Coronavirus: There are lies, damned lies … and the Chinese Communist Party
Like Harland and Wolff, the builders of the Titanic, the Chinese government has adopted the line “It was fine when it left us”.
The Belfast shipbuilders stuck to that claim until the liquidators closed their shipyard 107 years later. Similarly, we can be sure the Chinese Communist Party will deny any responsibility for the coronavirus outbreak until its dying day, since autocratic elites are incapable of acknowledging mistakes, let alone learning from them.
“Only under the leadership of President Xi can there be such effective measures to put this sudden and fast-spreading epidemic under control.” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Reuters.
“China pulled this off.”
From the transmission of the virus from wild animals to humans, to the suppression of information that might have allowed it to be contained, everything about this story is stamped Made in China.
The authoritarian, top-down model of society that Beijing outrageously claims is the solution to the crisis was the reason it started. It is why it surprised no one to hear it emanated from Wuhan rather than, say, Wellington or Wallaroo. It is the reason why China took so long to check its spread and why health authorities in other countries put little faith in any information coming from Beijing.
Yet Yi’s audacious claim is not without supporters. John Pilger, for instance, claims the coronavirus is being used as an excuse for a US-backed war against China. “China’s response to the emergency has been a model,” he tweeted late last month.
It is doubtful that Pilger would have tweeted this had he been in Wuhan, the epicentre of the crisis. Indeed, it is doubtful he would have tweeted anything, since Twitter is banned in China, and the authorities began to quarantine unwelcome social media communication before they had quarantined the virus.
The Chinese live-streaming platform YY began censoring key words related to the coronavirus outbreak on New Year’s Eve, a day before the Wuhan Seafood Market was shut down and three weeks before Chinese health officials admitted human-to-human transmission.
Researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto demonstrated the effectiveness of social media censorship by sending sample messages on WeChat.
The message “Hello. US Centre for Disease Control says hand washing is more effective to prevent catch coronavirus than face masks” turned up in the recipient’s inbox as simply “Hello”.
Stamping down on personal autonomy demands techniques the communist regime has spent 71 years mastering. When a crisis breaks, the administration reaches to the only tool in its toolbox, the hammer.
Paradoxically, however, it was the flaws in China’s model civil society that put us in this position in the first place. Wuhan is a centre for the trade in endangered species from the west, and the pangolin is a particular delicacy.
The Chinese government’s decree a fortnight ago, “Eliminating the Bad Habits of Wild Animal Consumption and Protecting the Health and Safety of the People”, was an attempt to lock the gate after the pangolin had bolted.
The scaly anteater steamed with ginger and lemon is a favoured dish of the elite. Serving it to guests at around $800 a kg is a status symbol. Its scales are valued for their medicinal qualities.
The pangolin is the prime suspect in transmitting this disease to humans, according to Chinese researchers. We have no idea how true this is, like most the news from China that emerges from official channels.
China’s efforts to persuade the world that it is on top of the crisis are believed by almost no one.
The figures announced by the Hong Kong health department, on the other hand, are believed by almost everyone. As of Sunday there were 114 confirmed cases in the territory and two deaths, remarkable given Hong Kong shares a land border with China and is among the most population-dense places in the world.
The figures are believable because the Hong Kong authorities, unlike their friends over the border, put almost everything online. A click on an interactive Hong Kong map reveals a 35-year-old man living in Block 3, Grand Yoho, in Yuen Long was confirmed on February 22 as the 75th case and is now being treated in Tuen Mun Hospital.
The self-isolation of Hong Kong residents has come from the bottom up. Visitors entering from the mainland have been monitored and quarantined, but the self-isolation and other precautions taken by individuals are largely at their own initiative, rather than being enforced by edict.
Singapore (138 cases) has also managed to control the virus without resort to unnecessary repression. Taiwan (45 cases) is doing particularly well. The authorities invested heavily in prevention measures for pandemics after SARS killed 181 Taiwanese in 2003.
Taiwan’s response — low on compulsion, high on voluntary compliance — is so far the most successful of any country.
A malicious campaign from China on social media portrays Taiwan otherwise; as a nation in which bodies pile up on the streets and the military is crippled by illness. But, like everything that comes from the mainland, no one believes it.
China’s determination to blow its own trumpet would be laughable if it were not being accepted so unquestionably by those who should know better, including the World Health Organisation.
Reliable reports from inside China are becoming rarer. Li Zehua, who quit his job at state-run TV station CCTV to expose the reality of life inside the Wuhan lockdown zone, live-streamed his own arrest two weeks ago and hasn’t been heard of since. At least two other citizen journalists in Wuhan suffered the same fate.
If there was any doubt about the meaning of the democracy protests in Hong Kong, the coronavirus response spells it out.
Hong Kongers, like the rest of us, would rather live with an imperfect government dedicated to controlling the virus and protecting its citizens than under a regime intent on controlling the narrative to save its own skin.
Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre.