How China rewrote coronavirus history
‘The Americans might have played tricks’ ... China seems to have reshaped the memory of its citizens about the virus origins.
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: AP
- From Inquirer
May 9, 2020
- 4 MINUTE READ
This is the second part of a five-part investigation by Cameron Stewart and Will Glasgow on China and the coronavirus. Read part one here ; part three here; part four here; and part five here
The Chinese Communist Party’s mighty propaganda apparatus seems to have been effective at shaping the collective memory of many of its 1.4 billion citizens about the origins of the new coronavirus. “No one wants China to be strong. The Americans might have played tricks,” a 40-something Beijinger tells The Weekend Australian as he waits in his removalist van.
It is a common opinion in China’s capital.
“I believe it’s from America,” says an e-commerce delivery driver around the corner as he packs boxes into a three-wheel motorbike. A young waitress at a nearby Jiangxi restaurant agrees. “There are more cases there,” she explains, adding that the virus may have been undetected in the US for months before it spread around the world.
The scientific consensus on the other side of the great firewall is that the virus most likely began in Wuhan, the capital of the central Chinese province of Hubei.
One of the first people known to be infected with what is now called COVID-19 was Wei Guixian, a 57-year-old prawn seller in downtown Wuhan’s notorious South China Seafood Wholesale Market, who first started feeling sick on December 10. As Wei’s symptoms worsened, her mind turned to what her encounter with the People’s Republic of China’s user-pays healthcare system was going to cost her. Working-class people in China’s rival superpower — tens of millions of whom are without health insurance — experienced the same anxiety when the coronavirus first started spreading in the US in the following months.
Concern about the cost of treatment likely delayed the identification of the new virus by weeks, as it spread among Wuhan’s working class late last year. Once it acknowledged the severity of the crisis, China’s government waived fees for COVID-19 treatment.
Wei was right to worry. Her three weeks in the Wuhan hospital network — which saw her moved from a local clinic to the Red Cross Hospital and eventually to the better-equipped Xiehe Hospital — cost her 70,000 yuan (more than $15,000), a tremendous sum for a vendor whose market remains closed five months later.
While she entered with financial concerns, Wei was discharged from Xiehe Hospital with a conviction that China’s governance system should have acted sooner.
“A lot fewer people would have died,” she told The Wall Street Journal in an interview conducted weeks before most of the masthead’s reporters in mainland China were expelled.
Almost a month before China’s government admitted as much, it was clear to Wei that the virus was spreading from human to human. One of her daughters, a niece, the niece’s husband and dozens of her co-workers at the market became infected.
China’s secretive, hierarchical political system discourages bad news. Its secrecy made for a perfect petri dish as the highly infectious and deadly coronavirus spread around Hubei — just as it had back in November 2002 when COVID-19’s sister coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome, emerged in the southern province of Guangdong.
In some ways, that secrecy problem has become even worse as Xi Jinping’s central administration has further entrenched the party’s overseeing role in the world’s most populous country. When Xi’s cadres swear in their joining oath that they will “keep the party’s secrets”, they are expected to mean it. The oath holds even during an emerging pandemic, as Ai Fen, the head of the emergency department at Wuhan Central, discovered late on January 1.
“You are the sinner who affects the stability and unity of Wuhan,” a party official at the hospital thundered at her. “You are the culprit that undermines the development of Wuhan.”
The exchange was one of a number of extraordinary revelations by Chinese journalists that were promptly purged by state censors.
‘You are the sinner who affects the stability and unity of Wuhan’
Ai was one of the first doctors to make the link between the new coronavirus and the nearby South China Seafood Wholesale Market. She also had a rising caseload that proved in late December that the disease was transmitting from person to person, something that was not acknowledged publicly by China for three deadly weeks.
She had arranged for a laboratory to test the mysterious disease. Sharing the results of that test with her colleagues after it returned on December 30 was what had earned Ai her rebuke. One of the Wuhan Central hospital colleagues she shared it with was Li Wenliang, the 33-year-old eye doctor and party member, whose death from the coronavirus on February 7 unleashed an extraordinary emotional response throughout China.
Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. Picture: Supplied
Li posted what he had learned about the SARS-like illness in a closed message group on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform that is monitored by the country’s censorship regime.
Despite being the world’s most famous COVID-19 victim — and later being embraced by the party as a “martyr” after he was earlier denounced by police for “spreading rumours” — Li did not feature in the detailed timeline about China’s handling of the virus that was produced by the party’s news agency Xinhua.
The English translation of that timeline, carefully overseen by the party’s powerful propaganda department, ran to more than 21,000 words. Comrade Xi Jinping was mentioned 66 times, beginning with the “instructions” the official account records he first gave on January 7.
Revealing the Chinese government’s continuing unease about what happened at the pandemic’s origin, the timeline begins vaguely.
The first entry is imprecisely stamped “Late December 2019” when the “Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in central China’s Hubei Province detected cases of pneumonia of unknown cause”.
As well as airbrushing Li, the official Chinese state account entirely purged the efforts of the medical professionals in Wuhan who tried to alert authorities to the new disease, only to be suppressed.