CCP and Mr. Xi’s Learning Disability

Two full months into the Covid-19 crisis, we see where Mr. Xi’s crackdown on communication and openness has taken him.  He is himself in no danger, but CCP runs into a conceptual wall with free flow of information. That is a disability – a learning disability – for CCP and China now.

CCP has always shown itself to be flexible and adaptable.  That has been a strength.  But with a modern middle class society, and an arteriosclerotic governing structure, the crisis points out two things - limits of CCP tolerance for free flow of information in the Xi era and people’s anger, anxiety, and disgust at censorship of their heartfelt emotions. 

Disability manifests in three ways -

There is no tolerance for officials who stray from CCP hierarchy -  Officials who know better dare not speak out. Xi has reintroduced centralization of authority in Beijing, and consolidated power in himself. Historically, there is no truth until the senior leader announces it. But a crisis demands openness, receptiveness to new knowledge and local initiative in response.

Without local initiative, we see the failure of CCP under the most powerful leader since Mao to have operable crisis management plans to dull or halt the spread of the virus.

Even during the crisis, Hubei officials have been slow in coordinating transport and lodging for thousands of doctors and nurses from other provinces, come to assist in Hubei.  No one could do logistics without an ok from Beijing.

China provide plenty of training for government officials and managers, but no independent decision-making experience. Isaiah Berlin was right in his essay On Political Judgment.  Good political judgment is a skill - it is practical wisdom.  Vetting and prior experience are important, but good judgment comes from exercising it, not suppressing it.  Vetting in an authoritarian system prepares one only for authoritarian values.

A political response is considered far more important than effective disaster response. The Centers for Disease Control, the Chinese Red Cross, the local transportation and police departments have had any meritocracy in the ranks superceded by rank political decision-making at the top.

To be sure, there are plenty of Chinese party members and local government officials who are ready and able to learn. I know this because I taught scores of them – vice mayors, organization department leaders, political liaisons, police officials, urban planners and maritime law judges -- over the last seventeen years, in university programs in Chicago and in China. Many now are long-term friends. I know, firsthand, that many CCP members, mid-levels and above, are smart, committed, and generous people.  They can rightfully claim an elite status based on merit.  They are now caught between “serving the people” and serving political masters.

Chinese friends and colleagues remind me how risky it is for local leaders to act until their own leader has acted -  and that trail goes from a district health official all the way to Beijing.  The (former) mayor of Wuhan said as much the other day – he had information, but he could only report to his leaders.  He did not have the freedom to release what he knew.

There is no tolerance for open communication – You know about the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to warn others about the new virus, and was punished for doing so. A window of wechat openness has shut down, as Mr. Xi is starting to claim victory over the crisis.  But CCP limits on open communication damage social trust. Suppression of information accelerates local and worldwide panic about the coronavirus. The flu in America kills tens of thousands each year; we don’t panic about flu.  No one trusts the Chinese government – not Chinese, not foreign governments. When there is no trust, and information is in great demand, the market supplies rumor and anxiety and hoarding. This is Mr. Xi’s legacy, to promote this corrosive disability.

People’s anger is palpable – Truth dies in a rigid hierarchy with heavy censorship and punishment for those who speak out.  “No one should comment unless they know all the facts” – this meme has permeated Chinese culture for decades.  Since no one can ever know all the facts on any topic, this serves as a warning for people to say nothing. The wechat posts may only last an hour or two before deletion. But the followup posts spread like a virus online. “Trust the leader” has long been a political premise in China.  Now, with online calls for officials to resign, or die,  Mr. Xi has destroyed this meme.

What result for CCP and Mr. Xi

Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich Hayek and James Scott told us about the importance of local knowledge and experience.  In a strict hierarchy, top leaders are truly masked from exposure to information.  They are disabled.

The international brand of China and CCP is certainly damaged in this crisis. World leaders, perhaps even business leaders, will be less willing to show obeisance to Xi.  The image of China as having a meritocratic and superior form of governance is certainly destroyed. The Chinese government response in this crisis will hasten the exit of foreign businesses and foreigners from China that began with the trade fiasco.  Failure of government response in SARS in 2003, the ongoing swine fever crisis from 2018, and now Covid-19 are more than just a series of unfortunate events.  They are the product of silence.

Xi will need to crack down harder on dissent. To facilitate delivery of food and monitor those with fevers, local governments have used the recently rejuvenated grid system, a fine-grained watching network of volunteers.  This innovation was Mr. Xi’s idea for instilling patriotism and anxiety in the people.  After the virus crisis subsides, it may become more of a standard means of observation and control.  People watching is no leisurely pastime.

Xi recently claims to be in full control of the response to the crisis, which is a tricky position for him. He wants credit for success without responsibility for failure.  We remember the old adage, applying all the way down the chain of command – authority without responsibility is tyranny; responsibility without authority is chaos.

In 2013, Chinese officials were reading deTocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, by way of understanding how to avoid losing the autocracy.  The French old regime tried to reform, but eventually reverted to a powerful central government. Mr. Xi must have missed the quote about the French kings when Louis XVIII restored the monarchy after Napoleon: “The Bourbons had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” 

Mr. Xi seems to find himself in a similar situation.  After the disasters of the Mao years, even his own sent down experience, he is trying to take China to a 21st century version of the old regime.  He can’t get there from where modern China begins.