Coronavirus Crackdown Sparks Memories of Cultural Revolution - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Coronavirus Crackdown Sparks Memories of Cultural Revolution


Coronavirus Crackdown Sparks Memories of Cultural Revolution

By Christian Shepherd and Yuan Yang


China has changed dramatically in the past four decades. But in many cases, the approach of its officials — down to villages — has not.

By Christian Shepherd and Yuan Yang

For many, the violent conclusion to a family game of mahjong summed up everything that is wrong with the local enforcers who are spearheading China’s efforts to contain the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

In the incident from Hubei province captured on video, a gang led by a camouflaged man wearing a red armband strode aggressively into a village home and roughed up one of the inhabitants, before pulling the mahjong table outside and kicking it to pieces.

Given China’s history of government enforcement, it could be viewed as a relatively minor scuffle. But the overzealous brutality of the small-time officials touched a nerve by evoking painful memories of the state-backed savagery of the 1960s and ’70s. China’s leader at the time, Mao Zedong, gave his support to millions of students who stormed into private homes, beating people up and smashing property in the name of communism.

“That lot in red armbands act like bandits,” one internet user commented on the video. “Stopping the coronavirus is not the Cultural Revolution.”

Although the Cultural Revolution has been over for more than 40 years, you can still see the bruises it has left on Chinese society.

David Zhang, a lawyer in Beijing

The enforcers responsible were among the large numbers of volunteers and local officials who have willingly placed themselves on the front line of President Xi Jinping’s “people’s war” against the virus. Many Chinese have taken to referring to these local enforcers as “red guards,” the name for the Mao-era students, because of their armbands and gang-like thuggery.

“Although the Cultural Revolution has been over for more than 40 years, you can still see the bruises it has left on Chinese society,” says David Zhang, a lawyer at Beijing Mo Shaoping law firm. “Contempt for the law, violations of basic human rights and dignity — these things still exist today.”

The virus that began in Wuhan has in two months infected more than 80,000 Chinese people and delivered a savage blow to the world’s second-largest economy. The outbreak, which caught the regime off-guard, poses the biggest threat yet to Xi’s eight-year leadership, adding to the pressure for an effective grassroots response.

As part of these efforts to slow its spread, each Chinese village and urban residential compound has been told to enforce its own prevention regime.

In big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, these are usually lax. But in some regions, especially those nearer the outbreak’s center in Hubei province, local officials have quickly established their own fiefdoms, barring outsiders, confining those considered an infection risk and publicly shaming anyone who does not follow their instructions.

In other cases caught on video in recent weeks, people have been welded into their homes for “quarantine” or tied to lampposts for not wearing a face mask.

Beijing has made efforts to temper the enforcers, with one leading public security official warning against over-the-top and “simplistic” measures that “damaged the image” of the regime. But such statements have little effect on the ground.

Local rules over how to halt the virus’s spread are drawn up by community managers without official oversight or guidance. In one example from Hubei, an “urgent notice” warned households against eating together and urged even married couples to sleep in separate beds. In Henan province, which neighbors Hubei, a group of villagers were made to recite an apology by police after they were caught playing cards without wearing face masks.

Towns and cities across China have moved to stop large gatherings, with harsh penalties levied on offenders. The day before the mahjong fight, the city of Xiaogan barred all residents from leaving their homes. Anyone who did could be detained for 10 days.

“All residents without anti-epidemic-related duties who are on the streets will be, without exception, sent for compulsory collective study,” ordered the town of Wuxue. The phrase “collective study” struck a chord for its echoes of the group sessions where Communist Party ideology was transmitted, a practice common under Mao. At least five cities adopted this approach.

China’s infectious diseases laws place the responsibility for public health on powerful agencies such as the National Health Commission. Local administrations are obliged to assist, within a degree of freedom to adjust for the severity of the situation. But lawyers have criticized the wave of recent enforcements by untrained local officials and volunteers who have little or no legal authority.

“No matter how tense the situation, local governments cannot assume the powers of the nation’s highest institutions,” says Tong Zhiwei, a law scholar at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai. “These are typical examples of overstepping the bounds of their authority … They must be stopped immediately.”

Emergency response measures do not include “imprisoning the residents of a whole district,” he adds.

China’s legal authorities have, however, on several recent occasions stressed that a failure to comply with these prevention measures could be a criminal offense. In one example, state media reported earlier this month that a Shanghai court jailed a man surnamed Zhang for eight months after he got into a fight with the enforcer at his compound during a routine antivirus temperature check.

Zhang, the lawyer, says the severity of the epidemic was enough to convince local authorities to act according to the most severe interpretations of the guidelines, or to even exceed them. “They do not want to be blamed for failing to control the outbreak,” he says.


OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

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