The case against China

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Beijing’s early mishandling of the Covid-19 spread should not be swept under the rug

We might agree that Donald Trump is an egregious racist, who is desperately seeking scapegoats for the disastrous consequences of his own mismanagement of the coronavirus emergency. 

But just as every stopped clock gets the time correct twice every day, there is some merit to the outlandishly eccentric American president’s finger-pointing about China’s murky, malign role in the unfolding disaster.

As the global case count surged past 2 million this week, including 130,000 fatalities (both numbers doubled in less than a fortnight) it has become painfully clear that rigorous transparency of information is the paramount requirement to cope with pandemic conflagrations.

But that runs contrary to how China has arranged its society and political apparatus under the neo-imperial strongman Xi Jinping. Thus, ever since the “novel” coronavirus first emerged to jump between humans towards the end of 2019, his paranoid state apparatus has hampered the world’s ability to react with its drip, drip, drip of reliable science mixed with propaganda.

It’s true that political meddling in medical matters isn’t exclusive to any country. Yet, the extraordinarily restricted surveillance society behind “the great firewall of China” still stands out uniquely malignant in its ability to suppress what it considers inexpedient. 

On December 30, when Wuhan Central Hospital ophthalmologist Dr Li Wenliang warned his medical school classmates (via the Chinese messaging site WeChat) another “SARS-like” infection had been detected in the city’s seafood market, and they should start using protective clothing, he was charged with “spreading rumours” and “false comments … that severely disturbed the social order.” 

Instead of being hailed a heroic first responder, Dr Li was punished and silenced. Then he contracted the coronavirus, and succumbed. The nationwide outpouring of grief and anger was itself scrubbed from social media. 

Finally, just this month, the Communist Party rehabilitated the whistle-blower by awarding him the status of “martyr” along with 11 other medical professionals who died in the first wave of casualties. 

Even as Xi’s administration raced to conceal information at home, it dissembled broadly on the global stage. Earlier this week, the Associated Press revealed crucial internal documents which indicate China’s National Health Commission alerted the leadership on January 14 that “all localities must prepare for and respond to a pandemic.” But it took until the 20th for the premier to admit the problem “must be taken seriously.” 

It’s estimated that China’s own cases could have been cut by two-thirds (and the international outbreak massively controlled) if Beijing had reacted promptly with the exact same measures that began to be implemented a few days later: Social distancing, travel restrictions, the requirement to wear masks. 

None of this absolves any other government for foot-dragging casualness, or the failure to react promptly to what became obvious 10 weeks ago. But it’s equally true China appears to have learned nothing from its own fatal errors, and is now compounding them with successive waves of further disinformation. 

As Time Magazine put it earlier this month, all of the country’s claims are “clouded by a fog of skewed data, political imperatives — and unreported cases and possibly deaths.”

We know that just this year Chinese statistics have been juggled eight separate times with different definitions of infection (the current one including asymptomatic cases is the most helpful). Reliable estimates now hold that Wuhan’s death toll was actually in tens of thousands, compared to the official record of 2,535. 

At this point, the constant dissembling fools no one, at home or abroad. Time also reported Beijing-based Dr Gong Xiaoming’s remarkable social media excoriation of Xi’s government for “hardly convincing” declarations, along with his rueful admonition “the more honest you are, the more trust you gain.”

Totalitarians always double down on lies, which explains China foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao’s fumbling attempts to counter Trump’s absurd broadsides with his own ludicrous accusations. For just one example, on March 13 on Twitter, he posted an unhinged conspiracy-theory website link, with the message: “This article is very much important to each and every one of us. Please read and retweet it. COVID-19: Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the US.”

One day, probably sooner than we think, an authoritative history of the first few months of 2020’s incredibly disruptive pandemic will be written. Odds are it will bear out the findings of the University of Southampton’s clear-eyed study of what happened in China over the past few months. 

It notes: “If interventions in the country could have been conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier, cases could have been reduced by 66%, 86% and 95% respectively — significantly limiting the geographical spread of the disease.” 

But there’s also this conclusion by the study’s author, Dr Shengjie Lai: “We also show that China’s comprehensive response, in a relatively short period, greatly reduced the potential health impact of the outbreak.”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.