China’s response to coronavirus exposes a dangerous obsession with secrecy | Jeffrey Wasserstrom

“What is the news from China?” are the words that open the 1900 book World-Crisis in China, though they could equally apply to coverage of coronavirus. The short account of an anti-Christian uprising towards the end of China’s Qing dynasty, written by the journalist Allen Sinclair Will, documented “a startling succession of events that seem destined to shake the world”. Today, a different crisis is unfolding across the country. An outbreak that began in the city of Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei province, has infected more than 20,000 people. The World Health Organization has declared it a “global health emergency”.

Coronavirus has thrown light on the sheer logistical power of the Chinese state. In a matter of days, the Communist party erected a hospital that would take months to build elsewhere. It has used drones equipped with speakers to force citizens to wear face masks and shut down 16 cities across the country, quarantining an estimated 50 million people. China’s railway operator is using big data to track down passengers who were in the same carriage as those who contracted the virus. International coverage of China’s response has tempered expressions of concern about the country’s authoritarian politics with awe. Yes, Xi Jinping is an autocrat, the thinking seems to be, but he’s also a pragmatist. “Logistically, it’s stunning,” the US public health expert William Schaffner said of the Wuhan quarantine. “It was done so quickly.”

This wonder at China’s logistical prowess is symptomatic of a recurrent trope among western commentators. We might call it the “if we could just be China for a day” view. For free-market economies such as Britain and the US, where the private sector has replaced state-run enterprises and public investment in infrastructure has shrunk over decades, China can seem like a miracle. The GDP of its state-controlled economy has more than doubled in the past decade, while its technology companies rival the giants of Silicon Valley. The journalist Thomas Friedman, for example, periodically claims that although he wouldn’t want to see China’s political model become an international standard, he enjoys fantasising about how dramatically his country’s infrastructure could be improved were Beijing’s engineer-leaders free to work their magic.

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But when it comes to a public health epidemic, there are worrying limits to the Chinese Communist party’s control. To maintain authority, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) must convince the public that everything is going to plan. This hampers its ability to respond to epidemics. Although the first case of coronavirus was reported on 8 December, the Wuhan health authorities took more than three weeks to issue a notice. As New York Times reporters Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers have found, the doctor Li Wenliang warned an online chat group on 30 December of a mysterious illness in the city, but was subsequently required to sign a police statement that his warning constituted “illegal behaviour”. In a statement published the following day on its website, the Wuhan health authority announced that 27 people were affected by pneumonia – and said the disease was “preventable and controllable”.

The Sars disease rippled across the world in 2003, helped in part by the Communist party’s attempts to conceal its spread for months. During the Sars outbreak, Hong Kong had greater press freedom than mainland China. This helped accurate information come to light there, mitigating some of the damage of China’s attempts at an official cover-up. The Chinese government’s grip over the internet, media and civil society has tightened dramatically since the Sars outbreak. Under Xi’s rule, the party has taken an increasingly hardline stance towards Hong Kong, attempting to crush democratic protests and bring the territory under tighter control, while its censors have worked diligently to scrub the internet across the mainland of anything that diverges from the party’s line. Articles and comments about coronavirus continue to be deleted online and the government has issued warnings against spreading “rumours”. While the party claims to be learning everything it can from the Sars crisis, it seems blind to important lessons.

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That Beijing is determined to prevent Taiwan from joining the World Health Organization is another glaring example of how party ideologies have trumped pragmatism. Taiwan has long functioned as a self-governing country, but the CCP insists it is part of Chinese territory. Following in the footsteps of organisations such as Interpol, the WHO has acceded to Beijing’s wishes, blocking Taiwan from attending emergency briefings. This has slowed the country’s access to international health information – despite Taiwan already counting 10 cases of coronavirus. Cooperation is essential in dealing with public health crises, yet Xi’s technocrats are allowing the control of the one-party state to take precedence over sharing information as widely as possible.

The WHO has praised China’s response to coronavirus for setting a “new global standard” for epidemic control. On closer inspection, China’s response should give us serious pause. Although the country is keen to show the world that it has progressed since Sars, it’s difficult to tell whether drastic containment – such as quarantining entire cities – would have been necessary had the party disclosed information about the virus more quickly. The one-party state’s survival depends upon controlling information, suppressing dissidence and restricting press freedoms. In the case of coronavirus, it seems little has changed.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom teaches Chinese and world history at UC Irvine and is the author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink


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