China’s coronavirus might be the crisis Beijing can’t detain, spend, or censor away

Li Wenliang warned China about the Wuhan coronavirus.
Li Wenliang warned China about the Wuhan coronavirus.
Image: AP Photo
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The death of a doctor and whistleblower at the front line of China’s fight against the Wuhan coronavirus has united the country in anger and grief. Social networks are flooded with candle emoji mourning 34-year-old Li Wenliang, people are making cryptic references to the Chernobyl disaster and Les Misérables, and there are even loud calls for free speech. In short, China’s coronavirus has its first martyr.

The episode seems like an unprecedented challenge to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and is predictably being written about in such terms. But we have been here before, many times. Whether it was the crash of a high-speed train in 2011 that left 40 dead, a chemical explosion in a wealthy city in 2015 that killed almost 200, or even the repeated food and vaccine scandals that harmed the lives of children, analysts posited each time whether that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. In fact, just months before the coronavirus outbreak, the people of Wuhan staged unusually large protests against a planned incinerator.

All of those incidents petered out. Severe censorship made discussion of them almost impossible online. As the economy grew and life started getting better for many people in China, Xi Jinping, who took the reins in 2012 and is now nearly all-powerful, made sure none of those things threatened his authority. On top of that, the narrative that the rest of the world—particularly Western democracies—was chaotic, backward, and bent on halting China’s rise was a potent one.

It’s of course possible that in a few weeks, Li’s name will barely be talked about. The party’s obsession with “stability maintenance” means more censorship is inevitable. Some lower-ranking officials may be pushed out as a performative display of punishment. But something is different about this crisis—the virus cannot be localized, contained, or “othered.” It is spreading around the country and the world with no end in sight.

Nobody should ever be confident in their predictions about any authoritarian system. But everyone should be prepared to be surprised.

This essay was originally published in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief newsletter. Sign up for it here.