Why China Said No (to Assistance)
Reports this past weekend were that China has thus far rejected offers of assistance from the United States to help study and battle the coronavirus epidemic. Why is this so?
The traditional Chinese system of governance is the prime reason. This system of governance has for millennia focused on ensuring stability via strict social control. The crisis itself threatens both of these. Allowing outsiders in to help (and the questions and scrutiny that would inevitably follow) has great potential to further inflame an already sensitive situation.
We in the West generally look at our societies through the lens of democracy, republicanism, a focus on the individual, and open and transparent public discourse. These are simply not part of the traditional Chinese ethos. China’s history is replete with natural disasters, repeated rebellions, and the ever-present threat of hostile conquest. Responding to each of these required a firm hand that brooked no dissent.
The current government of China follows this historical tradition with the added bonus of awesome twenty-first century technology. In their collective mind, maintaining stability is key to keeping the engine of growth humming, to promoting China’s rightful place in the world, and to staying in power. Control the narrative. Organize and handle the response to crisis behind the curtain without undue public awareness. Maintain and uphold “face.” These are in line with the long Confucian tradition of the ruler looking out for the ruled.
Yet it is not that easy in the age of WeChat and Weibo. Examples abound in the torrent of emotion unleashed by the death of Dr. Li Wenliang that even the censors of the Great Firewall cannot completely erase. By trying to warn of the epidemic before it was an epidemic and being arrested and censured for his efforts, the memory of Dr. Li has quickly become a potent symbol. When one loses control of the narrative, so too often go stability and security. Chinese practice is not to give an inch; thus, even greater efforts at sanitizing the narrative are to be expected.
Chinese history of the last four decades is spectacular — eight hundred million people lifted out of poverty, vibrant middle and upper middle classes, widespread personal wealth and opportunity, and China’s grand re-entry onto the world stage. Pretty heady stuff. Yet notwithstanding this (or maybe because of this), there are many Chinese people in and out of China who are dissatisfied not only with how things are transpiring during this crisis, but also with increasing social control of daily life, corruption, and inequity. They love their country, but want to be heard.
Once upon a time the Chinese would have looked to America for inspiration in times of turmoil. Back in the 1980’s when I was first in China, Americans were universally admired, emulated, and praised. Today, an outsider’s view of America is likely that of a society dominated by chaos, uncertainty, and inequity highlighted by lack of civility, lack of respect, and lack of appreciation of the greater good. All of these are the antithesis of the Confucian ideal.
So why have the Chinese thus far rejected American assistance in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak when scientists and medical professionals stand ready? It is one part human aversion to admitting mistakes and asking for help. It is three parts tradition and suspicion of the offer.