Cult of Xi Jinping increases risks of Wuhan coronavirus
China’s President Xi Jinping has acknowledged that the “accelerating spread” of a new coronavirus from the central Chinese city of Wuhan is a “grave situation”. To stop the virus’s spread, the Chinese government has barred residents of Wuhan and nearby cities from travelling and blocked outbound flights, trains, buses and ferries. But if this develops into a catastrophe, the cult of personality around Xi and the communist regime’s efforts to control information will deserve much of the blame.
For a precedent, look back to 1918 when the Spanish flu broke out amid World War I. In the US, government officials and the press played it down lest it hurt the war effort. While the Los Angeles health chief declared there was “no cause for alarm” and a leading newspaper described the disease as the “same old fever and chills”, people were dying in their thousands.
The name Spanish flu was a misnomer. In the countries where it originally surfaced — France, China and the US — the news was suppressed by censorship and self-censorship to maintain wartime morale. (China sent only civilian labourers to the battlefield, but it declared war on Germany in August 1917.) Not until King Alphonse XIII of neutral Spain fell ill did news of the virus spread.
Between the spring of 1918 and early 1919, three waves of Spanish flu tore across the planet, facilitated by censorship and secrecy. The results were catastrophic: 50 million people died worldwide, including 15,000 in Australia in one year.
But before the advent of mass air travel, Australia back then was fortunate to have time to prepare. According to the National Museum Australia, the flu was spread quickly at the end of World War I as infected soldiers returned to their homelands.
As the virus — and, importantly, news of it — spread around the world, Australia’s remoteness from the European battlefields gave it months to prepare for the inevitable onslaught.
A conference to plan for an outbreak involving health officials and all state health ministers agreed to a national response, including a public awareness campaign and plans for tent hospitals at football grounds and military barracks. When the flu arrived at the end of 1918, quarantine barriers were already being put into action.
There has been no time for such planning on this occasion.
Because the Chinese Communist Party cares more about its social control than the wellbeing of China’s people, a recurrence of 1918 is possible today. The Chinese authorities have been praised for being transparent and co-operative, including by publishing the sequence of the viruses they have isolated. But in other respects Beijing’s behaviour has heightened the risk.
China has no independent media and strict censorship even in peacetime. The virus has spread to Xinjiang, where the government holds more than a million Uighurs in densely populated “re-education centres”.
Meanwhile, Chinese police are interrogating people for “spreading rumours” on social media about the virus. Two days before Wuhan’s government disclosed the severity of the outbreak, it hosted shared “potluck” banquets for more than 100,000 people. On January 10, a government expert told state network CCTV the virus was “under control” and a “mild condition”. Wuhan’s biggest newspaper didn’t put the outbreak on its front page until almost three weeks after the first cases.
Analysts suspect the actual number of infected is thousands higher than the more than 2700 presently confirmed. The lesson of 1918 is that secrecy can kill. Chinese communism now threatens the world with a massive medical disaster.
The Wall Street Journal
Paul Wolfowitz is a former US deputy secretary for defence; Max Frost is a senior associate in foreign and defence policy at the American Enterprise Institute.