BEIJING/HONG KONG – A deadly new virus reminiscent of one of China’s biggest public health debacles has the country’s leaders rushing to keep another outbreak from becoming a political crisis.
After three weeks of revelations about a mysterious strain of coronavirus first detected in central China, President Xi Jinping stepped in personally Monday to order “all-out prevention and control efforts.” The government convened a series of task-force meetings, and a social media account affiliated with the Communist Party’s top law enforcement body warned that officials who withheld information would be “nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.”
The high-level response came as China’s internet flooded with worried comparisons between the disease and the SARS outbreak that killed 800 people across Asia 17 years ago. China’s delay in reporting that outbreak was blamed for allowing the disease to spread unchecked and fueled suspicions about public health protections in the world’s most populous country.
Now the first confirmed infections of health workers — suggesting that the pathogen is highly infectious — have prompted the World Health Organization to raise it to a risk level on par with SARS.
China confirmed Wednesday that 440 people have been infected domestically — up by more than 100 from the previous day — and acknowledged that the outbreak, which has already killed nine, is rapidly spreading within its borders. All the deaths have occurred in Hubei province, whose capital is Wuhan.
At a news conference, the National Health Commission pointed to an expert view that the virus can be passed between humans and could mutate to spread further.
The news conference was the central government’s first since reports of mysterious pneumonia cases in Wuhan surfaced in late December, and apparently signals Beijing’s commitment to information disclosure.
The Cabinet-level commission stressed that the country will step up international cooperation in containing the outbreak.
The vice minister of the commission, Li Bin, told the news conference the recent jump in confirmed cases can be attributed to improved detection methods and a deeper understanding of the disease.
Outside China, cases have been confirmed in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and in recent rapid succession Taiwan, which reported its first case on Tuesday; Macao, which on Wednesday confirmed its first case in a businesswoman from Wuhan; Hong Kong, which also confirmed its first case on Wednesday; and the United States — the first case confirmed outside Asia.
And the stakes are getting higher: Hundreds of millions of Chinese are preparing to fly around the world for the Lunar New Year holidays, the world’s largest human migration.
“China’s leaders had to upgrade the security level of the crisis to ensure the stability of Chinese society and also because of China’s international reputation,” said Wang Peng, associate research fellow at Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies. “The virus has the potential to negatively impact China’s image.”
Governments around the world were taking precautions to prevent the disease’s spread. In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose country is a favorite destination of Chinese tourists, on Tuesday pledged increased quarantines and testing at ports of entry. U.S. officials last week instituted screenings in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Singapore, a global travel hub, started screening all passengers arriving on flights from China on Wednesday.
The Communist Party faces deep skepticism over its commitment to oversight following a number of high-profile incidents over the past few decades. Besides SARS, Chinese leaders have come under fire for their response to a contaminated milk scandal in 2008, a high-speed train crash in 2011 and revelations about bad vaccines in 2018.
Unlike his predecessors two decades ago, Xi must also contend with widespread social media use and a bigger, more demanding middle class. For now, the country’s powerful censors appeared willing to let some debate continue.
On Tuesday, many Chinese internet users shared posts demanding more transparency about the outbreak than SARS, with some questioning the time it took to alert the public and the government’s initial focus on stopping “rumors.” A Beijing News editorial urging a better update system got more than 100,000 views on WeChat, the country’s ubiquitous messaging platform.
In response, the party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper carried a front-page editorial on Tuesday supporting Xi’s call for action. The president stressed the need to inform the public of official policies to “safeguard social stability.” Premier Li Keqiang instructed departments to “spare no effort” to counter the outbreak, and a social media account under the party’s Central Politics and Law Commission pledged to punish officials who withheld information.
Liu Heng, a Cabinet adviser, told reporters Wednesday that whereas it had taken China four or five months to announce the SARS outbreak to the public, this time it had taken less than a month. “We are doing much better now. … We are paying greater attention to preventing the epidemic,” he said.
Li Bin, the health commission vice minister, said that since 2003, China had established comprehensive new procedures to handle major health threats.
A key factor watched by experts has been the rapid disclosure of information about the genetic structure of the virus and the way it has spread through the population.
Li said Beijing had learned from its experiences with SARS and is now sharing all relevant data with WHO and others.
International health experts have been largely positive about China’s early response, which has demonstrated efforts to build a stronger nationwide health infrastructure in the wake of SARS.
“The initial response has been quite rapid and hopefully effective,” said David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who was formerly with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “They have made great progress.”
Still, the virus’ spread has citizens taking measures into their own hands, with more pedestrians and travelers wearing masks in the capital and elsewhere.
Fu King-wa, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre who tracks Chinese censorship, said mainland internet users appear starved for information about what precautions they should take. Censored posts included links to foreign or Hong Kong news articles, including those containing estimates and outbreak sites beyond what has been released by China, Fu said.
“In general, the government is using the traditional Chinese Communist Party approach,” Fu said. The goal is “to control the information, to control the media, to control the narrative and to give the people the idea that the government is handling the issue,” he said.
The risk of a public health emergency damaging the top leadership has only increased under Xi, who has taken more direct oversight over economic and national security issues than his predecessors. That means there is no one else to blame if people decide the current outbreak has been mismanaged, said Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies and author of numerous books on Chinese politics.
“He’s supposed to be the chairman of everything ranging from finance to health and so forth,” Lam said. “But so far things have not been working out very well, in both economic figures and other measurements of public administration.”