Policy Q&A: China Expert Rui Zhong on Policy and the Coronavirus

Amid the spread of the coronavirus internationally and Canada’s airlifting of its citizens out of Wuhan province, epicentre of the epidemic, Policy Social Media Editor Grace MacDonald spoke with Rui Zhong, program associate at The Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute, who has written about the outbreak for Foreign Policy. Zhong is from Wuhan and has family residing there.

February 11th, 2020


Policy Magazine: How has this impacted people on the ground locally? What are the biggest issues (other than infection) that Wuhan residents are facing?

Rui Zhong: Supplies, supplies, and more supplies. Mask and disinfectant shortages are hitting Wuhan and nearby Huanggang very hard, particularly in hospitals. Even one of the large, newly constructed hospitals, Leishenshan, is appealing for donations. Resource and staffing shortages are exacerbating the health problems of the virus.

PM: Has access to technology changed the way that this unfolded in the public eye, internationally and otherwise? How has this been different from widespread disease events in the past?

RZ: I was in a Wilson Center event yesterday where a speaker said that when the SARS outbreak hit in 2003, about 80 million people were online. Today there’s an estimate of 800 million internet users in China. Video documentation and uploads of images is easier. So when Dr. Li Wenliang, an eye physician who passed on news of a possible viral outbreak to his colleagues was branded a rumormonger and died later that month, you had an outpouring of online discussion that dwarfed earlier disease outbreaks in China. There was a brief breach in the censored media environment, although at this point in time we’re seeing media restrictions re-tighten.

PM: What are some potential long term effects of the policies enacted in response to this outbreak, inside and outside Chinese borders?

RZ: This is a real security issue that is testing the capabilities of China’s upper echelon of leaders. Health issues and longstanding mismanagement of public health, resources, and economic recovery can be trickier to mask than some of the traditional challenges to Chinese central leadership. Because the coronavirus has spread outside of China, its international standing is also at stake depending on how well the domestic quarantine and treatment processes are managed.

PM: What has this revealed about social stratification and/or regional divisions for locals and diaspora alike?

RZ: There’s been a lot written on the discrimination that diaspora Chinese have faced as vectors of the disease, regardless of their health conditions at present, so I won’t go into that. Within China, we’re starting to see a sharp distinction between people relatively well-off or connected who can get food, housing and supplies continuously and those who cannot. For people who do not hold residence permits in the cities they are effectively confined to, for those who are working in China’s informal economy who cannot afford to take time off, this disease will hit harder with more lasting effects.

PM: While China has praised Canada’s response to the outbreak, the crisis has not prompted China to release Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the two Canadians it jailed in response to the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Do you think the global nature of the public health challenge will make China more or less insecure in its international relations?

RZ: The Chinese government and Huawei’s litigators have given no indication on softening their stance on the Meng case, and unfortunately Kovrig and Spavor by association. Given that the US DOJ is bringing the charges, Canada’s cooperation with Washington will probably be a big factor going forward.

You can follow Rui Zhong at @rzhongnotes for more insight on China and Chinese international relations.