Institutional and Personal Engagement in the Response to the Covid-19 Medical Crisis, A View from Inside China

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Sikong Zhao (Shanghai)

Before the lockdown of Wuhan on January 23, 2020 about 5 million people had already left the city to return to their hometowns to celebrate the Spring Festival. This Festival, also known as Chinese New Year, is the biggest and most important celebration according to Chinese culture. It is a time when families gather together to enjoy each other’s company and to welcome the new year. Because of the fresh memories of severe acute respiratory syndrome, well known as SARS which, according to WHO, killed at least 774 people and infected 8,096 worldwide Chinese people feared that, without prompt measures, there was going to be a bigger disaster to come. SARS started spreading before the Spring Festival (in the winter of 2002) and large population movement during the Spring Festival generated an epidemic. Therefore, in the context of the early spreading of SARS-CoV-2, swift mobilization to identify and isolate those who already left Wuhan and spread all over the country on one hand, and active medical rescue and treatment of infected people especially in Wuhan and other worst-hit areas in Hubei province on the other hand, had to be executed urgently in such a populated country.

This short essay aims at reflecting upon the way the Covid-19 crisis has consolidated the popular Chinese perception of the connection between official institutions, party membership and grass-roots participatory politics with Chinese characteristics. Nation-wide expectations for effective management, organizational capabilities and rapid implementation have been very popular in a country with more than 1.4 billion people. Several models of community management specific to Chinese society, such as Community grid management, red real property management, construction of grass-roots Party organizations and the training value system designed for Party members have been nation-wide perceived as playing an important role in the emergency mobilization during the early stages of Covid-19 epidemics. This public perception has cemented their role in the Chinese political culture as necessary organizational instruments mediating between the central party authorities and the Chinese nation’s needs and expectations.

The community grid management is a model of urban organization designed to organize “populous urbanized areas” into “various blocks and communities” for more efficient management. By dividing big residential areas into communities and small neighborhood units, the community grid management played a crucial role in dealing with screening, prevention and control, and providing service for community residents in order to eliminate the source and chain of infection to the greatest extent. On January 24, the eve of the Spring Festival, Shanghai and Guangdong sent the first medical teams to Wuhan. Soon afterwards, medical workers were dispatched from all over the country. In total, according to Xinhua News and, the official news of China, more than 40,000 medical workers were sent to Wuhan and other areas in Hubei and about 40,000 construction workers helped to build Leishenshan hospital within 12 days and Huoshenshan Hospital within 10 days.

The capability of urgent mobilization and management has been a goal of the CPC perspective on effective governance as has been attested by regular building of grass-roots Party organizations. This capability has been first and foremost understood as a dynamic made possible by the development of the number of Party members and organizations and the training of their capabilities for timely social involvement. By the end of 2019, the CPC had 91.914.000 members and 4.681.000 grass-roots organizations. Although wide scale programs of team-building, character building and civic education usually tend to be perceived as vague and abstract by peoples all over the world, it is in times of crisis that these public policy efforts become most fruitful.

In 2017, Wuhan government issued the document “Opinions on Implementing the ‘Red Engine Project’ to Modernize the Grass-Roots Governance System and Governance Capacity.” The document emphasized that Party building cannot be detached from and is coextensive with the process of community level social governance. Soon afterwards, this project has developed in many cities throughout China. Red real property management played a crucial role in the fight against Covid-19 at the community level. Before the conception of Red real property was put forward, real property management was run by companies as an entrepreneurial entity, but with the adoption of the Red real property approach, grass-roots Party organizations and Party members were included in real property management and services. The aim has been to combine political leadership know-how with practical entrepreneurial and organizational skills of specific sectors. At the same time, Party guidance ensures that those at grass-roots level benefits from and are also involved in real property management activities.

Property management is also involved in common projects with community committees. In Shanghai, as part of the effort to control the epidemic, Party members and community workers had the task of identifying residents who came from Hubei and reminding them to quarantine at home before returning to work after attending Spring Festival celebrations in their home regions. At the same time, under the guidance of Party organizations, local volunteers which are mainly Party members, especially in the most difficult time, helped to buy food or other necessities for those who were quarantined at home and couldn’t go out shopping or could not shop online. They also helped to collect garbage from quarantined households, provide assistance to sick people, pregnant women, single or old people who needed caring, and so on.

Originating in Shanghai, the words “Let Party members go first!”, soon became popular all over China and received nationwide support. The one who coined these words was Dr. Zhang Wenhong, leader of the Shanghai Medical Treatment Experts Group, and director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Huashan Hospital. In an interview on January 29, Dr. Zhang declared that he intended to replace the frontline doctors in the Department of Infectious Diseases who had been on duty continuously since Chinese New Year (January 25) with CPC member doctors. His decision was motivated by the argument that all Party members had taken the oath to put the interests of the people as first priority. He stated now was the time for them to take responsibility as Party members whether following belief or discipline. According to the Constitution of CPC, all probationary members must take an oath of admission before the Party flag. “It is my will to join the Communist Party of China … fulfill the obligations of a Party member, carry out the Party’s decisions, strictly observe Party discipline … be loyal to the Party, work hard, … always be prepared to sacrifice my all for the Party and the people …”. In a time of crisis, like the one generated by the Covid-19 epidemics, Dr. Zhang’s words allude to this engagement and further contribute to the public perception that these are not simple declarations but actual vows that attach to Party members special privileges and duties placing them at the service of the society.

Dr. Zhang, as a Party member and the secretary of the Party Branch of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Huashan Hospital, had also been working in the frontline since the outbreak of Covid-19. He had insisted on checking the hospital wards once or twice a week even though it was not technically necessary, in order to eliminate his colleagues’ fears.

Also known as ‘Zhang Papa’ by fellow doctors and people at large, Dr. Zhang together with another familiar figure, Zhong Nanshan, also a Party member, depicted by Western media as the ‘Fauci of China’, consolidated in the Chinese public perception an image of the medical workers and Party members as animated by attitudes of professionalism, devotion to a collective cause, authentic involvement beyond personal fears and interests, care for fellow colleagues and patients and trustworthiness.

This popular positive perception of those individuals and state institutions involved in dealing with the medical crisis is more readily to be achieved throughout China than in Western cultures given the Chinese cultural inclination toward belief education as a blend of patriotism, socialist core values and traditional conceptions of personal identity and family, including the country as a wider family. In the framework of traditional and political Chinese culture, the social person receives their most authentic and concrete manifestation through the personal acceptance of tasks within a collective mission and through following the “dao” (way) prescribed and illustrated by leaders.

The Chinese political culture is a culture of public engagement distancing itself from the kinds of political cultures favoring a citizenship skeptical of the activity of the political institutions or critical of the ways public policies may be implemented. These Party and collective efforts for a unitary response in the face of crises of any nature at national level may seem unusual for other political cultures. Nevertheless, they are perceived as perfectly coherent from the perspective of engaged Party members and in the cultural perception of the Chinese people at large. For the Chinese people this is a model worthy to be cultivated within China and potentially abroad, given new and sometimes overwhelming challenges emerging in contexts of crisis in the twenty-first century.


Sikong Zhao is currently a full professor of philosophy and director of the research group in Marxist philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. She obtained her postdoctoral degree in post-Marxist studies in 2009 at Fudan University, Shanghai and her PhD degree in Philosophy (Georg Lukács’ Cultural Philosophy) in 2007 at Wuhan University. Her research interests deal with Western Marxism, Neo-Marxism in Central and Eastern Europe, Political theory and ideological trends of the transitional societies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s