Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
China’s decision to lock down the central city of Wuhan – with more people than London or New York – in a dramatic attempt to halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus shocked even the World Health Organization, whose representative said a move to “contain a city of 11 million people is new to science.”
Other decisive acts followed and, by Sunday, more than 56 million people in Hubei province (where Wuhan is the capital) were quarantined, with many other cities taking their own steps to isolate the virus.
While such actions show determination, they may have come too late. President Xi Jinping himself acknowledged this, saying on Saturday, the first day of the year of the rat, that the spread of the deadly new virus was “accelerating.”
If actions were taken weeks earlier, the virus could conceivably have been contained. But, just four days after the Wuhan lockdown, the number of cases had risen to nearly 3,000 from 571 and the number of deaths had more than soared, to 100 from 17. Now, every province in the country has been infected except Tibet.
Internationally, those affected include not only neighbours such as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, but also Australia, the United States, Canada and Europe – not to mention Hong Kong and Macau.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, said last Thursday, “Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.” Its risk assessment at the time was very high in China, high at the regional level, and high at the global level.
This is China’s first major health crisis since the SARS epidemic of 2002-03, when Chinese officials covered up the extent and severity of the disease, which also started in China before spreading overseas, sickening more than 8,000 people worldwide, with nearly 800 fatalities.
Much progress has been made by China since then. This time around, Chinese scientists were able to come up with the genome sequence of the new coronavirus and share that information with the world body.
China is also much more open this time around, certainly since Mr. Xi became personally involved on Jan. 20, when he called for effective measures to contain the disease, saying that people’s health should be treated as a top priority.
The problem is that the Communist Party, of which Mr. Xi is the leader, has other top priorities, in particular political stability, and anything seen as undermining stability is suppressed.
January was an especially sensitive month for Wuhan, with the city set to play host to major provincial meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference from Jan. 12 to 17. Not surprisingly, provincial and municipal leaders did not welcome publicity of an epidemic.
In the first week of January, police detained eight people for “spreading rumours” online and harming social stability by saying there was an epidemic. Reporters were forbidden to write about the new disease and journalists who criticized officials for suppressing information were victimized.
One telling case was that of reporter Zhang Ouya of the Hubei Daily, the official provincial party newspaper. Mr. Zhang, the day after the lockdown order, called on the Weibo social-media platform for a leadership change in the city. The situation, he said, is steadily deteriorating and, for the sake of Wuhan, “I hope that the leader is changed immediately.”
Within hours, he was denounced by his newspaper, which issued an abject apology to the party committee. The Hubei Daily promised to punish Mr. Zhang “according to disciplinary rules” and “prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”
This new coronavirus crisis, like SARS, underlines a systemic problem within China. The problem is that the priority attached to stability means that the state seeks to control all information.
When an issue arises, it seems, the system’s obsession with controlling information isn’t flexible enough to prevent a crisis from developing, especially when lower level officials fear for their career if they report truthfully on the situation to central government leaders.
The solution is to be found in greater transparency. Officials should also be encouraged to speak their minds rather than fear being reprimanded for speaking truth to power. This has much to do with the man at the top, who sets the pace. He must be confident enough in himself and in his subordinates to encourage them to say what they really think, rather than say what they think he wants to hear.
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