KUALA LUMPUR – It’s a familiar and ominous story. A deadly pathogen with no known cure begins spreading in China. Rather than acknowledge the problem, officials throughout the Chinese government shut down media coverage while underreporting infection and mortality rates for fear of career and political repercussions. Just as the true scale of the epidemic emerges, Chinese officials declare victory.
In 2002 and 2003, that was roughly the course of the deadly, incurable SARS pandemic that emerged in southern China and disrupted global travel, commerce and health. In 2018 and 2019, it’s an accurate description of how China has mismanaged an epidemic of African swine fever that’s on course to kill 130 million pigs — or roughly one-third of China’s herd, the biggest in the world.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Post-SARS, China supposedly reformed its system so that secrecy, careerism and concerns over the country’s international image wouldn’t again take precedence over public health. Thankfully African swine fever only affects pigs. But the epidemic highlights how hard old habits die, and how systemically unprepared China is to report and manage the inevitable next epidemic that kills people.
For decades, the Chinese government’s top priority has been the preservation of social stability. Mainly this is promoted through economic development policies designed to enrich and placate China’s vast population, especially in the countryside. Meanwhile, events that the government views as potentially threatening tend to be suppressed. For example, in 1976 the government censored reporting on the Tangshan earthquake, a catastrophic event that killed more than 500,000 people, for fear of how the public would react to the death toll and the government’s inadequate response.
That preference for secrecy in the face of natural and human-made disasters didn’t dissipate in the wake of China’s economic opening. In fact, it has strengthened over the decades as the government has prioritized economic growth as the all-purpose solution to China’s ills. Insofar as news about natural disasters might inhibit investment and disrupt business, it’s clearly unwelcome.
Meanwhile, China’s hierarchical system remains fragmented and autonomous below the top levels of power. Despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts at bureaucratic reform, this chaotic structure tends to bog down policymaking and confuse lines of authority. For example, during the SARS crisis in 2002 and 2003, the Ministry of Health was politically subservient to provincial governments and its recommendations were viewed as guidelines, not directives. Likewise, provincial governments had limited obligations to communicate with the Ministry of Health or the central government.
The result was an uncoordinated political process in which local officials prioritized provincial needs — most notably, promoting growth (and thereby, their own careers) — rather than calling attention to the emerging epidemic. The Communist Party also proved reluctant to distract officials and the public from a politically crucial Party Congress. The immediate needs of the public, insofar as they were considered at all, were subservient to the needs of the bureaucracy.
At first glance, African swine fever doesn’t seem to have much in common with the SARS pandemic. But, from the perspective of officials, it’s also a serious threat to social stability. In China, where pork is the staple protein, rising pork prices play an outsize role in the country’s inflation rate. That fact appears to be undercutting post-SARS reforms intended to create more transparency during natural disasters. In recent months, there have been numerous reports of pig death undercounts and cover-ups, and widespread efforts to suppress and censor news coverage while promoting a false narrative that the epidemic is under control (it’s not).
While the outbreak may not be as immediately dangerous to humans as SARS, the official response should worry Chinese, as well as public health authorities globally. Thanks to its geographic position on migratory bird routes, its vast and largely unregulated livestock industry and its weak public health institutions, China is a prime candidate to serve as the incubator for the next pandemic capable of killing millions of humans. Ensuring that Beijing responds to that epidemic in a responsible manner must be a global priority.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist based in Asia and the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”