This essay first appeared in the Observer Research Foundation as an Expert Speak piece on March 25, 2020 and can be accessed here.
As the number of COVID-19 cases diminish in China, the Communist Party of China is eager to project its response to the outbreak not only as commensurate, but exceeding the capabilities of many other democracies around the world. It is difficult to assess the Chinese response without considering the reputational damage for the Chinese government. The Chinese system, regarded as authoritarian and leaving little room for dissent, was highly criticized for initially clamping down on freedom of speech. The Chinese government disciplined whistleblowers for rumour-mongering, and the death ofChinese doctor Li Wenliang from COVID-19 led citizens to protest on social media against the restrictive policies of the government. On the other hand, the Chinese system also mobilized community workers, released daily statistics on the spread of the virus and spread awareness through official and non-official channels.
One way to analyse the preliminary response narratives through the initial handling of the COVID-19 pandemic would be through the frameworks of crisis communication. The Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) provides us one such lens to view the Chinese government’s response to the crisis. The theory is useful in the field of management because it prescribes strategies that maximise the protection of the organization’s reputation.
The Situational Crisis Communication Theory
Situational Crisis Communication Theory divides the crisis into three types: the victim crisis (such as natural disasters, rumours, workplace violence etc.) where the organization is also victim of a crisis caused by an external agent; the accidental crisis (accidents, technical errors) where the organization unintentionally causes the crisis; and preventable crisis (human errors, organizational misdeeds, management misconduct) where the organization knowingly placed people at risk. Depending on the type of crisis, people either positively or negatively attribute responsibility to the organization, which suffers reputational damage accordingly. Based on the type of crisis, primary response strategies for the crises are divided into: deny crisis response strategies (attack the accuser, denial, scapegoat); diminish crisis response strategies (excuse and justification); and rebuild crisis response strategies (compensation and apology). The responses are graded according to the type of reputational damage caused by the type of crisis. So, for mild reputational errors, the deny crisis response strategies is recommended while for stronger reputational errors, diminish and rebuild crisis response strategies are recommended.
Figure 1: Based on “Protecting Organization Reputations During a Crisis”
Applying SCCT to the Chinese Government’s Response
With the outbreak of COVID-19, the Chinese government has treated the outbreak of the disease as a victim crisis. Since the cause for the outbreak remains unknown, the government has not taken ownership for the cause of the disease. Its actions fit the deny crisis response strategy. The government initially attacked all charges levelled against its response. In the beginning of January, forty people were supposedly arrested for misinformation. Similar to the SARS crisis in 2003, the government downplayed the existence of the crisis for a month until January 23, when Wuhan was placed under lockdown and annual Spring Festival travel plans were forcibly halted. This delay in confirming the outbreak is one of the reasons that the virus spread so widely. After the backlash on social media for the death of a whistleblower, Dr. Li Wenliang, the government suspended social media accounts of sympathisers and censored mention of the freedom of speech on Weibo and WeChat. It also blamed Hong Kong secessionists and foreign entities for taking advantage of people’s anger. On the international stage, Beijing directed anger at other governments for not aiding China in its hour of need.
Scapegoating is also evident in the government’s response. The rumours that the coronavirus was actually caused by a US bioweapon programme were rampant on WeChat and bolstered by officials. The local government in Hubei also faced much of the public anger and took the blame for the lapse in governance. At this point, it is important to treat the Chinese government not as a monolith but as various stakeholders dealing with bureaucratic politics in crisis situations. This difference between local city governments, provincial governments and the central government in Beijing is evident through this crisis.
Indeed, as the larger narrative of the Chinese government as a victim of the disease emerged, the local governments employed diminish crisis management strategies. Across various levels, widespread underreporting of cases sought to portray the situation as improving faster than it was. This is typical of the justification strategy by which the organization tries to minimize the perceived damage of the crisis. The local government also looked to rebuild crisis reporting strategies. The mayor of Wuhan publicly apologized and offered his resignation. The construction of a special hospital in ten days signaled government capability and resolve to deal with the crises. Similarly, the government’s chronicling of doctors and nurses as heroes at the frontline brought sympathy to the human angle of the crisis while boosting morale. These accounts were intended to demonstrate good will and provide a humanitarian side of the crisis in which the whole of China was projected as a victim.
As the number of cases in China decrease, temporary hospitals shut down and cities slowly swing back to life, China’s messaging over the disease has also changed. Its primary response strategy has been to attribute itself as a victim and utilize strategies that depict good will, anger at external agents and clamping down on dissent. However, as the situation has evolved, China has been eager to point out that its strategies are not limited to authoritarian governments but are also being increasingly adopted by democracies as well. The Chinese government is demonstrating global leadership by now sending medical aid in the form of doctors and resources to other countries affected by the virus. It is also pointing out that public health systems in western countries do not place citizens at the center, unlike its own. These are part of a secondary response strategy – one that can only be analysed as the pandemic is curtailed. Indeed, China’s primary response can be viewed through different lenses but the SCCT provides one perspective to view the actions of the Chinese government and build on it as the situation evolves.