June 16, 2020 — The Chinese coronavirus response was a mix of success and a failure, said Paulson Institute Senior Research Associate Neil Thomas in a Center for Strategic & International Studies webinar Monday.
Thomas said that while the country was unable to control the virus’s spread, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s surveillance and modernization initiatives had upsides.
“I think the initial response to COVID-19 kind of exemplifies many of the government’s deficiencies that Xi Jinping wants to address,” he said. “But it also exemplifies some deficiencies that result from his approach which has been to centralize power.”
Numerous experts have criticized China’s response to the virus, accusing the country of intentionally downplaying its threat and allowing those from infected areas to leave the country.
Still, Thomas said that the authoritarian government’s focus on surveillance has allowed them to control the spread more quickly.
The virus has only let the government consolidate their power and given them license to continue doing so, he added.
“I think [Xi is focused] on removing overlapping responsibilities, strengthening oversight over areas like financial markets, social services, [and] environmental protection,” he said.
Initiatives like these show that the Xi administration has put a “greater focus on the quality of life of the Chinese people.”
Despite this, the Chinese government’s record on human rights is subpar.
The New York Times reported last year that the government had sent as many as one million Uygur Muslim ethnic minorities to detention camps in the previous three years. The children, whose families are separated as their elders are imprisoned, go to state-run schools where critics say the teachers indoctrinate them and only speak Chinese.
Thomas said that, as in the case of the Uygurs, China has the potential to either create significant damage or to do good.
“There’s even more issues of public health and social services and in this whole range of things that China needs to get right,” he said. “…But I think you’re right: there’s a lot of risks that come with this centralization of authority and power.”