China’s Troubling Vision for the Future of Public Health

China’s Troubling Vision for the Future of Public Health

  • Why Beijing’s Model Must Not Become the World’s

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, citizens and leaders around the world are rethinking what it means to keep people safe. The meaning of national security is being recast: according to one recent survey, many Americans now consider infectious disease to be a greater threat than terrorism, nuclear weapons proliferation, or the rise of China. 

What does it mean for health and security to become so intertwined? Democracies and autocracies around the world will approach that question in their own ways, given their disparate views on privacy, surveillance, and civil liberties. But some are closer to having an answer than others. As the pandemic’s first epicenter, China has had a head start, and the vision its leaders have laid out—constant surveillance in the name of both biological and political health—is troubling. Democracies must develop a clear and distinct vision for the future relationship between health and security so that China’s approach does not become the world’s.


In Chinese discussions of public health, one word appears repeatedly: fangkong, or “prevent and control.” Chinese President Xi Jinping has used the term on multiple occasions, including in high-profile speeches. So have other senior officials. In the highly formalized language of Chinese politics, key terms often carry great meaning—and fangkong is no exception. It refers to crisis management involving control over diffuse forces (inside or outside of the country); a conveniently broad term, it can be applied to possible threats to both health and security. Fangkong encapsulates Beijing’s perception that these two kinds of threats share similar features and can be tackled using similar approaches. In May, when Xi called for COVID-19 to be managed through “early warning” systems and “timely and accurate monitoring,” he was echoing the language Chinese officials use to describe the country’s enormous public security intelligence apparatus, which monitors society to prevent unrest and instability that could challenge the party’s rule. China’s National Security Commission, a high-ranking body chaired by Xi, met this spring to address the pandemic’s impact on social stability.