As the world struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak without triggering a new Great Depression, China is withholding vital information that would save lives and significantly alleviate the economic catastrophe that now threatens to immiserate hundreds of millions of people around the world.
This isn’t the old coverup, when Communist Party bumbling and deceit allowed a local outbreak to turn into the worst global disaster in decades. The new coverup is even more brazen. China continues to falsify vital information about the epidemic on a massive scale.
The evidence comes from many sources. In a classified report to the White House, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that China underreports both deaths and the total number of cases. The Economist magazine compared China’s reported statistics with those from other countries and found that numbers changed dramatically in response to political events, such as the firing and replacement of local officials. Using conservative figures and assumptions, a report by Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute estimates 2.9 million total cases in China, rather than the total of about 82,000 Beijing reports. If Mr. Scissors is right, the number of cases that China has concealed is greater than the total number of cases reported in the rest of the world.
These data matter. Without accurate information about the number and location of cases, including asymptomatic cases from China, it is much harder for the rest of the world to understand basic facts about the disease and its spread. And the absence of accurate information from China makes it much more difficult to know when it is safe to lift lockdowns.
The near-total shutdown and gradual restarting of a complex modern economy is something that has never been done before. No one could reasonably expect Beijing or any other government to get everything or even most things right on a first effort, but access to real information about what is happening in China could save many other countries from making costly mistakes. Just as in December and January China’s official culture of secrecy unleashed a terror on the world, so now that same culture weighs down the world’s efforts to cope.
Encouragingly, cooperation between U.S. and Chinese scientists studying the coronavirus is in better shape. Doctors everywhere are working to understand and treat this mysterious illness as part of an unprecedented global effort toward a singular goal. Earlier this month, leading Chinese scholars called for the U.S. and China to work together to fight the disease. A group of leading American scholars and former policy makers called for the same.
But even as some scientists and scholars work together, Beijing continues to withhold vital information from its own people and the rest of the world. China’s doctors, scientists and independent journalists are earning a global reputation for competence, honesty and courage; the government’s actions will damage China’s global standing for years to come.
What worries Beijing most is public opinion at home. The two sources of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy—its technocratic skill and its ability to increase China’s prestige abroad—are challenged both by the epidemic and the government’s flailing response to it.
After seven decades in power, the party still depends on a governance system that combines arbitrary rule, brutal repression, eye-popping corruption and massive levels of deception, fraud and abuse. The coronavirus outbreak, concealed as long as possible from the higher-ups by the usual self-dealing cliques of local officials, cruelly exposed the gap between the imposing image Beijing seeks to project and the gritty, unsavory realities of one-party rule.
To divert public attention, China’s rulers reverted to their standard playbook: concealing information, squelching discussion of the disaster, and whipping up nationalist sentiment. The trouble is that the steps Beijing saw as necessary to shore up its power at home have dramatically worsened China’s economic prospects and its international reputation.
China, which became a major world power by using and sometimes abusing free-trade rules and global supply chains, has now taken an ax to the roots of its own business model. If the cost of doing business in China includes increased exposure to ruinous shocks like the pandemic, “Made in China” doesn’t pay. And if Beijing can lie so vociferously and implausibly about the pandemic, can private investors or foreign governments ever rely on its promises?
The world doesn’t need propaganda shipments of often unusable Chinese medical equipment; the world needs Beijing to tell the truth. Unfortunately, China can’t level with the world without leveling with its own people. That is the one thing the party can never do.