MINXIN PEI. The Coronavirus is a Disease of Chinese Autocracy(Project Syndicate 28.1.2020)

When China’s leaders finally declare victory against the outbreak of the new and deadly coronavirus, they will undoubtedly credit the Communist Party of China’s leadership. But the truth is just the opposite: the party is again responsible for this calamity.

 An outbreak of a new coronavirus that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan has already infected over 4,000 people – mostly in China, but also in several other countries, from Thailand to France to the United States – and killed more than 100. Given China’s history of disease outbreaks – including of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and African swine fever – and officials’ apparent awareness of the need to strengthen their capacity to address “major risks,” how could this happen?

This pathological secrecy hobbles the authorities’ capacity to respond quickly to epidemics. The SARS epidemic of 2002-03 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 may have the CPC’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. But, although the first case was reported on December 8, the Wuhan municipal health commission didn’t issue an official notice until several weeks later. And, 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 health-care workers had been infected. The commission repeated these claims on January 5, though 59 cases had been confirmed by then. Even after the first death was reported on January 11, the commission continued to insist that there was no evidence that it could be transmitted among humans or that health-care 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 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 December 30 and January 4, around the time when the Wuhan municipal health commission first acknowledged the outbreak. But mentions of the disease subsequently plummeted.

References to the new coronavirus rose slightly on January 11, when the first death was reported, but then quickly disappeared again. It was only after January 20 – following reports of 136 new cases in Wuhan, as well as cases in Beijing and Guangdong – that the government rolled back its censorship efforts. Mentions of coronavirus exploded.

Yet again, the Chinese 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 may die, and the economy, already weakened by debt and the trade war, will take another hit.

But 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. So, even as Chinese President Xi Jinping demands that the government increase its capacity to handle “major risks,” China will continue to undermine its own – and the world’s – safety, in order to bolster the CPC’s authority.

When China’s leaders finally declare victory against the current outbreak, they will undoubtedly credit the CPC’s leadership. But the truth is just the opposite: the party is again responsible for this calamity.

Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non resident senior fellow at the German Marshal Fund of the US.
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5 Responses to MINXIN PEI. The Coronavirus is a Disease of Chinese Autocracy(Project Syndicate 28.1.2020)

  1. Kien Choong says:

    We can reasonably debate whether China could have acted sooner, but the delay seems more likely to reflect ex ante uncertainty. Just as Chinese authorities ought not blame local officials for outcomes that are obvious in hindsight, we ought to be careful not to blame “Chinese autocracy” for outcomes that are genuinely uncertain ex ante.

    That said, China’s institutions could be more inclusive and participatory. However, we often underestimate the challenge of building good institutions; they develop one crisis at a time – it takes time. Modern Western institutions developed over decades; even now lessons from the financial crisis are being forgotten.

  2. Anthony Pun says:

    A check on Prof Minxin Pei’s writing showed a consistent trend of China bashing based mainly on ideological grounds, despite his humble beginnings in Shanghai.
    I am not a fan of the CCP but Prof Pei’s conspiracy theory of China attempting to hide the facts of Coronavirus, is an extreme overreach and would diminish his credibility as an a learned scholar and puts him in line with the empty rhetorics of Pompeo and other American hawks.
    The Coronavirus and its xenophobic effects are strongly felt in Australia with major newspaper editors of the Daily Telegraph and Sun Herald publicly apologizing for the offence to the 1.2 million Chinese Australians. Prof Pei’s article is inflammatory and will not earn the respect of Chinese Australians nor the wider Chinese diaspora.

  3. Andrew Glikson says:

    Had such an outbreak occurred in the US would the Trump govenment been able to bild new hospitals in a few weeks?

  4. R. N. England says:

    The reason for the outbreak of this new disease is the traditional Chinese custom of eating wild animals. The source of the outbreak was a holy place in liberal eyes, a market.

    Judging whether alarming news is fake or not is a matter of gathering evidence, which takes time. Freedom of fake alarming news, such as the assertion that the triple antigen causes autism, costs lives and wastes resources.

    The article is a good example of socialism’s oldest enemy, lucrative prejudice.

    • Kien Choong says:

      Ha ha, so funny to read this: “The source of the outbreak was a holy place in liberal eyes, a market.” How true!

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