Chinese Cities Seize Personal Property to Control Spread of Coronavirus

In this picture taken on January 27, 2020 police officers wearing protective facemasks to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in Wuhan, secure an area at the Beijing railway station. - The deadly new coronavirus that has broken out in China, 2019-nCoV, will afflict a minimum …
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

Shenzhen and Guangzhou, two of China’s largest cities, have been granted the authority to “requisition” personal property in order to halt the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus.

The move is especially noteworthy because those two cities are key elements of China’s high-tech economic engine.

Shenzhen and Guangzhou are located in Guangdong province, which has been hit by the most coronavirus cases outside Hubei, where the epidemic began. As of Wednesday, Shenzhen reported 375 confirmed infections and Guangzhou reported 317, while the province has a total of 1,177.

In both of the big Guangdong cities, legislators approved emergency measures that would enable officials to temporarily seize homes, commercial property, public venues, and vehicles thought to be contaminated, as well as commanding private businesses to produce any materials deemed necessary in fighting the coronavirus. Shortages of medical equipment and protective gear have been a persistent problem in areas where the virus is spreading, and shortages of food and supplies for quarantined populations are becoming a serious issue.

Shezhen’s emergency legislation also gives the city government broad powers to shut down commercial operations, public events, schools, and other venues where the virus could spread rapidly.

Guangdong’s provincial legislature is considering similar measures, with more of an emphasis on emergency quarantine measures and transportation restrictions than seizing private property.

Government officials seizing personal property might not seem like a big story in a Communist country, but laws that semi-approved the ownership of property passed over a decade ago played a major role in China’s rapid economic expansion. The emergency measures passed in Guangdong mark the first time local governments have seized property since the passage of the 2007 Property Law.

The Property Law included provisions for just this type of emergency seizure, with requirements that the property must be returned and the owners duly compensated. The Epoch Times on Tuesday noted some apprehension in China’s tech hub cities that the ruling regime might not honor those commitments, especially if the economic damage from the coronavirus epidemic is severe:

Heng He, a U.S.-based political affairs commentator, expressed skepticism about such measures. Although similar emergency policies have been utilized in other countries, Heng expressed concern about the regime’s capacity to honor its pledge to provide compensation.

“Doesn’t matter whether this is consistent with the constitutional law, the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t even obey their own laws,” he said.

Heng said the policy appeared to be a new way for Guangdong authorities to “rob riches from the public.”

“Even though they said there will be compensation, a lot of people have experienced such compensation during forced demolition—a lot are symbolic,” he said.

Forced demolition campaigns have been a recurring issue in China over the past two decades. According to a 2019 report by Beijing Shengting Law Firm, at least 751 complaints were filed from 2014 to 2017 over forced demolitions; and in 43 percent of the cases the officials did not follow any legal procedures.

China also has persistent problems with corruption, despite endless high-profile campaigns against it. The Epoch Times cited reports of local officials already abusing quarantine situations for profit, such as by demanding bribes to enter restricted areas or bypass checkpoints. This misbehavior also calls the effectiveness of China’s much-touted lockdowns into question, since people infected by the coronavirus are no less capable of paying bribes than healthy people.

The fact that China’s prestige economic zone is passing emergency laws to seize property has been taken by skeptical observers, both within and outside China, as another sign that the epidemic is much worse than Beijing is willing to admit. At the moment, the official line from the Chinese government is that the epidemic will peak in February and will effectively end by April.

Another sign of desperation spotted by Quartz on Monday is a risky gambit in several Chinese cities to flush out coronavirus sufferers in hiding by refusing to sell them fever and cough medicine.

The brutal calculation is that people who have been hiding their infections and self-medicating – which the Chinese government explicitly told them to do at first – will be forced to reveal themselves and seek treatment from doctors. 

Critics of the policy fear it will be counter-productive because it will force people with illnesses other than the Wuhan virus to expose themselves to the deadly epidemic by visiting hospitals and clinics full of infected people. Even worse, those overwhelmed medical centers often send patients home without treatment or testing and tell them to self-medicate, so many people will be compelled to expose themselves to the Wuhan virus for nothing.

“Is this policy reasonable? People could originally resolve the illnesses with drugs instead of going to hospitals to grab already stretched medical resources and being infected by others who have the virus,” one Chinese social media commentator noted.

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