Life and work are gradually returning to normal in Shanghai. My colleagues and I are back in the office. Restaurants and bars have reopened—with a temperature check at the door. Hellobike, China's largest bike-sharing company (of which I am an investor), is reporting that ridership is back to 70 percent of the pre-pandemic level. The same is happening by varying degrees in the rest of China. The nightmare that felt as if it would last forever may be behind us—knock on wood. Let me use this teachable moment to share five things I learned about China's society and government.
The Chinese people trust their political institutions. Our understanding of China has been dominated by the narrative that an authoritarian one-party state is by definition incapable of retaining genuine public trust. This narrative has overwhelmed our perceptions, but it's time to put it aside. Now that Mother Nature has delivered something with such impact, reality can no longer be ignored.
On Jan. 23, the Chinese government ordered the lockdown of the city of Wuhan and then the entire province of Hubei, with a total population of 56 million, making it the largest quarantine in human history. Two days later, all provinces except Tibet declared the highest level of health emergency, and more than 760 million urban dwellers were confined to their homes, being allowed to go out only for essential needs with face masks mandatory in all public places. Most rural villages were also closed off. At the time, total reported infections and deaths nationwide were 571 and 17, respectively—rather low considering what transpired afterward around the world.
The entire nation was surprised by the magnitude of the measure. Overnight in Shanghai, a city of 24 million people, streets that were clogged with traffic only days before became empty of both people and automobiles. At first I thought this would last a week, maybe two. But it went on—and on. People stayed home, and streets remained empty.
This immediate and nearly total compliance by hundreds of millions of people came as a genuine surprise to me. If you have been to China, you would know how unruly people can seem. Regular Chinese police are unarmed. On the streets of Shanghai, it is not uncommon to see someone arguing, often aggressively, with police officers over a traffic ticket. There is no way to explain the complete submission to a massive lockdown like this for so long by so many other than voluntary. Yes, self-interest can explain it in part because no one wants to get sick. But if we compare this with other countries where large crowds of educated young people congregated on beaches and in clubs in open defiance of their governments' orders and warnings (at least in the initial phase) and where harsh police enforcement is still going on, it is clear that self-interest isn't enough as an explanation. Only a very high degree of trust by the people in their political institutions' expertise and ability to protect them can result in such compliance.
Some may argue that such submission was due to China's strict security apparatus. This is off the mark for two reasons. First, security forces are only effective against small groups of activists, not a vast population of hundreds of millions of people if they chose to disobey en masse. Second, throughout the epidemic, there were few reports and little evidence of mass coercive actions to enforce lockdowns.
The government also went to extraordinary lengths in its communication with the public. Every day, new data was released—by city, by province, and nationwide. Every hour, government experts were on TV talking in detail about the new coronavirus and the nation's evolving response. Every newspaper was writing about the importance of social distancing. In other words, the trust was not blind.
Chinese civil society is alive and well. If you were immersed in Chinese social media in early February, you might have drawn the opposite conclusion. Public anger was raging in the midst of the biggest national trauma since the end of the Cultural Revolution. The alert mechanism for local authorities to provide early warnings to Beijing, which the government established after the SARS epidemic 15 years ago, apparently failed in the initial stage of the coronavirus outbreak. Many speculated that the bureaucratic fear of delivering bad news up the official chain caused the delay, exposing a significant fault in China's political system. The uproar reached a boiling point when Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who first warned of the danger of the coronavirus in December and was muzzled by the local police, succumbed to the virus himself. If that's all you saw, it might be understandable for you to see this as China's Chernobyl moment or the beginning of a version of the Arab Spring, as some indeed claimed. But that's not how it turned out.
When the central government acted to mobilize for the most sweeping counter-epidemic operation in human history, the country coalesced. Half a million volunteers went to the front lines in Hubei province, risking their health and lives as medics, quarantine workers, and logistics personnel. Nationwide, more than 2 million citizens have registered and served as volunteers. Social media began to be flooded with their inspiring stories and images. Cafes and restaurants were providing free food and drinks to volunteers, even though their businesses were suffering catastrophic losses. One picture that went viral showed a Wuhan community worker covered shoulder to toe with medicine packages he was carrying for home delivery. Virtually every neighborhood in the country organized 24-hour checkpoints with volunteers and security personnel controlling access and checking people's temperatures. Many communities also organized volunteers to check on the livelihoods of vulnerable residents like the elderly. Imagine this happening with 1.4 billion people, on every street, in every neighborhood, in every village! There has been virtually no crime.
On the internet, the government and various social institutions put out an enormous volume of information about the characteristics of the coronavirus and the progress of the pandemic. There was massive public engagement on social media for the dissemination of information. Now I watch Western experts and authorities talking on CNN and BBC about such things as the length of time the virus can survive on hard surfaces or in aerosol form. But these are things tens of millions of Chinese netizens were already talking about, every day and every hour, back in February.
From the top down, the government called for a "people's war" against the pandemic. And this is exactly what happened, from the bottom up. I had more or less bought into the common assumption among many political thinkers that civil society was weak in China because the authoritarian party-state would not allow it to flourish. But now it occurred to me that this was based on the common liberal definition of civil society as something apart from or even in opposition the state. If we look at Chinese civil society in the classical definition of the term, what Aristotle called koinonia politike—political community that is not distinct from the state—it appeared throughout this pandemic to be perhaps the most vibrant in the world.
In China, state capacity counts even more than the market. One of the most endlessly debated topics, not just in China, is the relationship between the market and the state. Well, this time the state has won—and won big. It is abundantly clear to everyone except the most die-hard neoliberals that the preservation of state capacity (alongside the growth of the market) has saved China from an unimaginable catastrophe with potentially hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths.
At the onset of the counter-epidemic operation in late January, the Chinese state swung into action. The central government coordinated national medical resources to quickly concentrate on Hubei province. In total, 217 medical teams with more than 42,000 medical personnel were dispatched to Hubei from around the country, along with equipment and supplies. The central government coordinated the shipment of around 17,000 ventilators to Hubei. The result was that the epicenter of the outbreak never experienced any major shortage of ventilators.
An enormous new hospital with 1,000 beds was built in Wuhan in 10 days. Following that, 16 additional makeshift hospitals with a total of 13,000 beds were built across the city in existing structures such as convention centers to care for mild-symptom patients in a quarantined environment. Sinopec, the state-owned energy giant that produces raw materials for industrial masks, took 35 days to redesign and repurpose its production lines to support medical mask production. Automakers also used their assembly lines to pump out masks and other medical supplies. Mask production went from 20 million per day in January to 116 million in late February.
So who did these things? The doctors and nurses who were sent to Hubei from around the country were mostly state employees working in state-operated hospitals. The companies that built the hospitals and produced most of the masks were state-owned enterprises.
The entire operation was incredibly well coordinated for such a large country. From Beijing, the central government rolled out measures in the provinces on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. The provincial governments were given orders with the leeway to adapt them to local conditions. Then the provincial governments did the same downward to cities and counties. It also worked the other way around: Local governments sent their findings and suggestions to Beijing. The makeshift hospital idea, for example, came from an academic team studying the situation in Wuhan and found that existing hospitals were not enough to deal with a large number of mild-symptom patients who posed a contagion threat. They sent the findings and proposal to Beijing, and it was approved and ordered to be implemented within 24 hours.
The state also moved quickly to soften the economic impact of the crisis. In addition to direct subsidies to companies, the government adjusted the enforcement practices of the labor law so companies could be relieved of their obligations to pay employees full salaries when there was no business. In exchange, companies were asked not to lay off employees and to keep them on the payroll with minimum wage and health benefits. Businesses were entitled to have their rents reduced or even waived if their landlords were state-owned enterprises.
The party has played the central role. Through this crisis, three individuals emerged from relative obscurity to national fame. Li, the initial whistleblower whose warnings were not heeded, died of COVID-19. Zhong Nanshan, the national public health czar for the pandemic, has been the public face of the counter-epidemic operation, similar to Anthony Fauci in the United States. Zhang Wenhong is the Huashan Hospital doctor who has been leading the counter-epidemic operation in Shanghai. They are from very different personal backgrounds and geographical regions and of different generations but share two things in common. First, they are all doctors. Second, they are all veteran members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The party has been the most conspicuous presence throughout this ordeal. Zhang works in the hospital two blocks from my house. He was recorded in a video speaking about the organization of the medical team for the defense of Shanghai. In his booming voice, he said, "Party members go first, no questions asked!" The video went viral.
Day in and day out, the Chinese internet was flooded with images of party-member volunteers swearing their oaths before the CCP flag on their way to Wuhan, pledging to place the lives of others before their own. Of the 496 health workers and volunteers who died on the front lines as of April 29, 328 were party members.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is a "good emperor." Some years ago, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama coined the term "bad emperor problem." It was meant to theorize that in an authoritarian political system, even if there can be good rulers, there is little to prevent a bad ruler from gaining power and ruining the country. This is not the time or the place to debate this theory. But one thing I do know now is that Xi is a "good emperor."
On Jan. 28, Xi used a meeting with the head of the World Health Organization to tell the nation that he was directly in charge of the counter-epidemic operation. At that time, the future had never seemed bleaker and more uncertain, but opportunism and shirking responsibility are not within this leader's character. The decision to lock down Wuhan and Hubei carried such enormous consequences that it was likely to have been his and his alone. And it turned out to be the decision that saved the nation from a devastating catastrophe. In an unprecedented practice, he chaired the Politburo Standing Committee meetings to issue policy directives and made them public. He wore a mask in his public appearances. He held a videoconference with 170,000 front-line government officials and volunteers. Indeed, the "people's war" was led by him personally in front of the entire nation.
As a strong leader, Xi certainly has had his share of detractors, especially internationally but also domestically, and will no doubt continue to have them. Western media and governments have attacked his government for the tightening of restrictions on media and political dissent and for its controversial policies toward Muslims in Xinjiang. Some domestic opponents disagree with the recent moves to centralize political power in Beijing. But among my circle of business acquaintances and political commentators in China, even some of his harshest critics have acknowledged his stewardship during this once-in-a-generation crisis. I believe his popularity among the general public will soar after this.
Xi's leadership has raised the public credibility of the entire government. It is clear that mistakes were made at the early stages that resulted in a delay in responding to the outbreak. And there was justified anger, especially at the apparent silencing of the whistleblower Li. But it is also true that China was caught by surprise by a virus about which little was known. Now, as Chinese watch in horror as many countries' governments struggle to contain the pandemic even after 1.4 billion people showed the world what was coming for months on end, their own government's initial mistakes—though worthy of examination and reflection—no longer feel so unforgivable. China is fortunate to have the right leader at the right time.
For me, as for so many around the world, COVID-19 is certainly the most extraordinary event of my lifetime. It has certainly impacted me as a businessman and a student of politics. But it had the most emotional effect on me as a parent. My children attend public schools in Shanghai. On Jan. 27, Shanghai announced the delay of the start of the spring semester that had been scheduled for February. Being kids, they celebrated. But their euphoria did not last long. About two weeks later, the Shanghai Education Bureau ordered the reopening of schools only 10 days behind the regular schedule—but online. They had adapted, in record time, the entire curriculum for online learning. The new materials were sent to us by email to be printed out. My home inkjet printer died on the second day. I bought an industrial-strength laser printer and printed more than a thousand pages of middle school textbook materials.
Every school day now starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. Chinese, math, physics, English—one session after another in front of the computer screen as on regular school days. Homework has to be turned in every evening by taking pictures of the workbook and uploading it onto the school system. The next morning, they are graded and corrections demanded. Having the kids at home is nice. But the workload on us parents is brutal. I have never screamed at the kids so much.
On the morning of March 19, I woke up and reached for my phone to check the coronavirus numbers from the day before, as I had every morning for almost two months. That morning, I saw a total of 80,928 confirmed cases in China and 3,245 cumulative deaths. The total number of new confirmed cases: zero!
I rushed downstairs to tell the kids the good news. As I walked into the dining room, which served as their makeshift classroom, I was stopped by the prelude to the national anthem. My children were standing before their computer screens in their full school uniforms, observing the daily flag-raising ceremony. I had not cried in a very long time.
Eric Li is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.