Commentary / World

An independent COVID-19 investigation is an imperative

How states respond to a regional or international crisis whose origin is in their borders says much about their potential to be a cooperative, credible and trusted global partner.

A useful example in the COVID-19 pandemic is comparing Japan and China’s responses to crises that emerged in their countries and how they responded to domestic and international demands for accountability, transparency and responsive public policy.

In the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the International Atomic Energy Agency conducted a thorough investigation into the causes and consequences of the accident.

“The report considers human, organizational and technical factors, and aims to provide an understanding of what happened and why, so that the necessary lessons learned can be acted upon by governments, regulators and nuclear power plant operators throughout the world,” said Yukiya Amano, the IAEA director general at the time.

Among its many findings, the report found that the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant “exposed certain weaknesses in Japan’s regulatory framework. Responsibilities were divided among a number of bodies and it was not always clear where authority lay.”

At the domestic level, the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (which ran from December 2011 to July 2012) was formed to investigate the causes of the accident, both direct and indirect.They found that the accident was “a real man-made disaster,” and that the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., “failed to adopt recommendations by the IAEA and the common nuclear safeguards being adopted by Japan’s nuclear peers in France, the U.K. and the U.S.”

The response of the Japanese government and citizens was not obfuscation of the truth or nationalistic hubris questioning why the world was critical of Japan’s response. Rather, although imperfectly, citizens pressured the government for more transparency and to continue the shutdown of nuclear power plants.

We also saw citizens mobilize online, in their communities at the local level and nationally, not to mention forming a transnational coalition, to abolish nuclear power. This mobilization included scholars at Japanese and foreign universities in the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, public policy and political science among others using their expertise to identify the causes of the crisis and their social implications.

The government also embraced, although reluctantly, many of the concerns and criticisms aimed at successive governments and nuclear power stakeholders for their negligence resulting in the tragic and still lingering consequences of the crisis at Fukushima No. 1.

While not an ideal response to the national and international investigation, what is salient about the Japanese government’s and citizens’ response is that they used the crisis to improve their systems of governance so that the likelihood of another accident due to negligence and problems with the crisis management system have decreased. Of course, more should and needs to be done.

Fast-forward to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have seen Australia call for an independent international investigation into the initial period of the outbreak in China.

The purpose is clear — to acquire a better understanding of the institutional and decision-making problems that led to the current global health crisis and likely long-term economic downturn as countries around the world attempt to recalibrate and reorganize their economies and societies to manage the negative, comprehensive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australia’s courageous and legitimate call for an independent international investigation has been viciously criticized by the Chinese government and condemned widely online by Chinese netizens as racist, discrimination and an attack on the dignity of China and Chinese citizens. We have even had China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, threaten Australia with economic coercion by calling on the “Chinese public” to avoid Australian products and universities if Australia pursues the initiative.

These threats against Australia and other countries that would participate in any investigation are highly questionable in terms of their purpose, their end goal and in terms of China becoming a country known to be reliable, transparent and a cooperative partner in building institutions that could contribute to mitigating future global crises.

What is there to hide from an independent, international investigation? Why is it necessary to threaten countries that are only striving to achieve better global governance on issues that are central to the socio-economic stability and health of the global community?

An even more interesting question is why calls for an investigation have been interpreted as racist, discriminatory and an attempt to keep China down?

China’s pursuit of its the twin goals of realizing “socialist modernization” by 2035 and to “have built a modern socialist country that is strong, prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” by 2049 will require more transparency, accountability and adherence to the rule of law, not less.

If China is going to continue its reform and opening-up process, it will need to find ways to inculcate credibility in its institutions, including the organization and decision-making process of the Chinese Communist Party so that it can develop better crisis management mechanisms to prevent a localized event from turning into a national or global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Zhang Wei Wei, the China studies director at Fudan University, argues that the CCP is completely different from Western political parties and that it aims at representing the interests of most of the population in China.

If that is the case, picking and choosing what is posted online, especially when it is aimed at saving the lives of Chinese citizens, seems not to represent the interests of most of the Chinese population. By engaging in mass censorship of the Chinese internet, the CCP prevented civil society from mobilizing to share information on the crisis, to promote transparency during the initial outbreak, and to demand accountability of local and national leaders.

To earn credibility and trust abroad, China needs to learn from the successes and failures of Japan’s response to the Fukushima nuclear accident as well as the response of other countries to their failures in crisis management.

Fukushima unleashed a proactive civil society and scholarly community that pushed the Japanese government to be more responsive, more accountable, more in touch with the consequences of the disaster but also more aware of the organizational and cultural problems that led to the catastrophe.

Thanks to this interaction of citizens, scholars and, importantly, no-holds-barred investigations, Japan is arguably in a better place today.

Reflecting on the saying by Chinese sage Confucius that “real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance,” it seems Confucius would deem an independent investigation into the COVID-19 outbreak in China an opportunity to strengthen China’s governance system, to bring invaluable public good to its citizens and — to achieve one of China’s longstanding strategic objectives — to moderate the suspicion and concerns of states in and out of China’s backyard about the nature of its rise.

Achieving the “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation will require the courage to face the shortcomings that led to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is why an independent, international investigation should not be a choice for China but an imperative to contribute to national rejuvenation based on the principle of transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.

Coronavirus banner