XI IN DIRE STRAITS WITH COVID-19, SLOW ECONOMY, AND FAILED DIPLOMACY
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a rapid succession of measures last week to stem the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) that originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei Province.
On February 25, Abe determined the basic course of action, urging organizations sponsoring various events to consider the necessity of holding each event while stopping short of requesting that they be cancelled altogether.
The next day, heeding the advice of experts that the next two weeks would be crucial in stopping the spread of COVID-19, Abe specifically asked the organizers of sports and cultural events expected to attract large crowds to cancel, postpone, or scale down the events during this period.
Abe’s words had a profound effect, with the mass-circulation Asahi Shimbun front-paging them in its evening edition on the same day. Various events have since been cancelled in growing numbers across the nation.
Then on February 27, Abe further requested that all grade and junior/senior high schools cancel classes through March 22, when the five-week spring recess starts. The Japanese school year begins in April.
The series of decisions Abe made can be said to have finally equipped the whole of Japan with a scheme to grapple with the deadly Wuhan virus for the first time since January 16, when the first case of infection was confirmed in Japan. It is time for all Japanese to ignore minor differences and unite under Abe’s guidelines in this nationwide campaign to prevent a further spread of the epidemic.
As could be expected, Abe’s decisions have attracted criticism from many quarters, including his own camp. Fumio Kishida, former foreign minister now serving as head of the Policy Research Council of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, called it “too abrupt and hastily made.” Ms Renho Murata, deputy head of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, demanded that he withdraw the measures. Some heads of local governments, large and small, have followed suit. Are they serious? It would have been ideal to have had more time for the government to make preparations to combat the onslaught of the virus. But, as Abe himself admitted, he had to make “a very difficult political decision when there was too little time.”
Now is the time for our leaders to cooperate in coming up with necessary measures “on the fly,” so to speak. It is understandable that there will be some confusion among those on the front lines, but bringing the virus under control must be the top priority for the nation. All of our lawmakers, government or opposition, must regard the threat of the Wuhan virus as a national crisis and join in the concerted effort to overcome it. I value Abe’s decisions highly.
The initial delay in the response to the crisis on the part of the government—the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in particular—was due at least partly to the trust they put in the information disseminated by the Chinese government and the World Health Organization (WHO) under its strong influence. The actual situation in China has been far worse than is publicly known. When I pointed that out in my last column, there was an intriguing reaction from the Chinese side.
“Zha Cai Index”
In reporting that the Chinese government was hiding information on the spread of the virus, I pointed out that the contagion was spreading across Guangdong Province as well and that, as evidence, round-the-block construction was underway to build isolation facilities. (With iron-barred windows, these facilities could hardly be called hospitals.)
On February 23, I also discussed this matter as a commentator on Fuji Television’s “Sunday Morning Prime” news show only to realize later that Caijing 21, a supposedly independent news outlet known for investigative reporting, did a “follow-up” to the article I had cited, noting that the construction of the Guangdong facilities had been cancelled. Doesn’t this plainly reflect the determination on the part of the Chinese authorities to deny the continued spread of the infection in Guangdong?
What one can discern from this unusually quick Chinese reaction is that the Chinese side is closely monitoring reports about the virus in the international media. We must bear in mind that the reaction of Caijing 21 was anticipated up to a point, as it fundamentally operates in the hands of the authoritarian government, although it is popularly regarded as “independent.”
Akio Yaita, deputy foreign editor of the conservative Sankei Shimbun born in China and well versed in Chinese affairs, taught me an interesting new word pertaining to Chinese statistics—the “zha cai (pickled Sichaun vegetables) index.” He explained roughly as follows:
Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who overlooks the Chinese economy, has publicly acknowledged that Chinese statistics cannot be trusted. All of the numbers that come up from local governments show trends aimed at pleasing the central government, leading its leaders to misjudge the situation if they put trust in them, according to Li.
So Li and his subordinates zeroed in on the relationship between Chinese migrant farmers and zha cai pickles. Any increase in the number of these farmers at the bottom of the social heap automatically means a thriving real economy, they reasoned. How then does one determine their increase? Most of them are poor and predominantly male, subsisting on heaping bowlfuls of rice, with zha cai as their only side dish. Therefore, an increase in the sales of these pickles can be construed as indicating an increase in the number of migrant farmers, activation of production activities, and therefore an expanding economy. This is how the Chinese government decided to use the sales of zha cai as a statistical reference.
What followed was very Chinese, explained Yaita with a chuckle:
“When the ‘zha cai index’ made headlines several years ago, local governments began inflating the numbers relating to its sales. As a result, the whole thing came to naught.”
Chinese officials generally believe the real state of their economy is reflected in the numbers available from calculating the year-on-year growth rates of the following factors combined in a specific format: 1) the balance of medium to long-term loans; 2) electric power consumption; 3) rail freight transportation. But Yaita also has serious doubts about these measurements:
“In their desperate efforts to be recognized, local governments invent numbers that the central government wants to see. Naturally, they even tamper with the fundamental statistics if they determine that is what pleases the central government.”
People’s Anger with the Government
It is difficult to fully trust even the statistics said to be the most trustworthy in China. After all, the Chinese are unlimited in their versatility. But now the Chinese economy has lost its momentum to such an extent that its truth can no longer be hidden. The influential economic daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported in its March 1 edition that China’s Purchase Managers’ Business Index (PMI) for the manufacturing sector, believed to be the most trustworthy of business barometers, was way down to 35.7 in February from the 46 that the market had expected—a situation far more serious than the 2008 financial crisis.
In such a state of emergency, the Xi Jinping administration is more blatantly pushing ahead with oppressive measures to control information and the people in an effort to maintain national order and protect its own political footing.
This time, not a single member of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has been seen on the site of operations to eradicate the Wuhan virus, in sharp contrast to the scenes of disasters like earthquakes in the past, to which PLA troops were swiftly dispatched and lauded with fanfare for their commitment to the people’s welfare. I suspect that this change likely reflects Xi’s determination to forsake Hubei Province in favor of saving the army to protect Beijing.
Past Chinese dynasties, including the Ming and the Qing, have perished with epidemics such as the bubonic plague serving as a trigger. Xi must be well aware that if his efforts to control the OVID-19 epidemic fail, he will have to face the anger of the people and the possibility of revolt and the overthrow of his administration. Fearing the wrath of the Chinese people more than anything else, Xi must undoubtedly be viewing the Wuhan virus as the worst crisis facing the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949.
With its economy faltering over the last several years, China was challenged by Trump to a costly trade war with the US, which has led to a further slow-down. The international community has awakened to a fresh realization of China’s maltreatment of its ethnic minorities, Uyghurs in particular, thanks to whistleblowing from within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), of all things, which laid bare the actual situation of China’s inhumane suppression. The ordeals of the Uyghurs prompted the world to come to grips with the suppression of the democratic movement in Hong Kong, which in turn led to the crushing victory scored in Taiwan’s presidential election by Tsai Wei-in in January. The CCP has been deeply wounded.
The US-China confrontation is expected to linger on. Under such circumstances, Japan is called on honor the principles of freedom and democracy that the US and Japan share with many other like-minded nations. At the same time, we must work to limit China’s influence in international affairs. And we must not repeat the mistake of being naively fooled by information provided by China—as happened in trying to cope with the Wuhan virus early on.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 892 in the March 5, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)