China’s Old Habits Come Back to Bite It (And the World) in the Ass
The events that have unfolded over the last six months read like the script of a dystopian Hollywood blockbuster. In December of 2019, cases of a mysterious pneumonia-like disease- unresponsive to treatment- were identified in the city of Wuhan, located in China’s Hubei province. Although local doctors and scientists were baffled by this new disease, they quickly realised that most of the patients shared one thing in common: they had visited or worked in the city’s Hua’nan seafood market. Also known as ‘wet markets’, they are common across China and sell the usual assortment of meats, poultry and fish, along with live exotic animals. For decades now, these markets have been known to harbour pathogens that will occasionally jump the species barrier to infect humans. The SARS epidemic which broke out in late 2002 was thought to have originated from horseshoe bats sold at a similar kind of wet market. Likewise the avian influenza H5N1 outbreak of 2003. The initial signs in Wuhan looked ominous. It seemed as though history was doomed to repeat itself.
On December 30 Li Wenliang, a doctor at the Wuhan Central Hospital, was one of the first to raise the alarm. At the hospital several patients had presented with severe symptoms of this new disease. Sensing the potential danger, he warned his colleagues in a WeChat group of its seriousness and urged them all to take caution. “Is SARS coming again?” one of his colleagues replied, the fear of that epidemic still ingrained within the Chinese people. Li’s brave actions immediately incurred the wrath of officials from the local health authority in Wuhan. They accused him of “rumour-mongering”; a euphemism for drawing attention to anything that might tarnish the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) unshakable aura of competence and strength. He was apprehended for the crime of having “severely disturbed the social order” and ordered not to speak on the matter any further, or face severe punishment. Threatening whistleblowers who speak out, whether rightly or wrongly, is a routine practise for China’s police.
On December 31, with the situation rapidly growing out of control and no longer able to be kept secret, public health officials from Wuhan informed the World Health Organization’s office in Beijing of the outbreak. “The disease is preventable and controllable” they said in a statement (which has since been deleted). Officials also urged calmness, saying that there was no evidence that the virus could spread between humans. The outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time, with the Lunar New Year just around the corner. Millions of Chinese were expected to travel and mingle with one another over the coming weeks. For the authorities, it was imperative that this little problem was dead and buried quickly so as not to disrupt the social order. Everyone was told to keep calm and not to worry, it would all blow over in a few weeks. What a mistake that would turn out to be.
The disease- eventually given the name COVID-19- which started in China would go on to manifest into a global health and economic crisis, the likes of which very few people alive today have witnessed. As of July 1, it has spread to 213 countries and claimed the lives of over 500,000 people. Li Wenliang himself eventually succumbed to the very disease he tried to warn the world about, two months after his initial transgression of silence. He was martyred a hero in a cover up story the Soviet Union post Chernobyl would have been proud of. His death sparked outrage across China, citizens laying the blame of the whistleblower’s death at the feet of the CCP. Demands for free speech were naturally buried and ignored. In a rare show of defiance against the government “we want freedom of speech” and “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology” trended for a few hours post his death, before being swiftly deleted.
There’s a reason journalists say “cover China as if you were covering Snapchat”. The CCP goes to extreme lengths to curate the information that its citizens have access to, their professional censors working overtime to delete posts and even ‘private’ messages that contradict the state’s preferred narrative. Everything must be screenshot in an Orwellian here today, gone tomorrow kind of world.
While the state tried desperately to keep this catastrophe under wraps, its people suffered. Doctors were told by hospital heads not to share any information at the beginning of the outbreak, even while they watched many of their colleagues become infected and die. “My tears are dry and there is nothing moving that will make me cry anymore—not possible” said one frontline doctor in a later censored article. In a deleted interview for Freezing Point, another doctor said “[We] were not allowed to wear isolation gowns because that might stoke fears”. Those who disobeyed these rules were punished for the crime of “spreading malicious rumours”.
There were reports of bodies lying in the street and ques to funeral parlors. With hospitals completely overwhelmed, many were unable to seek treatment and died at home, never to be counted in the official death counts. Bereaved families of the dead were threatened with jail for trying to expose the cover up in their quest for answers. If that failed their Gestapo esque police could always make them ‘disappear’, the fate of many critics of the regime. Again and again, attempts to document the apocalyptic scene in Wuhan were deleted as fast as could be published. Even ingenious solutions that attempted to foil sensors, such as reproducing sensitive articles in Morse code, ancient Chinese script, QR code and even Klingon were not enough.
There can be little doubt that the CCP’s campaign of censorship, particularly at the outbreak’s conception, inevitably led to its disastrous spread around the globe. It has been well documented that the dangers of the virus were repeatedly played down to the public, international health bodies and foreign governments. They did more than just deprive people of a head start on the virus, they actively hid and refused information when it was needed the most. An Australian newspaper claimed to have acquired a leaked intelligence dossier compiled by the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance of Western states the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The document describes China’s cover up as an “assault on international transparency”, revealing that international organisations were blocked from entering Wuhan to study the virus, as well as refused samples for scientists trying to find a vaccine.
The dossier also says that: “despite evidence of human-to-human transmission from early December, PRC [Chinese] authorities deny it until January 20.” This delay in getting information out- and false sense of security broadcast by the government to avoid public panic- left countries woefully unprepared and unprotected when the virus hit. The document also corroborates claims that the CCP had whistleblower doctors silenced or ‘disappeared’. “Act decisively they did—not against the virus, but against whistle-blowers who were trying to call attention to the public health threat” said Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times. This obsession with societal control lost China their best chance of mitigating the damage coronavirus would later inflict on the world.
China’s old habits die hard. The country has a long history of deadly outbreaks, COVID-19 being just one in a string of many. And funnily enough, the last time China suffered a similar epidemic, SARS, it covered it up and 774 people died. A 2007 study published in the American Society for Microbiology journal argued that “the presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb”. Foreshadowing what was to come in 2020, scientists also stated that: “the possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.” Yet despite the warnings from history – and indeed international experts- China’s old habits have come back to bite it (and the rest of the world) in the ass.
Their default position of resorting to a cover up every time something goes wrong exposes a fundamental flaw in the authoritarian regime. Burying “rumours” which turn out not to be rumours and censoring those who speak out can lead to dire consequences. “Simply trusting the people with freedom of speech could have achieved a great victory in preventing and managing this epidemic, and there wouldn’t have been such a huge price to pay” said Ren Zhiqiang, a former member of the regime turned critic of Xi and his crackdown on civil freedoms. Who, unsurprisingly, was detained by the party’s discipline inspection commission shortly after making this statement. Studies have suggested that had the government acted right away when the alarm was signaled- and not suppressed the flow of information- the death toll could have been up to 95% lower.
When challenged, Chinese officials bleet out the same party lines. Liu Xiaoming, the country’s ambassador to the UK said that “China has been open and transparent from the very beginning”. With a mountain of evidence out there to suggest otherwise, blame has instead been shifted to local Wuhan officials; who supposedly acted independently of the CCP’s wishes in covering up the outbreak. Anyone who knows anything about the political system in China will be aware that nothing happens without authorisation from its centralised government. China is after all a surveillance state with a high degree of social control, things don’t just happen in the country without big brother knowing. Sadly these local officials have been scapegoated and punished in an effort to appease public anger and deflect away from the government’s own mismanagement. Simply because they were following the rules.
It might be tempting to dismiss the Chinese authorities of covering up the outbreak to avoid public unrest, or worst of all, political embarrassment. Just the CCP up to their old tricks as usual. This however would be vastly underestimating their crookedness and conniving. There’s a saying in politics, never let a good crisis go to waste. And it’s a mantra the CCP seems to abide by, if you look at how they have mobilised themselves to make maximum gain from a seemingly loser position.
On May 1 a report published by the Department for Homeland Security stated they had found evidence that China “intentionally concealed the severity” of the growing outbreak in early January, while simultaneously ramping up imports and decreasing exports of medical supplies. Between January 24th and February 29th China imported over 2.5 billion healthcare items, including visors, masks, gloves and ventilators. In doing so they deprived countries of the means of protecting their front line medical staff as the virus inevitability made it to their shores. Only to sell supplies back to these nations at highly inflated prices.
To add insult to injury it was widely reported they were selling faulty, unusable personal protective equipment (PPE) and test kits while reserving the good stuff for themselves. The CCP also engaged in what has been dubbed “face mask diplomacy”, shipping medical equipment to certain nations on more favorable terms than others; a thinly veiled attempt at boosting its image as a responsible global leader. It’s a tactic taken straight out of the Mafia’s playbook. Offers of medical equipment and aid can also be used to leverage favours later on down the line. Make no mistake, China used this crisis to their benefit, profiting diplomatically and commercially by hoarding and artificially inflating the price of medical equipment.
Perhaps an even more sinister motivation for a cover up was to intentionally allow its spread overseas and bring other nations to their knees, an accusation levelled against China by the US. Surely, not even the CCP would be capable of committing such a barbaric and callus act? The accusation comes from a glaring discrepancy in countries’ response to the virus. When authorities eventually galvanised into action in late January, they employed extreme measures to curb the viruses spread domestically. There were reports of people being welded in their apartments or being tied to posts and publicly humiliated for not wearing face masks. Yet at the same time the message internationally was not to panic, working very hard- with the WHO’s backing- to stop countries imposing travel bans on China. In a similar vein, throughout January and February domestic flights were prohibited but international flights to and from Hubei province- the epicenter of the outbreak- were allowed to continue. It wasn’t until March 27 that China barred foreign visitors from entering the country, after it began to report more cases imported from abroad than were emerging domestically.
Sensing the impending economic doom in their own country, the disease may have deliberately been allowed to spread beyond its borders, increasing the disease’s destructiveness and crippling foreign economies. Levelling the playing field so to speak. Conveniently China was able to open up for business before anyone else, making a handsome profit from countries still gripped by the virus as they look to China for aid, resources and medical supplies. “When they understood the economic devastation was going to be huge, I think they believed they would rather have that spread around the globe rather than it simply be something they suffered from” said Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney. As the CCP have provided no explanation as to why they allowed the disease to spread globally via international travel, when they knew it was a threat domestically, why should we think otherwise at this point? Whether a deliberate action or not, it has certainly played into their hands.
Despite the initial ‘coverup’ being no more secret than Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails, the Chinese government has only become bolder in its efforts to control the narrative. All in an effort to assert the superiority of its authoritarian system over the democratic Western World, and legitimise party rule domestically over the public interest. They have pedaled the lie that their openness and honesty bought sufficient time for the world to act; and that it was actually the fault of Europe and the US, who squandered this head start with a slow and lacklustre response. A damning report by the European External Action Service (EEAS) concluded that the CCP was using both overt and covert activity to run a global campaign to spread disinformation and deflect blame for the outbreak, with the aim of improving the country’s international standing. However, the report was apparently pulled from publication because of concerns about the Chinese reaction.
China has embarked on what can only be described as a cold war style propaganda campaign, promoting themselves as the heroic saviour of the rest of the world as it shares its expertise, experience, and equipment. Historian Niall Ferguson says that: “China caused this disaster, but now wants to claim the credit for saving us from it. Liberally exporting testing kits (some of which don’t work) and face masks (most of which probably do, but I still got ours from Taiwan, thank you very much), the Chinese government is intent on snatching victory from the jaws of a defeat it inflicted”. Xi Jinping has urged state sanctioned media outlets to “focus on positive news stories that uphold unity and stability and are encouraging”. Turn on any news channel and all you will see are clips of cheary nurses talking about how honoured they are to serve their country, or planeloads of medical aid being shipped off to countries in need.
In an attempt to deflect blame and suspicion, media outlets have also pushed unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. China’s mouthpiece The Global Times reported that the virus may have come from Italy, quoting Giuseppe Remuzzi, a Milan-based professor, who said doctors there saw “very strange” pneumonia cases there as early as November. The professor is also quoted as saying that: “it means that the virus was circulating at least in Lombardy before we were aware of this outbreak occurring in China.”
However, Remuzzi himself has since fired back at what he described as a textbook example of “propaganda”, accusing the CCP of twisting his words to suggest the coronavirus originated in Italy. Another theory circulating on Chinese social media platform Weibo is that the virus was actually introduced by a group of 300 US soldiers who had been in Wuhan in October. Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” Not a single one of these soldiers has tested positive for coronavirus.
It doesn’t matter whether these theories are supported by any real evidence – which they aren’t- because the goal is simply to plant the seed of doubt in people’s minds. That actually, maybe this ist China’s fault after all, its everyone else who is to blame. And domestically at least, it appears to be working. Professor Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics and governance, says that “to show that the Communist Party has done better, China’s government is using conspiracy theories that the virus was started by the US Army or Italy – a lot of people in China believe this now.”
Deng Yuwen, a former editor of the Study Times newspaper says that: “At first people were angry with the government for its handling of the epidemic”. He adds: “Then the virus spread across the world and death tolls were much higher elsewhere. People changed their minds partly because of what Xi did right, but more because of other countries’ failures.” And it’s true that the totalitarian regime of the CCP – when they did eventually act – were able to implement lockdown quicker and more effectively than any democratic system. After all, we are slowed down by our concerns for civil liberties. The world was stunned at their speed and efficiency when Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was placed into complete lockdown.
While it took extreme authoritarian measures, they suffered ‘less’ deaths and were able to start the economy again quickly. While other countries around the world, notably Italy, the UK and US delayed lockdowns and suffered the consequences. By constantly comparing the scale of the outbreak in China with the rest of the world, the government is feeding its people reasons to be grateful for their authoritarian government. Jessica Chen Weiss, a China expert at Cornell University says that: “The struggles of other countries have made it harder for liberals to argue democratisation is the solution to China’s ills.” The challenge for democracies will be to prove that cooperation is as effective as government control.
But here lies a problem. China outdoing the West in its handling of COVID-19 is predicated on the idea that their statistics are accurate. As of July 1 China, a population of 1.4 billion people has reported 83,537 cases and a mere 4,634 deaths. To give you some context the UK, with a population of 67 million has reported 313,483 cases and 43,906 deaths. 21 countries have now surpassed China’s case totals. A country that didn’t place Wuhan, the epicenter, into lockdown until January 23rd. An entire month after reports of the first cases. Italy also waited a month till it imposed a lockdown but ended up being nuked by the virus in a way that China wasn’t.
Obviously there are a lot of variables at play when making these comparisons, but does anyone with even a shred of common sense believe China with its incredibly dense population had so few cases and deaths? It’s simply impossible, unless of course they’ve found a secret cure or vaccine. Anecdotal media reports, most of which have now disappeared into a black hole, reported thousands of urns stacking up at funeral homes as they waited to be filled with the ashes of the dead. Pictures also circulated of long queues of family members waiting to collect ashes of cremated relatives. The true scale of the outbreak in China will of course never be known. It has been reported that during the first wave of disease, early January to mid-February, close to a quarter of a million people may have been infected – four times higher than the official figure.
International political and economic pressure is building on China. There is now global cry for an independent investigation into the chain of events that lead to this unprecedented crisis. It is in everyone’s interest to know what exactly caused the deaths of nearly 500,000 people and an economic crisis at levels unheard of since the great depression. Where did it come from, how did it spread, and why were we not warned earlier?
The CCP have agreed to an “objective and impartial” investigation on the basis it is led by the World Health Organisation. The Chinese ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming said “This review should be independent, free from politicisation, it should be based on science…the WHO should lead this independent review.” This is the same WHO that recklessly took information and data about the epidemic given to it by China at face value. Told world leaders that this wasn’t a pandemic; said there was no need for travel bans; and that there was no evidence of human to human transmission. Japan’s deputy prime minister, Taro Aso said the WHO should be renamed the “Chinese Health Organization” for the way it has pandered to China.
Throughout January, director general of the WHO Tedros Ghebreyesus heaped unqualified praise on China’s COVID-19 response and in particular the leadership of Xi Jinping. He publicly praised the “seriousness” with which China was taking the outbreak and “The commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated”. Tedros also said that: “In many ways, China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response”. Yet recordings of internal WHO meetings contradict this narrative. According to the recordings, WHO officials were frustrated that China was refusing to share information they needed to fight the spread of the deadly virus. “We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on [China Central] TV,” said Dr Gauden Galea, the WHO’s top official in China. The WHO’s terrible strategy of dealing with China was to publicly praise their response in the hope that appeasing their leaders might coax information out of them.
Of course the Chinese government would agree to support a motion backing an investigation into the origins of the pandemic, because it thinks it can play puppetmaster to the spineless WHO. A veteran Chinese investigative journalist was quoted as saying “It’s impossible to conduct an independent investigation under China’s political system” He added: “there is no way independent experts can access information from the government.” Sadly he’s right, there won’t be any real independent inquiry, but did anyone really think there would. It just makes for a bit of good PR.
The WHO seems to have fallen foul of the same trap many Western countries have when dealing with China. For too long, we have tried to appease a country that operates like North Korea, just with more money. China holds the purse strings and everyone wants their business, which it can and does use as leverage to get its own way. Really it says a lot about our own eroded society that we’ve been willing to get in bed with the CCP, never mind the corruption and human rights abuses. There’s more money in our pockets so we don’t really care about how a distant, foreign country far removed from our own operates. Now we see the fruits of our labours, what we’ve helped to create. A country that is very big, very powerful but not willing to act responsibly on the global stage.
The real root of the problem that COVID-19 has exposed is the lack of accountability the CCP faces. They are to a large degree responsible for one of the greatest humanitarian and economic crises of our lifetime. It is not the fault of a few rogue officials or US soldiers or Italy or whatever narrative they decide to go with one week. This is not an attack on the Chinese people, for they have suffered under this brutal regime. Many in the West seem to cower at the prospect of criticising the Chinese government for fears they might be labelled racist. The CCP is not a race however, it’s an authoritarian regime. And one that we should rightly criticise given the price we have had to pay.
The relationship we have had with them can no longer continue once this crisis fades into obscurity, which eventually it will. 2020 should serve as a wake up call that China is a country who doesn’t play fairly and is at complete odds with our liberal democracies that are committed to civil liberties, free trade and free markets. The CCP is not an ally but a strategic competitor; and that fact isn’t going to change any time soon.