Commentary

Will COVID-19 be China’s Chernobyl?

As the COVID-19 virus spread through China, “Chernobyl,” a hit docudrama in the United States last year, attracted growing interest from Chinese viewers. One chatroom post read: “People’s safety depends far more upon securing free information than on aircraft carriers, moon landings or a country’s superpower status.”

The docudrama centers on the April 26, 1986, nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.

The Chernobyl accident remains the worst nuclear disaster in history. An explosion at the power plant’s No. 4 reactor discharged huge amounts of radioactive materials into the air, and prompted the evacuation and migration of 160,000 people. Fifty people, including plant operating staff, firefighters and other first responders to the accident, died from radiation exposure, while another 4,000 went on to die of radiation-related illnesses. Five years after the accident, the Soviet Union collapsed.

Will COVID-19 prove to be China’s Chernobyl? The virus has spread to cause a global pandemic. We still cannot predict how the situation can be brought fully under control. What is clear is that the virus has exposed the structural vulnerabilities of the Communist Party system in China.

First, the Chinese Communist Party presents itself as the sole embodiment of legitimacy, justice and infallibility. This means it is reluctant to acknowledge mistakes. China’s leaders avoid “bad news” and scorn the idea of sharing such news with Chinese citizens.

The Chinese government notified the World Health Organization of infections from the new virus on Dec. 31, 2019. It did not deliver the same news to its own citizens until Jan. 20. For almost a month, Chinese citizens were not given accurate information essential to their very survival.

Similarly, Sweden was the first to announce that it had detected an abnormal increase in radioactivity after the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The announcement of the accident by the Soviet state-run media came several hours after the news from Sweden — and three days after the accident itself.

Political systems that so detest “bad news” naturally develop a tendency to blame the messenger. In this case, Beijing placed the blame on the leaders of the city of Wuhan and Hubei province. After the Chernobyl accident, six plant operators and firefighters were swiftly punished, even before an investigation into the accident. The Chernobyl plant director was expelled from the party and imprisoned.

Second, communist systems prioritize their political agenda above all else. Between Jan. 6 and 17, Wuhan hosted its own 14th People’s Congress. “Bad news” was most unwelcome during this time.

At the time of the Chernobyl accident, plans for a May Day parade in Kiev obstructed efforts at crisis management. The party head in Ukraine considered canceling the parade, but Moscow ordered the parade to continue as scheduled, fearing the panic that would ensue if the parade was called off. Conspicuously absent from the parade were important figures within the energy industry and their families. These people already knew that doses of radioactivity were rising in Kiev.

The greatest test facing China’s leaders concerns the standards and procedures for the evacuation and quarantine of residents. Many of Wuhan’s 11 million residents left the city before it was placed under lockdown on Jan. 23. In the eight hours of pandemonium between the Jan. 22 announcement of a lockdown and its implementation, 5 million residents fled the city.

After the Chernobyl accident, Ukrainian officials clashed with central party leaders in Moscow over the question of whether to evacuate the children of Kiev. Moscow opposed mass evacuation on the grounds that it would create widespread panic, but local officials proceeded with the evacuation.

Subsequently, an emergent liberal environmental group joined party conservatives who had become increasingly disgruntled with Soviet leadership to form a common front against Moscow. The political linkages forged in the wake of Chernobyl and rooted in an appreciation for life and the environment became a powerful force propelling Ukraine’s subsequent independence movement.

The Chinese Red Cross was paralyzed by a severe shortage of masks. New nongovernmental organizations emerged to distribute masks directly in affected areas, but they were made to feel unwelcome. Indeed, any other political party, NGO, charitable organization or volunteer is nothing but an eyesore to the CCP. To acknowledge their necessity would be to raise suspicions about the government’s unique abilities, authority and legitimacy. The CCP does not welcome popular heroes.

Yet this time a hero did emerge: a Wuhan doctor, Li Wenliang. On Dec. 30, Li sent a message to fellow doctors in an online chatroom, warning them of the possible outbreak of a new SARS-like illness. Late that very night, Li was summoned to appear before authorities, and three days later he was forced to sign a letter of admonition that denounced his warning as an “illegal rumor.”

Li subsequently devoted himself to treating patients infected with COVID-19 and ended up contracting the virus himself. He died on Feb. 7 at the age of 34, leaving behind his pregnant wife, who was also infected by the virus, and a 5-year old son.

One week before Li’s death, he gave an interview from his hospital bed to the Chinese media outlet Caixin. During this interview, he said something that the people of China will never forget: “I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.”

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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