Opinion: Xi’s response amid new wave of infections

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Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a meeting with Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organization, at the Great Hall of the People, on January 28, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Naohiko Hatta - Pool/Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a meeting with Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organization, at the Great Hall of the People, on January 28, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Naohiko Hatta - Pool/Getty Images)

On the 8th of April, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping chaired a meeting with the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau, the top decision-making body of the party. 

Xi was quoted by Xinhua (the official state-run press agency of the China) to stress “paying close attention to the changes in the epidemic situation at home and abroad, calling for a prompt response that is more targeted and effective.” 

“Xi urged unremitting efforts in guarding against imported cases from abroad and preventing a resurgence of the outbreak at home, and demanded redoubling efforts in economic and social development,” reports Xinhua News

China-watchers, however, suggest that the CCP’s central committee has a record of downplaying the information it relays to the public concerning issues within its borders. A notable example was when China’s stock market collapsed in 2015 yet the Central Committee downplayed the situation issuing warnings of a “systemic financial risk” rather than confirming a “systemic financial crisis.”

The possibility of an ongoing viral resurgence thus cannot be ruled out at this stage. 

What is clear, however, is the recent rise of CCP virus cases in China due to an insurgence from Chinese nationals returning from Russia. 

On April 9, the CCP foreign minister announced a temporary closure of its border with Russia. 

Russian Authorities Send Chinese Nationals back to China

On April 7, Chinese authorities locked down its border city of Suifenhe in China’s northernmost province Heilongjiang, which officials said was an attempt to stem the flow of imported cases from Russia. 

From March 27 to April 9, the city reported more than 100 imported cases, as well as 148 asymptomatic imported cases. Only three new domestic infections were reported during that period.

A project involving a 600-bed makeshift hospital intended for asymptomatic patients in Suifenhe is currently underway while its 700,000 residents are placed under lockdown. 

Read more: Province in China Prepares Thousands of Hospital Beds Amid New Wave of Infections

Sino-Russian relations

It remains unclear why Russia has exported Chinese nationals who tested positive with the CCP virus back to China. 

While there have been speculations that Russia’s deportation of Chinese nationals in March signifies worsening China-Russia relations, leaders of the two nations have remained largely silent over the course of the pandemic. 

In March Xi Jinping was reported to be “willing to make concerted efforts with Russia and all other countries to … safeguard global public health security.” 

A Chinese national told RFA that not all Chinese nationals have access to medical insurance and have thus been sent back to China to receive medical attention. 

Former special assistant to the President for Russia, William Courtney, also informed RFA that the Kremlin will handle its relationship with Beijing with caution, and that triggering an anti-Russian sentiment from Beijing brings no benefits to [Russia]. Courtney added that since 2014 Russia had remained distant with other western nations. Therefore its ties with China is of utmost importance. 

Courtney also says that the pandemic is unlikely to alter Sino-Russian relations, and that the two nations have strengthened economic ties in recent years. 

Note: Translated from RFA quotes originally in Chinese

The Chinese regime’s response to Russia when a travel ban was imposed in February contrasts greatly to its response to the US who was called out to have “inappropriately overreacted.” 

Furthermore, Russia has been known to be the only nation so far who has sent Chinese nationals back to China. Whether Russia has sent any of its other citizens infected with COVID-19 back to their own countries remains unknown. 

On one hand, deportation could be taken as Russia’s warning for the CCP’s ill-containment of the virus in the early stages of the pandemic. On the other hand, it could simply be a measure to contain the virus within its borders. An example of the latter has been documented in history, as the Manchurian plague. 

Revisiting the 1910-1911 Manchurian plague in China

In the autumn of 1910, cases of a deadly pneumonic plague were reported in China. 

Manzhouli, then known as Manchuria, was the first city in China to be affected by the plague. The plague is believed to have originated from the marmot which was manufactured into mink, a high-grade fur, when the supply of mink fell short of demand. 

Local and migrant hunters began to arrive to hunt marmots. Contrary to local hunters who were experienced and avoided ill-looking marmots, migrants hunters were predominantly miners and loggers. They hunted unhealthy marmots as a result and contracted the plague from diseased marmots. 

The pneumonic plague was thought to have originated from Dauria, a town in East Siberia. The town lies approximately 50km from Manzhouli, a town in China. In Dauriya, a group of labourers were headed by a man with the last name Zhang. Seven of those labourers were reported to have died from the plague from September to October 1910. The workers were housed in a large dormitory under poor hygiene standards. Windows were reported to have been shut due to the cold climate hence limiting ventilation and exacerbating disease transmission. 

Local Russian authorities responded immediately and placed the remaining workers under isolation from the remainder of the population. Personal clothing and huts were burned. The remaining workers at the site received financial compensation and were instructed to leave Russia. The workers then arrived at the closest township, Manzhouli, an inner Mongolia region of China. On their journey, the workers and hide-traders that they came into contact with  became carriers of the pneumonic plague which then spread along the Chinese Eastern Railway to Harbin, the capital of the Heilongjiang province. Cases were reported in Harbin in November 1910.

It is worth noting that the Chinese Eastern Railway extends from China-Siberia borders to Vladivostok, coursing through cities Harbin and Suifenhe. The pneumonic plague outbreak in 1910 followed the path of both the Chinese Eastern Railway and the South Manchurian Railway. 

It was documented that the Russian authorities did not inform the Qing government at the time that the Chinese workers were deported from Russia, lest the Chinese refused its own citizens for fear of transmitting the plague to the wider population. Over the course of 6 months, between 50,000 and 60,000 people died from the Manchurian plague. 

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