Days to the General Election: 27
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.

Xiao Qiang shows how an overbearing censorship machine facilitated the spread of the coronavirus beyond Wuhan

Xiao Qiang shows how an overbearing censorship machine facilitated the spread of the coronavirus beyond Wuhan

In his 2016 book The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, Norwegian political scientist Stein Ringen describes contemporary China as a “controlocracy,” arguing that its system of government has been transformed into a new regime radically harder and more ideological than what came before. China’s “controlocracy” now bears primary responsibility for the coronavirus epidemic that is sweeping across that country and the world.

Over the past eight years, the central leadership of the Communist Party of China has taken steps to bolster President Xi Jinping’s personal authority, as well as expanding the CPC’s own powers, at the expense of ministries and local and provincial governments. The central authorities have also waged a sustained crackdown on dissent, which has been felt across all domains of Chinese social and political life.

Under the controlocracy, websites have been shut down; lawyers, activists, and writers have been arrested; and a general chill has descended upon online expression and media reporting. Equally important, the system Xi has installed since 2012 is also driving the direction of new technologies in China. Cloud computing, big data, and artificial intelligence (AI) are all being deployed to strengthen the central government’s control over society.

The first coronavirus case appeared in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, on December 1, 2019, and, as early as the middle of the month, the Chinese authorities had evidence that the virus could be transmitted between humans. Nonetheless, the government did not officially acknowledge the epidemic on national television until January 20. During those seven weeks, Wuhan police punished eight health workers for attempting to sound the alarm on social media. They were accused of “spreading rumors” and disrupting “social order.”

Meanwhile, the Hubei regional government continued to conceal the real number of coronavirus cases until after local officials had met with the central government in mid-January. In the event, overbearing censorship and bureaucratic obfuscation had squandered any opportunity to get the virus under control before it had spread across Wuhan, a city of 14 million people. By January 23, when the government finally announced a quarantine on Wuhan residents, around five million people had already left the city, triggering the epidemic that is now spreading across China and the rest of the world.

When the true scale of the epidemic finally became apparent, Chinese public opinion reflected a predictable mix of anger, anxiety, and despair. People took to the Internet to vent their rage and frustration. But it did not take long for the state to crack down, severely limiting the ability of journalists and concerned citizens to share information about the crisis.

Then, on February 3, after Xi had chaired the Standing Committee’s second meeting on the epidemic, the CPC’s propaganda apparatus was ordered to “guide public opinion and strengthen information control.” In practice, this means that cutting-edge AI and big-data technologies are being used to monitor the entirety of Chinese public opinion online. The controlocracy is now running at full throttle, with facial-, image-, and voice-recognition algorithms being used to anticipate and suppress any potential criticism of the government, and to squelch all “unofficial” information about the epidemic.

On February 7, Li Wenliang, one of the physician-whistleblowers who tried to sound the alarm about the outbreak, died of coronavirus, which unleashed a firestorm on social media. The Chinese public is already commemorating him as a hero and victim who tried to tell the truth. Millions have taken to social media to express their grief, and to demand an apology from the Chinese government and freedom of expression.

For the first time since coming to power, Xi’s high-tech censorship machine is meeting with intense resistance from millions of Chinese Internet users. The controlocracy is being put to the test. Most likely, though, the outbreak itself will be used to justify even more surveillance and control of the population.

Xi is an unabashed dictator. But his dictatorship is far from “perfect.” His obsessive need to control information has deprived Chinese citizens of their right to know what is happening in their communities, and potentially within their own bodies.

As of February 9, the outbreak has killed more than 900 people and infected another 40,000 in over 25 countries. For all its advanced digital technologies and extraordinary economic and military power, China is being governed as if it were a pre-modern autocracy. The Chinese people deserve better. Unfortunately, they and the rest of the world will continue to pay a high price for Xi’s hi-tech despotism.


Xiao Qiang, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of China Digital Times, is a research scientist at the School of Information, University of California, Berkeley. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020, published here with permission.

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.

58 Comments

13
up

All so predictable in hindsight, with perhaps worse to come. Dictatorships suck.

10
up

Hindsight? I think a lot of people were saying it was a bad idea back in the day.

Some things are predictable regardless of vision.

10
up

The Long March. Chairman Mao’s ascent to power. If this is where it has led to, the way the people are suffering, their freedom curtailed. Would have been better if he had stayed at home.

10
up

Read Jung Chang's book Mao: the untold story. He was one scary critter. Power hungry, self centred. Not communist (or socialist) at all. It was just a means to establish a totalitarian dictatorship. And because he offered the people a way out from under the traditional feudal warlord type system and a means to exact revenge, they jumped at it. Chiang kai Shek's regime just looked like a variation of the old for most. Mao was one of the worst tyrants the world has seen.

Also Jung Chang's other book Wild Swans I read years ago. The women used to have their feet bound to be tiny, small and they could hardly walk, all the bones in their feet broken from the deformity. The story of three generations of women -- grandmother, mother and daughter -- 'Wild Swans' tells nothing less than the whole tumultuous history of China's tragic 20th-century, from sword-bearing warlords to Chairman Mao, from the Manchu Empire to the Cultural Revolution.

Funny to see people without any real experience commenting on Chinese political system which has been existing for the past five thousand years.

Do you know why there is not even one single doomsday or zombie land style movie from China?

That is because Chinese people are capable of dealing with almost any doomsday scenario.

What CCP is doing was highly praised by WHO and many other countries and organisations.

I believe there is no other political party is remotely as capable as CCP in managing a country.

加油中国,加油武汉,加油全世界。

24
up

What is your story Xingmowang?

Why do you live in New Zealand and support the CCP?

Why not return to the glorious homeland?

I see you edited your comment. My favourite part is the claim that the Chinese political system has lasted for 5,000 years. How about this: the Chinese political system is, of course, a Western political system. It's not even a hundred years old yet. As for 5,000 years of history, I dispute that too. China HAD 5,000 years of history, until the communists came along and destroyed it all.

Taiwan has more history than China by a long way.

Because NZ is one of the many "yet to be"parts of the homeland. The old "go back to where you came from" is more a vain cry by the person saying it rather than a realistic option for the receiver.

16
up

I had a feeling I would be accused of saying "go back to where you came from". I'm not at all, I'm just genuinely asking why one would support the CCP having experienced living in both China and NZ.

Itis already a colony of China...

The story is: xingmowang is just poorly constructed comment bot, that doesn't have sufficient AI to provide anything more than varieties of CCP slogans. A case in point, is that it will never attempt to argue against intelligent retorts to its comments. I've seen it try in the past, but failed terribly. So looks like a new much simpler version got released and the comments section continues to be ruined by it. I wish the CCP (or whoever is having a laugh with it) would just deploy it on stuff.co.nz instead.

Your beloved CCP might think about going vegan?

15
up

@ Xingmowang
For your “positive” comment, you have gained 56,000 social credit points. Plus for this limited period you will also receive 3 face masks and 2 x 50ml size bottles of hand sanitiser.
Congratulations

And zero comment likes.

Haa, this what we called a humanly reactions, superiority complex. China will save the world? The world will be depend on China? I do believe by history that before & around WWII, that there's a capable political party that able to manage one great country/Germany - It's called NAZI party - I suspect because this such hard believe (happened to most countries that I've visited, we called as 'patriotism'). If I said too much in the past examples? Xingmowang will cut me by saying 'wak yu'.. but honestly, the past five thousand years.. how many dynasty come & goes? and why is it?.. don't worry current Xi Jinping/CCP will do the same.. and like those different dynasty.. they will evolve, change eventually. World just need to remember that; China is for Chinese & vice-versa. Let's all hope IF there will be such things in the future. XYZ country for the World.. but that just Tui ads.

Xi and the Party have had so many problems in the last year - failure to control hong kong, wobbly economy and now an epidemic that will kill millions or 10's of millions. They have obviously lost the mandate of heaven.

XING , I dont know about that but I do know that people are getting fed up with all these viruses originating in China. The current script is almost word for word of the movie "Contagion" except for the fact that in real life the great leadershit sat on the outbreak for well over a month and imprisoned anyone that spoke out
What a team to be proud of.

Editor please note the above comment.

"Managing a country", the CCP is the largest totalitarian regime in the history of the world. That's nothing to be proud of.

Genuflect to democracy pal you live in New Zealand!

You are the living definition of a'troll'...say something to wind people up, and then not engage in discussion.
You are pretty pathetic, but at the same time it's quite humorous really.

I feel sorry for you. People are getting sick and dying in China because some muppets didn't do their job, but you still sing the hymn.

There is no single "political system" last for 5000 years, period. The culture and wisdom do, like Confucius and Taoism. The communism ideology is not part of them, it's from the Russians. I don't know what you meant by doomsday or zombie land style, but the first 30 years of the People's Republic was full of disasters, some of them were natural but the majority was because of the leader. Xi is heading that way. I hope you can see it. Yes, the Party is doing the recovery to the best of their ability right now, but the disaster could have been avoided if the officials didn't cover it up in the first place. The worse part is this is the 2nd time they did it. SARS didn't teach them anything. Don't you feel angry as a Chinese???

Some muppets didn't do their job. And it's the local bureaucrats getting blamed and shafted, rather the men at the top.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51453848

"The communism ideology is not part of them, it's from the Russians."
you need read more, educate yourself

take your blinkers off mate

The CCP has cocked this up big time! We will only know how badly when its all done and dusted...

Thank you, CCP-bot #9237. You've been awarded 25 social credit!

14
up

."Millions have taken to social media to express their grief, and to demand an apology from the Chinese government and freedom of expression"
Slow learners; they will be identified, be vaporized (as Orwell would say), and their disappearance, if anyone dares notice, will be blamed on the virus.

Yes and those beds in the illustration, with the blankets at the wrong end. The perpetrators will be found and dealt to, post haste!!!

15
up

"The central authorities have also waged a sustained crackdown on dissent, which has been felt across all domains of Chinese social and political life."

What a disgusting regime.

A toxic political system meets a contagious virus. In a system focused on treating basic human rights, open information exchange, and individual freedoms as viruses to be eradicated, the CCP has a fight on its hands with this one. Suppression, concealment, punishment won't make it go away. Instead the CCP's techniques of control and fear have created an environment where this virus, and the others the CCP fears, become even more virulent. And so the party reaches even deeper into its social medicine kit. And millions suffer the combined virus and exercise of party power.

The much touted Chinese military would when tested feature the same behaviour as Wuhan officials; paralysis through fear of mistakes, suppression of bad news and an excessive reliance on centrally controlled technology. Xi's megalomania is directing china inwards, not necessarily all bad from a purely western strategic perspective but a tragedy for the Chinese people, especially if history repeats itself and the country is yet again plunged into violent internal conflict.

Remember reading the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, and the fate of the Drysdale Task Force, and thinking that The Red Chinese Army were pretty damn impressive. Agree history would suggest the Stalin like suppression of any potential rise to power from within the ranks, will likely have blunted and dissipated the raw militant talent & power from what it once was.

Chosin is a good example of the failure of a military force driven by totalitarian political ideology. A purportedly significant Chinese victory in that the UN army was forced by the Chinese to retreat but deeper analysis tells a different story of the people's army being fought to a standstill by a numerically smaller UN army (albeit with vastly superior air support), with half of Maos forces being eliminated and as an operational army destroyed. Mao carelessly sacrificed his troops in appalling winter conditions, indifferent to their suffering.

Are you telling Foxglove to get back back into his fox hole? Don’t disagree at all with the fact of the hierarchical command’s wanton wastage, Stalin exactly the same of course, and your general weigh up either. But in that phase, in the front lines, the Chinese troops were well commanded and deadly efficient in splitting and then disassembling Drysdale’s force. Text book stuff actually. Point I was actually trying to make is that sort of front line ability has likely been blunted. Not unusual Stalin sidelined on his WW2 talent , Zhukov in particular.

Yes, Mao had experience at guerrilla style warfare from his early days so achieved some success in smaller scale encounters. And any suggestion that his opposite number McArthur was a strategic genius is to ignore his hubristic and nearly catastrophic over confidence in driving too quickly and too far north in Korea.

If I remember rightly after the Japanese attack on the unprepared Philippines, Clark Air force base etc, MacArthur should have been sacked and buried, never to wear uniform again. The question that has never been answered. Where precisely was he for those critical 60 hours or so.

I think Xi's megalomania is directing China outwards, into our Parliament, Te Papa and the DGZ

Say more, I had never heard before that communism was a Chinese invention from thousands of years ago.

No it wasn’t. Nothing more than a handy sort of banner, plucked off the shelf. Bolsheviks exactly the same.

How about that 'not wearing mask policy' impose upon HK recently, .. but don't worry folks - I believe now Chinese programmers all have received directives to 'tweak the current AI' into more clever algorithm, to predict what is behind the mask? or better still, create more powerful surveillance cameras that can do extraordinary combined technology things; of optical zooming, x-ray, infrared & sonic/usg/3d level scan profiling. That would be ..Wow.. add to that is to be mass produce cheaply, China will be the world surveillance leading after this nCov19 saga.

Yep, kick the bugger out. Labour MP Raymond Huo ex Beijing university of political science can write him a reference for his next job.

Why are we still allowing flights from China to land here in NZ - according to Auckland Airport app a flight from Beijing will arrive at 7.12pm - what vetting procedures are being used on those flying in - or are they just being released without temperature checks to head home in a taxi or shuttle to self isolate? Poor drivers of those vehicles being potentially exposed.

Correct, this is flight CA 783 and it is definitely not a cargo plane. Arrival time updated to 7pm.

According to social media this virus is a part of the WMD development by the army and someone spilled the container when he carried from one lab to another!

Yes, apparently he had just parked his motorcycle at the wet market and was buying some bat and pangolin ingredients for a cheesecake he was making in honour of the CCP for his New Years party. When some fool knocked his motorcycle over and the glass bio-hazard flask broke. Woops.

Are you related to the Brothers Grimm by any chance? ;)

Chinese born New Zelanders are about 5% of the population. If they all party voted for a chinese NZ party then they could have up to 6 MP's in parliament, and hold the balance of power.

Identity politics are for the weak.

Majority of Maori do not vote for the Maori party.

Majority of New Zealander would vote a new party with a Chinese leader if the party were far more capable for uniting NZ and bringing NZ forward than the letting-market-decide National, the saying-better-than-doing Labour, the going-backward-all-the-way Green, the benefiting-me-only NZ first.

'Identity politics are for the weak' ....... the answer is remove identity and the weakness disappears. Re educate those pesky Uighurs in right thinking, retire Tibet from the map, build new bases in the Spratley islands. Presto ! weak no longer, all is harmony, light and justice, marching forward as one united people.

I hope you aren't using a Huawei device to type up that comment. Next time if you happened to transit through one of their airports, they may need to have a long talk to you.

But I'm serious. There are too many dissenting voices in this world, the waste of time spent debating issues just tires everyone out and is a drag on productivity. About time a strongman with good hair took a stand.

Although it is somewhat ironic considering its source, but Xing is correct, identity politics is for the weak. Democracy only really works for the thinking person. All too often we see too many commenters on this site blinded by party ideologies, which is no different. Any ideology based on race, or belief system (be it religion or political orientation) should not drive ones decision process but rather be subject to challenge and debate to determine the relative benefits and flaws compared to any other. People should not be bound by any ideology but rather be able to take the parts that fit and reject those that do not. This is one of the reasons most democratic Governments are in trouble one way or another - political parties actually undermine true democracy.

Can you pin point, in which countries in this planet that true democracy exist? - we almost thought this Brexit will forever be stalemate, until the recent democratic voting, move it in more unified direction. I got it from your point, but that exactly that is what we need, an Education/mature thinking. Hence? the voters change of allegiance.. based on study/analysis/facts and to suit their next selection in ballot box. Without identity, you'll move forwards strong yes, but usually as single entity.. this is where check & balances started to blur. In daily lives, I valued my opinion, but until got married? I started to valued my wife's opinion which sometimes contradict to my opinion, take time to adjust, but in the long run? I found it better to have two different opinion than just one opinion, the moving forward is very nice, excellent dynamic. BUT honestly, the thinking mind? must be re-shaped firstly by higher education/learning system. That is for sure.

KO that is my point there is none, but parties these days tend to bind people into ideologies rather than genuinely serve the people first and the country.

Ha ha, what National did the past 9 yrs? united for who? - the raising of homelessness & most middle income protesting, those peoples that you need when your house been burglar (the police), those peoples attend your child education (the teacher), those peoples attended when you & family sick (the doctor/nurses) - What you need to think Xing? is 'there's always a cost' involves in every decision on this planet.. real $ cost, cost of freedom/creativity etc. - I'm not discounting any positive contribution by the China for the world, but let's face it - people spread all over the world for the betterment, IF you're touted about China leadership as such? - Why there's no worldwide migration towards China? no worldwide migration towards Germany when it's under NAZI party rule, now look how peoples try to migrate to Germany when is no longer under NAZI. Point is? your patriotism should not clouded the real issue that the whole world facing, you name it: climate, economic, poverty etc.etc. - Do You really Believe that in world humanity demographics & issue this day an age, China can be the only positive advisory? - I thought so,.. that's why you here in NZ.
Here's philosophical input for your life: in order to move forward you need a backup (in IT systems), reverse, turn left & right. Keep on walking with left foot, right foot? I guarantee you to walk in circle, both left-right? surely will make you go straight. China current marvel, is nothing to do with their leadership, the world greed money poured in basically (include you & I) owed to the lower caste workers ants in China that being paid cheaply. Right now?, world started to realise that putting all their production into China is not such a good idea in the long run, what is going to happen with China? if the world moves their manufacturing/production based somewhere else? - India? Brazil? Indonesia? Russia? World it's not just about China.
China brainwashed you well, '.. for the weak'.. weak means gone/ignored/looser - spare your thought that for the real weak in our society. The sick, the disabled, the FASD, the ADHD - ouh I forgot, off course they don't exist in China society. Yin-Yang, the strong take care of the weak, the weak inspire the strong etc. - Pfft. - your indoctrinated world is full of black-white opinion, but I suggest to spin it faster... then you start to see a 'different colour'.

This is both weird and scary. What a hellhole of a country.

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/10/asia/china-security-police-wuhan-viru...

Control Freaks inevitably end up destroying themselves, but not before they go a long way to destroying that which they are attempting to exert complete control over.
Typically they try to centralise all control functions around themselves, disempowering the functionary parts and totally removing their initiative, personal responsibility and enthusiasm. They set up checkers to check the checkers and then more checkers to check on them. Eventually the whole thing grinds it,self into the ground and fails.

Days to the General Election: 27
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.