ELENA COLLINSON and JAMES LAURENCESON. China and the Coronavirus. (Australia-China Relations Institute 10.2.2020)

Is China telling us everything it knows about Coronavirus?

As the coronavirus crisis has unfolded, the heavy cost of the Chinese governance system’s favoured tools of censorship and information control has been on display.


As the coronavirus crisis has unfolded, the heavy cost of the Chinese governance system’s favoured tools of censorship and information control has been on display.

And that cost has likely extended to Australia as well.

On December 30 last year, a Wuhan doctor, Li Wenliang, had alerted other health professionals to the emergence of a mystery virus. Four days later he was reprimanded by local police for having ‘severely disturbed the social order’ and forced to sign a document pledging to ‘stop [his] illegal behaviour’. The provincial health commission also issued a notice warning that ‘organisations or individuals are not allowed to release treatment information to the public without authorisation’.

But by January 21, by which time it had become clear the virus was spreading out of control, the Chinese central government’s political and legal affairs commission had adopted a starkly different line: ‘Anyone who deliberately delays and hides the reporting of [virus] cases out of his or her own self-interest will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity’.

But the central authorities haven’t been able to exonerate themselves entirely. Wuhan’s mayor admitted early mistakes were made, he also noted that as a local official he could only disclose information after he’d been given ‘approval to do so’.

Last Friday, Dr Li tragically succumbed to the disease himself.

His death, and the acute public anger that followed, has fixed, at least for now, the spotlight firmly on the flaws of a governance system that can not only hurt Chinese citizens but also have transnational impact.

China’s government is now reporting on virus statistics and engaging with the international community in the containment of the virus. The country was praised by the World Health Organization late last month for its ‘commitment to transparency’, and last week US President Donald Trump lauded Chinese president, Xi Jinping’s handling of the crisis.

But China’s past track record and the government’s disdain for institutions like a free press inevitably mean that doubts remain.

Modelling research just published in leading medical journal The Lancet, for example, estimated that 75,815 people had been infected in Greater Wuhan by January 25, a figure about 100 times bigger than official numbers at the time.

Five million people passed through Wuhan and 4,000 travelled abroad from the city after the first cases were flagged before the city was locked down with a quarantine order on January 23.

Compounding the concern is that there are signs of a renewed government crackdown on information availability, this time led by the central authorities. On February 3, a meeting of China’s Politburo Standing Committee called for improved ‘public opinion guidance’ and the strengthening of control over online media. State media have been provided with directives to focus on ‘positive’ stories about the outbreak. The South China Morning Post reported that on February 4 China’s Ministry of Public Security reminded police officers that ‘political security was of utmost importance in handling the outbreak.’

To be sure, doubts around numbers of people infected by the virus aren’t all about censorship and any government would struggle with a public health crisis on a similar scale.

Last Friday, Neil Ferguson, director of Imperial College London’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, estimated only around 10 percent of coronavirus cases in China were being picked up. But this was because it has become clearer that many infected only display mild symptoms while unwittingly contributing to the spread of the virus.

Still, what is beyond question is just how highly the Chinese system prioritises political stability.

The rapid escalation of the Australian response on February 1, particularly the decisions to close the border to non-citizens who had visited China in the last 14 days and send Australian evacuees from Wuhan to Christmas Island for quarantine, has had some evacuees and commentators wondering out loud whether base political instincts, perhaps even outright racism, rather than medical advice, might be at play. (The government insisted it was following the advice of medical professionals.)

But it is also likely to be reflective of the uncertainties Australian policymakers have when it comes to dealing with China.

The fact that Australia earns more than $16 billion every year from Chinese students and tourists means it wouldn’t have been a decision Canberra took lightly.

The travel ban prompted criticism from the Chinese embassy in Australia, who alleged they had not been advised of the move beforehand, a claim the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade immediately refuted.

And this gets at the bigger problem. While Australia and China are major trading partners and are happy to talk up the relationship on that basis, the reality is that the two governments frequently interact in a low trust state. In turn that can making cooperating in challenging scenarios, whether they be health, security or economic, that much harder.

Elena Collinson is a senior researcher at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney.

Professor James Laurenceson is Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.

This article appeared in Network 10’s 10 daily on February 10 2020.


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4 Responses to ELENA COLLINSON and JAMES LAURENCESON. China and the Coronavirus. (Australia-China Relations Institute 10.2.2020)

  1. Anthony Pun says:

    In reading the Lancet article by Prof JT Wu, Dr K Leung and Prof GM Leung published 31Jan2020 I found the article a respectable and a scholarly endeavour. The paper gave a lot of useful clinical and epidemiological data, including clinical and public management of the diseases and would be most useful to health care providers in China and other parts of the world when engaging the COVID19. (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30260-9/fulltext),
    Prof Leung’s team calculated that with a reproductive number of R0=2.68, the extrapolated infected individuals would be 75,815 by 25Jan2020 in Wuhan. This is only one of the many conclusions presented in the paper and yet Collinson and Laurenceson decided to spin the facts and displayed it as evidence that the Chinese government is covering up the real facts.
    In the “Data sources and assumptions”, the authors acknowledge the collaboration of information from the Chinese mainland sources. The South China Morning Post also feature Prof Leung’s article in the Lancet, but the controversy was about the management of the disease and not a suggestion of cover up.
    The authors of this article obviously have weaponised the infection figure of 75,815 and imply the Chinese government covering up the facts. This article now joins forces with Prof Pei’s article which appeared in J&M recently. Prof Pei article in J&M also gained notoriety by being geopolitically bias. (see full rebuttal of Prof Pei’s article: https://www.quora.com/Do-you-think-the-Chinese-government-is-covering-up-the-true-extent-of-the-Corona-virus/answer/Anthony-Pun

    On the death of Dr Li Wenliang, I openly made a request for the Wuhan government to apologise to Dr Li’s family (SMH 6Feb2020)
    “It would be a great gesture for the Wuhan government to apologize to the family of Li Wenliang in order to maintain solidarity (political, technical and financial) as a plea made by President Xi. Such an apology would go a long way to give credibility to China in containing the spread of the Coronavirus. Medical and scientific staff should always tell the truth but it is up to the government to make the public decision and be responsible for it. Condolence to the family of Dr Li and may he rest in peace.”.
    This request was followed by a short article in Quora.

  2. R. N. England says:

    People of good will and expertise will be researching details of how this disease took off, how soon it was isolated, how soon its virulence was recognised, and how public officials handled it. The purpose of their research is to help public health administrators better handle such outbreaks in the future; to be able to snuff them out more quickly next time. Of clear importance is to be able to act as early as possible. Also crucial is being able to manage the public response in a way that gets on top of the disease. Leaving the public response in the hands of profit-dependent mass-media is an abrogation of public health administration. Managing public response is a balancing act. There will be officials who, at an early stage, under-estimate the disease’s virulence, and argue against too much disruption to the public (e.g. a cordon sanitaire around Wuhan, which also causes suffering and death). Certain public officials appear to have got it wrong in this case, but they may not do so in the next. Punishing them, which the Chinese administration has reportedly done, may possibly be a mistake.

    I hope to have shown that the matter can be discussed in a factual way, which is the way universities should deal with it. The slag-off emanating from the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney is unworthy of a learned institution.

  3. Rex Williams says:

    “While Australia and China are major trading partners and are happy to talk up the relationship on that basis, the reality is that the two governments frequently interact in a low trust state.”

    One needs to add a little to this statement.

    As a grovelling acolyte of the US, thereby reacting time and again against China as per American dictates, the existing “low trust state” is far more of our making that it is of China’s. They keep up the relationship because it suits them.
    This continuing environment, which is a result of failures to produce even one foreign policy statement at variance with the Trump doctrines, therefore no independence at all, is a position known to every country in the world by now, unlikely ever to change.
    It is who we are, sadly.
    The reason therefore that the decline of the arrogant USA will be our decline as well.

    The opportunity to become independent and as a result, respected for being so, has long since gone. First the UK until 1945, (but still the Queen and all that nonsense) and now the USA until the end of empire.

    China would know that very clearly by now. How we have continued to benefit from the 16 billion dollars stated above shows a large degree of tolerance by China in accepting what Australia has now become, what it says and who controls its thinking and its actions.

    How long that will continue is anyone’s guess.

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