HONG KONG – 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 new coronavirus now rampaging across the country 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, of which 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. Chinese President Xi Jinping himself acknowledged this, saying on Jan. 25, the first day of the year of the rat, that the spread of the deadly new virus was “accelerating.”
If taken weeks earlier, the virus could conceivably have been contained, but just four days after the Wuhan lockdown the number of cases had risen from 571 to more than 2,762 and the number of deaths had more than soared from 17 to 80. Now, every province in the country has been infected except Tibet.
Internationally, those affected include not only neighbors 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.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, said on Jan 23, “Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.” The WHO’s 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 health crisis since the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003, when Chinese officials covered up the extent and severity of the disease. SARS 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 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 Chinese Communist Party, of which 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 host major provincial meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference from the 12th to the 17th. Not surprisingly, provincial and municipal leaders did not welcome the publicity of an epidemic.
In the first week of January, police detained eight people for “spreading rumors” 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. Zhang, the day after the lockdown order, called on the Weibo social media 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 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 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 means it 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. Moreover, officials should 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.
Frank Ching is a U.S. journalist based in Hong Kong who frequently writes on China-related issues.