Experts weigh in on the narrative suggesting that China misled the world – and what that means for the future balance of power between east and west.
As we sat around our Christmas trees at the end of 2019, few could have imagined the belated gift that Wuhan, a city of 11 million in South Central China, was about to present the world: a virus responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and that paralysed the global economy. Some believe that the authoritarian Communist Party of China (cpc) is guilty, if not of the crime of the century, then at least of criminal negligence on an unprecedented scale.
Intentional or not, there are three key failures that allowed coronavirus to pass from a provincial market to its eventual extent. First, there was the silencing of doctors who raised the alert in December at Wuhan Central Hospital, then a delay (of six days, according to a leaked cpc communication) in implementing a lockdown despite evidence of human-to-human infection. Last was the under-reporting of the spread and fatalities to the World Health Organization (who).
Professor Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago, is among those to designate these shortcomings as accidental, albeit resulting from a culture that’s no stranger to denial. “There were multiple failures,” he says. “Sometimes related to the evaluation system; sometimes because authorities cared about maintaining the appearance of stability.” Yang was the first to point out that the decision of the Wuhan authorities to go ahead with hosting the annual People’s Congress, with thousands of delegates visiting the city in January, is evidence of the obsequious nature of provincial authorities striving to please Beijing – in this case, with catastrophic consequences.
When the cpc finally acknowledged the risk of a pandemic, it moved with a speed that has since proved elusive in other nations. “I think what China did was very fast and very clever,” says Professor Dale Fisher, an infectious-diseases expert at the National University of Singapore. “They sequenced the genome of the virus by the end of December and had a test for it ready by the second week of January, which they shared with the world. And they locked down their country, which bought the world some time.” Not bad. One rumour worth quarantining is that the virus leaked following a breach of security at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Professor Fisher, who visited Beijing in late February with a who fact-finding team, scoffs at this idea. “It is the third coronavirus to jump species [that has had significant health impact],” he says. “I have trouble imagining carelessness in Chinese laboratories: it’s a very strict society.”
This same strictness, however, might also have cost China time in containing the spread. “The Chinese penchant for secrecy harmed the local and global response,” says Professor Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. “This cost lives and increased the risk that the virus would achieve pandemic status.” But Houlden, who has had five China postings with the Canadian foreign service, adds a caveat. “Advanced western states, some of whom had weeks of warning, [also] failed to anticipate the risks.”
This point is worth dwelling on. Most countries affected by the virus were found lacking in some regard, be it healthcare supply chains, infectious-disease expertise, speed of action or pandemic preparedness. Italy, Spain, the UK and the US were unanimously slow to grasp the scale of the threat and, at times, poor at reporting accurate infection rates. Perhaps China’s fluctuating figures are, like those of the rest of the world, a best guess.
There are, however, some more fundamental issues with the cpc’s statistics – and this is disastrous in dealing with a pandemic. In April, eyebrows were raised when Wuhan’s death toll was rounded up by 50 per cent. But as Professor Fisher says, “No one has good data in the middle of an outbreak. China has a policy that they want history to be recorded properly, so they updated the data.” Meanwhile, the UK government was later caught out contrasting its death toll favourably with that of France but omitting deaths in care homes, which the French had logged.
Some governments have, however, shown a way forward in combating the virus. Two are to be found on China’s doorstep. Initially, South Korea had the second-largest number of infections in the world after China but has since recorded a fraction of China’s infections and deaths. In Taiwan, deaths from coronavirus at the time of writing hadn’t reached double digits. Taiwan was already carrying out health inspections on all new arrivals by 31 December and announced that the virus could be transmitted from human to human four days before Beijing.
Beyond China’s flawed political system, the finger of blame has also hovered over circumstances of the species jump and the conditions in wet markets. It’s known that Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, which sold a wide range of live wild animals for human consumption, was a key point of the spread of the disease, if not the source. The fact that it has been closed and slated for demolition makes the who’s job of piecing together what happened here impossible and shows a distinct lack of willingness – or fear? – of what they might find out. “There are concerns about markets where different species are kept together, live, in cramped conditions and close proximity,” says Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop. So while China’s main sin appears to be disorganisation and an instinct for secrecy, what does this debacle mean for Xi Jinping and his government? Well, according to the independent Edelman Trust Barometer, the Chinese people have a higher level of trust in their government than any other nation, though that is based on the cpc’s ability to maintain an ordered society and economic growth.
The latest figures from Beijing show that the economy shrunk by 6.8 per cent since the pandemic started and, should the virus return after restrictions in China are lifted, some believe that there is the potential for destabilisation, particularly if the middle class loses faith. Could this be Beijing’s “Chernobyl moment”?
But she stressed that most markets were “a wonderful source of fresh produce. It would make no sense to close down all markets.”
I asked an acquaintance in Beijing whether there’s a sense of shame or guilt about the pandemic originating there. He wrote back that he was “shocked” by my question and by the “biased and negative news in western media”. His take was that China had done its best to warn the world but that the west had ignored the warnings. We can all agree on the second part.
China’s iron grip on information may well ward off regime-toppling dissent and it will probably be greatly aided by the fact that its factories and businesses are gradually reopening, well ahead of most of the rest of the world. China has a head start and appears intent on exploiting it. “China is most certainly taking full advantage of its health and economic recovery to promote its global standing and economic interests,” says Professor Houlden.
Beijing is conscious of its rivals’ paralysis too. A Chinese naval flotilla sailed close to Taiwan in late April, as two US Pacific carriers remained in dock handling coronavirus outbreaks. The Global Times (the English-language version of the cpc’s state newspaper) went as far as to cite these manoeuvres as a symbol of China’s victory over the virus.
If the country’s bounceback continues in tandem with the decline of the US as a global power, coronavirus might well end up enhancing China’s economic and military supremacy. Beijing might not be guilty of purposefully unleashing the virus or of wilfully allowing it to spread to the rest of the world. But it won’t win many friends by looking too smug about bouncing back first.
Monocle comment: Regardless of whether China’s botched response deserves blame, the damage to its brand is clear. Expect a reckoning as supply chains are reshaped.
About the writer: Booth is monocle’s Copenhagen correspondent. His new book, Three Tigers, One Mountain: A Journey Through the Bitter History and Current Conflicts of China, Korea, and Japan, is available now.