From almost the very beginning of the COVID-19/coronavirus crisis in January and early February, it’s often been asked whether it might be the “Chinese Chernobyl.” Could the crisis expose the weakness of the mix of oppression, information control, and social disgust that underpin the Chinese Communist regime and trigger its collapse? Others have suggested that it might instead be “president Xi Jinping’s Tiananmen,” meaning he will use all the tools at his disposal to tighten down and prevent, well . . . a Chinese Chernobyl.
It is too soon to know what may happen. But it’s not too soon for attempts to whitewash the timeline and Chinese-government actions in the earliest moments of the crisis. Indeed, even now, the level of public anxiety about both the virus and what the Chinese government is doing and saying about it remain high.
It is helpful to review the current status and the timeline that got us here. On Monday, February 24, the World Health Organization determined that reported cases of COVID-19/coronavirus had peaked. At the time, there were about 76,000 reported cases in China, and about 1,800 cases elsewhere in the world. In the United States, there were 14 reported cases. As of March 7, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and state and local public health reporting suggest the number is more than 300 cases, a twenty-fold increase. Globally, there are more than 100,000 cases, with more than 350 deaths in Italy alone.
The world has barely begun to reckon with what the Chinese government claims to have gotten under control. It’s true that forced quarantining and other extreme measures in China played a critical role. The World Health Organization report of its February mission to China praises the PRC for its response: “The response structures in China were rapidly put in place according to existing emergency plans and aligned from the top to the bottom. This was replicated at the four levels of government (national, provincial, prefecture and county/district).” The leader of the World Health Organization mission to China in February, Canadian epidemiologist Dr. Bruce Aylward, encouraged the world to “access the expertise of China,” adding that “if I had COVID-19, I’d want to be treated in China.”
But the WHO report and subsequent reporting about what the world can learn from China represents a real-time cleansing of the actual record, a record that includes intentional obfuscation and failure to respond in the early stages of the crisis. This includes the government’s early attempts to stifle communication about the virus, the censorship of doctors and others on social media as cases were being observed in late December, and the continuing suppression of information on social media across the country about how the government, from President Xi Jinping to local administrators, continues to mislead the public and the rest of the world.
On March 3, researchers at the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy published “Censured Contagion,” a report that meticulously documents a timeline and body of facts that paint quite a different picture than the WHO report, and placing WHO’s accolades for China’s “response structures” that were “rapidly put in place” in doubt. The WHO report concludes that the beginning of the epidemic was December 30, 2019, with the collection of samples from a pneumonia patient in Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital. Data provided in graphics in the report show essentially zero cases before that date.
Yet the Munk School researchers found that censorship of certain keywords in social media had already begun by then. They highlight social-media reports during the prior week by doctors reporting an unknown pathogen, linking it to the Wuhan seafood market. By December 31, social-media channels, including WeChat, were already censoring the terms “Wuhan seafood market” and “unknown Wuhan pneumonia.”
As careful as the recent Munk School report is, its essential elements were available to WHO researchers before they made their February 16-24 trip and wrote their report praising the PRC response. On February 1, the Washington Post published a story excoriating Beijing’s early handling of the outbreak. The story includes anecdotes consistent with the Munk School analysis, such as how the Wuhan Public Security Bureau on New Year’s Day had begun detaining people for “spreading ‘rumours’ about Wuhan hospitals receiving SARS-like cases.” The government-controlled Xinhua News Agency, the Post reported, called on those online to “jointly build a harmonious, clear and bright cyberspace.”
WHO and its director-general, the Ethiopian politician Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have received criticism for their own response to the crisis. Michael Collins at the Council on Foreign Relations labeled it a joint “dereliction of duty” in a searing blog post in late February. Collins correctly concludes that WHO “laundered” the PRC record, damaging its own credibility by doing so.
The most galling result of that image-burnishing is the ubiquity of coverage — and repetition by third parties who don’t care to find out the truth — to the effect that the world should actually thank the PRC for its strong reaction, because it bought the world the necessary time to prepare for the challenge. Science magazine online, the publication of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, posed the question this week: “Can China’s COVID-19 strategy work elsewhere?” This is just one example.
This reflects what we already know about the Chinese government. It is developing into a modern state, one whose public-health system has significantly advanced from its ordeal with the SARS epidemic just 20 years ago. Per capita wealth is up more than 300 percent, and the Chinese share of the global GDP has more than doubled, from about 7 percent to more than 16 percent over the same period.
Alongside that growth and progress, though, China under President Xi is ever more repressive. It uses some of the most sophisticated technology in the world simply to control its population. That includes Internet censorship, social-media monitoring and tracking of ordinary citizens, and the mass detention of Muslims and other minorities.
But Chinese government face-saving is not stopping at the Chinese border. It is also attempting to control the narrative through state-controlled media, and through their willing partners in the West, including WHO. Government propagandists published a compendium of state-news agency articles, official government statements, and other documents in a book called A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combatting COVID-19 in 2020. The publication faced immediate scorn in social media within the country.
Fortunately, despite the well-documented censorship of social media, citizen journalism continues. A popular meme shows Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan ophthalmologist whose social media questioned the “Wuhan pneumonia” in late December and who eventually died from the virus, with barbed wire where his facemask should be. Several citizen journalists have gone missing, including in Shandong province, where there have been reports including in the Epoch Times that significant underreporting of COVID-19 by official statistics continues despite the WHO declaration that the caseload has peaked.
In times of duress, the most innate qualities of countries tend to predominate. That’s what we’ve seen with the PRC. We can recognize the intensity of China’s public-health response. But we should acknowledge and condemn the methods by which the world was kept in the dark for too long, and the means by which Beijing continues to interrupt the flow of information. We should not be thanking Beijing for its actions. Instead, we need honesty and the pursuit of the truth to defeat this challenge. And we must acknowledge that the Chinese government’s actions early on almost certainly led to the global crisis we’re facing.
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