After COVID-19, China’s Global Stature on the Line

As China re-emerges from more than two months of quarantines and lockdowns, its government is relying on a familiar playbook during times of crisis.Critics are being detained and silenced online. The government has tightened controls over communications, banning whistleblowers and critics from online forums while state-backed media champions Beijing’s actions.U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says it’s a typical response for an autocracy facing a crisis: Become more aggressive and deny people their rights.”While they may in some instance solve a particular problem in a particular way that facially resolves the crisis that’s in front of them, in the end they do enormous harm to the people of their own nation and put the rest of the world at risk as well,” he said in early April.But China leaders are also adding a new chapter in their playbook – taking suppression to pandemic-level heights against even high-ranking insiders.Hours before Pompeo spoke, Beijing announced an investigation into an influential critic of President Xi Jinping. The detention of Ren Zhiqiang, a retired business tycoon and “princeling,” or child of top party officials, shocked longtime China observers who saw it as a significant signal within China’s leadership.And Ren wasn’t alone. Two weeks later, Sun Lijun, vice minister of public security, also was placed under investigation. Sun handled domestic security and is among the very few of trusted keepers of China’s most sensitive secrets, which include information on the personal lives of senior leaders.In this April 1, 2020, photo, a QR code is set up for passengers to check their green pass status at a subway station in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. Life in China post-coronavirus outbreak is ruled by a green symbol on a smartphone…Containment by QR  What became the biggest quarantine in human history began in China.
Cities here were sealed off, transportation between them stopped. For more than two months, people were not allowed to be outside. Hundreds of millions of people were placed under quarantine after the virus was discovered in Wuhan.Today in many cities, barriers erected during the quarantine have not been demolished, and residents are not allowed to come and go freely.It is a new normal: “The largest public health experiment in the history of humankind,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University told VOA. China was well-positioned to police it.With hundreds of millions of high-tech surveillance cameras installed across the country, biometric facial recognition can identify even people wearing masks, while artificial intelligence systems can spot them by their walking postures.Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic talks in front of medical experts from China after they arrived with medical supplies to help country’s fight against coronavirus (COVID-19) outbrake in Belgrade, Serbia, March 21, 2020.Charm offensiveSo did China spread the virus – or the remedies?Critics of President Xi aren’t persuaded that he can ward off all blame.”Xi is trying to forestall these (negative) outcomes through a charm offensive, trying to posture China as a leader in the world’s crisis,” said Miller, the international affairs professor.”His overtures are frankly incredible and laughable to most western audiences and risk making Xi’s problem worse through the sheer chutzpah,” he said.  Internally, Xi faces a different set of challenges. The moves against Sun and Ren are seen as telling. Ren had survived political storms before thanks to a carefully cultivated network of communist party allies.But in a February essay, he blamed Xi for covering up the truth about the extent of outbreak, for failing to make critical information public and for allegedly lying to cover up his mismanagement.”By placing Ren Zhiqiang under investigation, Xi Jinping sent a powerful message that he will not tolerate his power being questioned openly,” Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing, told VOA. 
 
“With Ren in custody, few dissident voices are left within the party,” Wu said. “The party members, intellectuals and entrepreneurs who had supported him are now in trouble, too.”They have no choices but to remain silent.”VOA State Department reporter Nike Ching contributed to this report.



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