus suggests that eventually Washington will probably have to act accordingly.

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