Given the absolute power of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the Wuhan authorities have controlled the dissemination of information for the fear of possible impacts on social order and political stability. It was hardly a surprise, therefore, that the CPC has been willing to mortgage the health of its citizens during this coronavirus debacle for the preservation of the system.
Indeed, while China has responded faster to the coronavirus epidemic than its SARS outbreak in 2002–03, the CPC has overlooked the inherent failure in its system as the authorities have continued to silence and punish those who deviate from official orthodoxy and reality. Even with the lessons of the SARS disaster, demonstrating the need for greater openness and responsibility, China has committed the same mistakes while expecting a different outcome.
The Heavenly Messenger
The first mistake was shooting the messenger. Dr. Li Wenliang—a young ophthalmologist at the Central Hospital of Wuhan—had first shared his concerns on December 31, 2019, with a group of colleagues on WeChat. At the time, the coronavirus had not yet been identified. Li then warned his co-workers of the SARS-like symptoms that his patients were exhibiting, and encouraged them to adopt stricter measures to prevent contaminations in their hospitals.
This had all privately been shared to alert his colleagues. However, once screenshots began to circulate, they came to the attention of his superiors at the hospital. Li’s reward for this simple act of professional vigilance was an order from the hospital authorities to write a letter of self-criticism. The local police also paid him a visit in the middle of the night, where they accused him of being one of eight people who had been spreading “false information” and who had “gravely disturbed social order.”
Finally, Li was forced to respond affirmatively to the questions: “Can you stop your illegal behavior?” and “Do you understand you’ll be punished if you don’t stop such behavior?” His answers were signed and sealed by affixing his red thumbprint to the police report. With this restraining order, the virus was then allowed to continue spreading unabated for several more weeks. This pointed to the second mistake.
The Mandate of the Party
Setting the stage for the perfect storm, the city of Wuhan had been preparing its annual mass banquet. To celebrate the twentieth anniversary, local organizers had attempted “to break a world record for the largest number of dishes served.” The significance of this event cannot be overstated. For at least three weeks prior to the banquet on January 18, 2020, Wuhan authorities had been informed of the virus spreading in the city.
The SARS experience and common sense would have dictated taking immediate measures to protect public health. Instead, Wuhan authorities did the unthinkable: issuing orders to suppress the news and covering-up the gravity of the outbreak. Even after the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared a global health emergency on January 30, media outlets such as Xinhua were instructed to give the news of the coronavirus a positive spin and avoid mentioning the WHO declaration. By this time, the pathogen had already spread well beyond China.
One reason for the suppression of the news—as reported by the Financial Times—was that the mayor of Wuhan had declined the advice of health experts out of concern that measures to contain the disease “may hurt the local economy and social stability.” This decision would have two escalatory effects. First, it accelerated the virulence of the virus, given the sheer number of people in close proximity. Second, it facilitated the spread of the virus around the world. The conclusion of the banquet ended with an exodus of some five million people from the city, which helped to transport the virus beyond Hebei province and Chinese national borders.
By January 29, the number of cases of the coronavirus had already risen to 7,700 cases worldwide and 170 deaths in China. The figures were likely very conservative, given the shortage of medical test kits at that time. On the same day, China’s Supreme Court finally recognized that the Wuhan police should have been more “tolerant” of those sounding the alarm than accusing them of rumor-mongering. This was a lame gesture to the clear recognition of the facts on the ground. This points to the third mistake.
The Mandate of Heaven Works
With the cover-up having now failed, China is slowly and begrudgingly admitting to the inadequacies of its critical response. The advance team from the WHO has only able to enter China as recently as February 10, and it is still unclear when the full WHO mission will deploy, or the latitude they will have to investigate the origins of this infection. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—one of the world’s most respected organizations and the most experienced first responders—has not even been invited to assist in the investigation.
To this degree of restriction and censorship, not to mention the potential threats to public health beyond the national borders, there has been a massive outcry not only over the silencing of Li Wenliang, but the government’s mishandling of the entire crisis. In this context, one can only tremble at the thought of the estimated one million Chinese Uyghurs in the so-called “vocational training centers” or internment camps in the Xinjiang province. The exiled World Uyghur Congress had sounded the alarm over the risk of spreading the virus inside the camps. According to the Chinese official media, there are only 55 cases reported in Xinjiang.
Even if not actually complicit, the WHO at the very least must share some of the blame for the speed of the response. According to the Washington Post, even as the virus was spreading through Wuhan in January, the WHO’s Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was praising the “transparency” of the Chinese response, and giving the general impression that “China has got this.”
Advice to the Party
The CPC keeps a vice-like grip on what is seen and heard in the country. In China, controlling the narrative is the sine qua non of Beijing’s success of its leadership. Contagious diseases are, however, indifferent to religious and political ideologies. At a certain critical mass, the message is simply too ubiquitous to ignore or cover-up. To this point, it is reminiscent of the maxim—often been attributed to the nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer—that “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
At this juncture, the best possible policy prescription can only look to the message of scientific truth and the messenger who ultimately had to pay for this crisis with his life. In an interview with the New York Times before he died, Li offered this advice: “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”
Patrick Mendis is a former visiting professor of economic diplomacy at Wuhan University, is a Taiwan fellow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China and a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University in Taipei.
Joey Wang is a defense analyst.
Both men are alumni of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.