COVID-19: Power, patriotism and 1.4 billion people: How China beat the novel coronavirus and roared back

A construction site in Wuhan, China, Jan. 22, 2021  (Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

A construction site in Wuhan, China, Jan. 22, 2021 (Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

Steven Lee Myers, Keith Bradsher, Sui-Lee Wee and Chris Buckley

The order came on the night of Jan. 12, days after a new outbreak of the coronavirus flared in Hebei, a province bordering Beijing. The Chinese government’s plan was bold and blunt: It needed to erect entire towns of prefabricated housing to quarantine people, a project that would start the next morning.

Part of the job fell to Wei Ye, the owner of a construction company, which would build and install 1,300 structures on commandeered farmland.

Everything — the contract, the plans, the orders for materials — was “all fixed in a few hours,” Wei said, adding that he and his employees worked exhaustively to meet the tight deadline.

“There is pressure, for sure,” he said, but he was “very honored” to do his part.

In the year since the coronavirus began its march around the world, China has done what many other countries would not or could not do. With equal measures of coercion and persuasion, it has mobilized its vast Communist Party apparatus to reach deep into the private sector and the broader population, in what the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, has called a “people’s war” against the pandemic — and won.

China is now reaping long-lasting benefits that few expected when the virus first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and the leadership seemed as rattled as at any moment since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

The success has positioned China well, economically and diplomatically, to push back against the United States and others worried about its seemingly inexorable rise. It has also emboldened Xi, who has offered China’s experience as a model for others to follow.

Follow our LIVE Updates on the coronavirus pandemic here

While officials in Wuhan initially dithered and obfuscated for fear of political reprisals, the authorities now leap into action at any sign of new infections, if at times with excessive zeal. In Hebei this January, the authorities deployed their well-honed strategy to test millions and isolate entire communities — all with the goal of getting cases, officially only dozens a day in a population of 1.4 billion, back to zero.

The government has poured money into infrastructure projects, its playbook for years, while extending loans and tax relief to support business and avoid pandemic-related layoffs. China, which sputtered at the beginning of last year, is the only major economy that has returned to steady growth.

When it came to developing vaccines, the government offered land, loans and subsidies for new factories to make them, along with fast-tracking approvals. Two Chinese vaccines are in mass production; more are on the way. While the vaccines have shown weaker efficacy rates than those of Western rivals, 24 countries have already signed up for them since the pharmaceutical companies have, at Beijing’s urging, promised to deliver them more quickly.

Other nations, like New Zealand and South Korea, have done well containing the virus without heavy-handed measures that would be politically unacceptable in a democratic system. To China’s leaders, those countries do not compare.

Beijing’s successes in each dimension of the pandemic — medical, diplomatic and economic — have reinforced its conviction that an authoritarian capacity to quickly mobilize people and resources gave China a decisive edge that other major powers like the United States lacked. It is an approach that emphasizes a relentless drive for results and relies on an acquiescent public.

The Communist Party, in this view, must control not only the government and state-owned enterprises but also private businesses and personal lives, prioritizing the collective good over individual interests.

“They were able to pull together all of the resources of the one-party state,” said Carl Minzner, a professor of Chinese law and politics at Fordham University. “This of course includes both the coercive tools — severe, mandatory mobility restrictions for millions of people — but also highly effective bureaucratic tools that are maybe unique to China.”

In so doing, the Chinese Communist authorities suppressed speech, policed and purged dissenting views and suffocated any notion of individual freedom or mobility — actions that are repugnant and unacceptable in any democratic society.

Among the Communist Party leaders, a sense of vindication is palpable. In the final days of 2020, the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s top political body, gathered in Beijing for the equivalent of an annual performance review, where in theory they can air criticisms of themselves and their colleagues.

Far from even hinting at any shortcomings — the rising global distrust toward China, for example — they exalted the party leadership.

“The present-day world is undergoing a great transformation of the kind not seen for a century,” Xi told officials at another meeting in January, “but time and momentum are on our side.”

Check here for the latest updates on all COVID-19 vaccines

A Party Mobilized

In recent weeks, as new cases kept emerging, the government’s Cabinet, the State Council, issued a sweeping directive. “There cannot be a shred of neglect about the risk of resurgence,” it said.

The dictates reflected the micromanaged nature of China’s political system, where the top leaders have levers to reach down from the corridors of central power to every street and even apartment building.

The State Council ordered provinces and cities to set up 24-hour command centers with officials in charge held responsible for their performance. It called for opening enough quarantine centers not just to house people within 12 hours of a positive test but also to strictly isolate hundreds of close contacts for each positive case.

Cities with up to 5 million people should create the capacity to administer a nucleic test to every resident within two days. Cities with more than 5 million could take 3-5 days.

The key to this mobilization lies in the party’s ability to tap its vast network of officials, which is woven into every department and agency in every region.

The government can easily redeploy “volunteers” to new hot spots, including more than 4,000 medical workers sent to Hebei after the new outbreak in January. “A Communist Party member goes to the frontline of the people,” said Bai Yan, a 20-year-old university student who has ambitions to join the party.

Zhou Xiaosen, a party member in a village outside of Shijiazhuang, a city of 11 million people that was among those locked down, said that those deputized could help police violations but also assist those in need. “If they need to go out to buy medicine or vegetables, we’ll do it for them,” he said.

The government appeals to material interests, as well as to a sense of patriotism, duty and self-sacrifice.

The China Railway 14th Bureau Group, a state-owned contractor helping build the quarantine center near Shijiazhuang, drafted a public vow that its workers would spare no effort. “Don’t haggle over pay, don’t fuss about conditions, don’t fall short even if it’s life or death,” the group said in a letter, signed with red thumbprints of employees.

The network also operates in part through fear. More than 5,000 local party and government officials have been ousted in the past year for failures to contain the coronavirus on their watch. There is little incentive for moderation.

Residents of the northeastern Chinese city of Tonghua recently complained after officials abruptly imposed a lockdown without enough preparations for supplying food and other needs. When a villager near Shijiazhuang tried to escape quarantine to buy a pack of cigarettes, a zealous party chief ordered him tied to a tree.

“Many measures seemed over the top, but as far as they’re concerned, it was necessary to go over the top,” said Chen Min, a writer and former Chinese newspaper editor who was in Wuhan throughout its lockdown. “If you didn’t, it wouldn’t produce results.”

The anger has faded over the government’s inaction and duplicity early in the crisis, the consequence of a system that suppresses bad news and criticism. China’s success has largely drowned out dissent from those who would question the party’s central control. The authorities have also reshaped the public narrative by warning and even imprisoning activists who have challenged its triumphant version of events.

In the beginning, the pandemic seemed to expose “the fundamental pathologies of Xi-style governance,” said Jude Blanchette, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“In fact, with time and hindsight, we see that the system performed in large part as Xi Jinping was hoping it would do,” he added.

The measures in Hebei worked quickly. At the start of February, the province recorded its first day in a month without a new coronavirus infection.

An Economy Revived

In many countries, debates have raged over the balance between protecting public health and keeping the economy running. In China, there is little debate. It did both.

Even in Wuhan last year, where the authorities shuttered virtually everything for 76 days, they allowed major industries to continue operating, including steel plants and semiconductor factories. They have replicated that strategy when smaller outbreaks have occurred, going to extraordinary lengths to help businesses in ways large and small.

China’s experience has underscored the advice that many experts have suggested but few countries have followed: The more quickly you bring the pandemic under control, the more quickly the economy can recover.

While the economic pain was severe early in the crisis, most businesses closed for only a couple of weeks, if at all. Few contracts were canceled. Few workers were laid off, in part because the government strongly discouraged companies from doing so and offered loans and tax relief to help.

“We coordinated progress in pandemic control and economic and social development, giving urgency to restoring life and production,” Xi said last year.

Zhejiang Huayuan Automotive Parts Co. missed only 17 days of production. With the help of regional authorities, the company hired buses to bring back workers, who had scattered for the Lunar New Year holiday and could not return easily since much of the country was locked down at the beginning. Government passes allowed the buses through checkpoints restricting travel.

Workers were only allowed to go back and forth between the factory and dormitories, their temperatures checked frequently. BYD, a large customer, started manufacturing face masks and shipped supplies to Huayuan.

Soon, the company had more orders than it could handle.

An ambulance manufacturer in Anhui province increased production immediately, buying screws, bolts and other fasteners that Huayuan produces. Then Chinese automakers started needing them as the virus spread and overseas suppliers shut down.

“We just said no to clients who only wanted standard parts — we wanted to sell more specialized parts, with higher profit,” said Chen Xiying, the company’s deputy general manager. “Clients who were slow to pay, we rejected outright.”

Like China itself, Huayuan rebounded quickly. By April, it had ordered nearly $ 10 million of new equipment to start a second, highly automated production line. It plans to add 47 technicians to its workforce of 340.

Before the pandemic, multinationals were looking beyond China for their operations, in part prodded by the Trump administration’s trade war with Beijing. The virus itself added to fears about dependence on Chinese supply chains.

The pandemic, though, only reinforced China’s dominance, as the rest of the world struggled to remain open for business.

Last year, China unexpectedly surpassed the United States as a destination for foreign direct investment for the first time, according to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development. Worldwide, investments plummeted 42%, while in China they grew by 4%.

“Despite the human cost and disruption, the pandemic in economic terms was a blessing in disguise for China,” said Zhu Ning, deputy dean of the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance.

A Diplomatic Tool

Last February, while the coronavirus ravaged Wuhan, one of the country’s biggest vaccine manufacturers, Sinovac Biotech, was in no position to develop a new vaccine to stop it.

The company lacked a high-security lab to conduct the risky research needed. It had no factory that could produce the shots, nor the funds to build one.

So the company’s chief executive, Yin Weidong, reached out to the government for help. On Feb. 27, he met with Cai Qi, a member of China’s Politburo, and Chen Jining, the mayor of Beijing and an environmental scientist.

After that, Sinovac had everything it needed.

The officials gave its researchers access to one of the country’s safest labs. They provided $ 780,000 and assigned government scientists to help.

They also cleared the way for the construction of a factory in a district of Beijing. The city donated the land. The Bank of Beijing, in which the municipality is a major shareholder, offered a low-interest $ 9.2 million loan.

When Sinovac needed fermentation tanks that typically take 18 months to import from abroad, the government ordered another manufacturer to work 24 hours a day to make them instead.

It was the sort of all-of-government approach that Xi outlined at a Politburo Standing Committee meeting two days after Wuhan was locked down. He urged the country to “accelerate the development of therapeutic drugs and vaccines,” and Beijing broadly showered resources.

CanSino Biologics, a private company, partnered with the People’s Liberation Army, working with little rest to produce the first trial doses by March. Sinopharm, a state-owned pharmaceutical company, got government funding in 3 1/2 days to build a factory.

Yin of Sinovac called the project “Operation Coronavirus” in keeping with the wartime rhetoric of the country’s fight against the outbreak. “It was only under such comprehensive conditions that our workshop could be put into production,” he told The Beijing News, a state-controlled newspaper.

Less than three months after Yin’s Feb. 27 meeting, Sinovac had created a vaccine that could be tested in humans and had built a giant factory. It is churning out 400,000 vaccines a day and hopes to produce as many as 1 billion this year.

The crash course to vaccinate a nation ultimately opened a different opportunity.

With the coronavirus largely stamped out at home, China could sell more of its vaccines abroad. They “will be made a global public good,” Xi promised the World Health Assembly last May.

Although officials bristle at the premise, “vaccine diplomacy” has become a tool to assuage some of the anger over China’s missteps, helping shore up its global standing at a time when it has been under pressure from the United States and others.

“This is where China can come in and look like a real savior, like a friend in need,” said Ray Yip, a former head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in China.

China’s efficiency at home has not translated into an easy triumph abroad. Chinese vaccines have lower efficacy rates. Officials in Brazil and Turkey have complained about delays. Still, many countries who have signed up for them have acknowledged that they could not afford to wait months for those made by the Americans or Europeans.

On Jan. 16, Serbia became the first European country to receive Chinese vaccines, some 1 million doses from Sinopharm. The country’s president, Aleksandar Vu?i?, stood in chilly winds with the Chinese ambassador to welcome the first planeload of supplies.

He told reporters that he was “not afraid to brag” of the country’s relationship with China.

“I’m proud of that and will invest more and more of our time and efforts to create and even improve our great relationship with the Chinese leadership and the Chinese people.”

c.2021 The New York Times Company

Follow our full COVID-19 coverage here