An outbreak of a new coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China, has infected more than 14,000 people — mostly in China, but also in many other countries, from Thailand to Italy to the US — and killed more than 300. Given China’s history of disease outbreaks — including SARS and African swine fever — and officials’ apparent awareness of the need to strengthen their capacity to address “major risks,” how could this happen?
It should be no surprise that history is repeating itself in China. To maintain its authority, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must keep the public convinced that everything is going according to plan. That means carrying out systemic cover-ups of scandals and deficiencies that might reflect poorly upon the CCP’s leadership, instead of doing what is necessary to respond.
This pathological secrecy hobbles the authorities’ capacity to respond quickly to epidemics. The SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 could have been contained much sooner had Chinese officials, including the health minister, not deliberately concealed information from the public. Once proper disease-control and prevention measures were implemented, SARS was contained within months.
Yet China seems not to have learned its lesson. Although there are important differences between today’s coronavirus epidemic and the SARS outbreak — including far greater technological capacity to monitor disease — they might have the CCP’s habit of cover-ups in common.
To be sure, at first glance, China’s government has appeared to be more forthcoming about the latest outbreak. Although the first case was reported on Dec. 8, the Wuhan municipal health commission did not issue an official notice until several weeks later. Since then, Wuhan officials have downplayed the seriousness of the disease and deliberately sought to suppress news coverage.
That notice maintained that there was no evidence that the new illness could be transmitted among humans, and claimed that no healthcare workers had been infected. The commission repeated these claims on Jan. 5, although 59 cases had been confirmed by then.
Even after the first death was reported on Jan. 11, the commission continued to insist that there was no evidence that it could be transmitted among humans or that healthcare workers had been affected.
Throughout this critical period, there was little news coverage of the outbreak. Chinese censors worked diligently to remove references to the outbreak from the public sphere, which is far easier today than it was during the SARS epidemic, thanks to the Chinese government’s dramatically tighter control over the Internet, media and civil society. Police have harassed people for “spreading rumors” about the disease.
According to one study, references to the outbreak on WeChat — a popular Chinese messaging, social media and mobile-payment app — spiked between Dec. 30 and Jan. 4, around the time when the Wuhan municipal health commission first acknowledged the outbreak. However, mentions of the disease subsequently plummeted.
References to the new coronavirus rose slightly on Jan. 11, when the first death was reported, but then quickly disappeared again. It was only after Jan. 20 — following reports of 136 new cases in Wuhan, as well as cases in Beijing and Guangdong Province — that the government rolled back its censorship efforts. Mentions of coronavirus exploded.
Yet again, the government’s attempts to protect its image proved costly, because they undermined initial containment efforts. The authorities have since switched gears, and their strategy now appears to be to show how seriously the government is taking the disease by imposing drastic measures: a blanket travel ban on Wuhan and neighboring cities in Hubei Province, which together have a population of 35 million.
At this point, it is unclear whether and to what extent these steps are necessary or effective. What is clear is that China’s initial mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak means that thousands will be infected, hundreds might die and the economy, already weakened by debt and the trade dispute with the US, will take another hit.
Perhaps the most tragic part of this story is that there is little reason to hope that next time will be different. The survival of the one-party state depends on secrecy, media suppression and constraints on civil liberties.
Even as Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) demands that the government increase its capacity to handle “major risks,” China will continue to undermine its own — and the world’s — safety, to bolster the CCP’s authority.
When China’s leaders finally declare victory against the current outbreak, they will undoubtedly credit the CCP’s leadership. The truth is just the opposite: The party is again responsible for this calamity.
Pei Minxin is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
Late last month, Beijing introduced changes to school curricula in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, requiring certain subjects to be taught in Mandarin rather than Mongolian. What is Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) seeking to gain from sending this message of pernicious intent? It is possible that he is attempting cultural genocide in Inner Mongolia, but does Xi also have the same plan for the democratic, independent nation of Mongolia? The controversy emerged with the announcement by the Inner Mongolia Education Bureau on Aug. 26 that first-grade elementary-school and junior-high students would in certain subjects start learning with Chinese-language textbooks, as
There are worrying signs that China is on the brink of a major food shortage, which might trigger a strategic contest over food security and push Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), already under intense pressure, toward drastic measures, potentially spelling trouble for Taiwan and the rest of the world. China has encountered a perfect storm of disasters this year. On top of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, torrential rains have caused catastrophic flooding in the Yangtze River basin, China’s largest agricultural region. Floodwaters are estimated to have already destroyed the crops on 6 million hectares of farmland. The situation has been
In 1955, US general Benjamin Davis Jr, then-commander of the US’ 13th Air Force, drew a maritime demarcation line in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, known as the median line. Under pressure from the US, Taiwan and China entered into a tacit agreement not to cross the line. On July 9, 1999, then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) described cross-strait relations as a “special state-to-state” relationship. In response, Beijing dispatched People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft into the Taiwan Strait, crossing the median line for the first time since 1955. The PLA has begun to regularly traverse the line. On Sept. 18 and 19, it
Midday in Manhattan on Wednesday, September 16, was sunny and mild. Even with the pandemic’s “social distancing” it was a perfect day for “al fresco” dining with linen tablecloths and sidewalk potted palms outside one of New York City’s elegant restaurants. Two members of the press, outfitted with digital SLR cameras and voice recorders, were dispatched by The Associated Press to cover a rare outdoor diplomatic meeting on one of these New York streets. American diplomat Kelly Craft, Chief of the United States Mission to the United Nations, lunched in the open air with Taiwan’s ambassador-ranked representative in New York, James