Commentary | 30 January 2020

How Beijing's silence helped spread the virus

Beijing's blaming of local officials and signs on a clampdown on information about the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak has tragic echoes of the mishandling of the SARs virus more than a decade ago, writes Richard McGregor. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Beijing's blaming of local officials and signs on a clampdown on information about the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak has tragic echoes of the mishandling of the SARs virus more than a decade ago, writes Richard McGregor. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

The question that Congress asked Richard Nixon about Watergate decades ago – what did he know and when did he know it? – is ripe for a 21st century rerun, this time directed to Chinese leaders about the Wuhan virus.

Much of the domestic and global coverage of the Chinese authorities’ handling of the coronavirus has focused on the sudden decision, issued at 2am on January 23, to quarantine Wuhan, a city of 11 million in central China.

“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” said Gauden Galea, a World Health Organisation official, who seemed to be both in awe at the order, and wryly unsure about whether it would work.

Once areas surrounding Wuhan were pulled inside the sealed-off zone days later, a total of 35 million people had been effectively put into virtual lockdown with the stroke of an administrative pen.

Can you imagine such a directive working in Sydney or Melbourne? The federal government would struggle to quarantine a country town, let alone a massive city sitting at the heart of a sprawling air, rail and river transport network, like Wuhan.

The power of the Chinese state and its ability to mobilise resources overnight has long been admired by foreigners, be it in building a field hospital in barely a week, as in Wuhan, or enforcing a cordon sanitaire containing tens of millions of people.

Otherwise, though, the Wuhan outbreak has tragic echoes of the mishandling of the flu-like SARs virus more than a decade ago.

The authoritarian strictures of the Chinese party-state place a premium on the control of information in the name of maintaining stability. In such a system, lower-level officials have no incentive to report bad news up the line. Under the tight rule of Xi Jinping, such restrictions have only grown tighter.

When the SARS virus first appeared in southern China in November 2002, China delayed responding to requests for more information from the WHO for three months.

As late as April, 2003, Beijing was still suppressing information about the numbers of people infected. It took a courageous doctor at a military hospital in Beijing to inform the foreign media about the true count to force Beijing to tackle the problem head on.

As a result, the epidemic took longer to control; it spread further, both in China and overseas, and more people died.

Nor were the whistleblowers thanked for their trouble. In China, more than most countries, speaking truth to power does not win you friends,

Fast forward to 2020, and it is instructive to look at what has, and hasn’t, changed.

From the reports out of China, the country’s medical and public health staff have performed with skill and professionalism, often under shocking pressure.

Compared to 2003, China is a much richer country and its hospitals are better equipped. Many local doctors have volunteered to work in Hubei.

Otherwise, though, the politics of the SARS emergency has been at play again.

In early January, the local police detained eight people in Wuhan for “spreading rumours” and harming social stability. Their action, reported prominently in the official media, had a chilling impact on reporting of what was by then an emerging pandemic.

Officials in Wuhan continued to downplay the spread of the virus in the opening weeks of the year. As late as Tuesday evening last week, the Hubei provincial party secretary and governor hosted a lavish Lunar New Year event, despite reports that many performers were ill.

But with infections rising, the issue could no longer be contained and the quarantine order followed. So many people in Wuhan had not been able to find a hospital bed that they had begun to catch planes to seek treatment elsewhere, taking the virus with them.

The mayor of Wuhan has already admitted that city officials failed to get information out in a timely fashion. With his colleagues, he will doubtless take the fall for what is now an international public health issue.

In a rare admonishment, China’s Supreme People's Court has condemned the Wuhan police for locking up the whistleblowers. “Rumours stop when information is public,” it said.

Only yesterday, we learnt something remarkable about these “rumour spreaders” detained in the name of stability. They were all doctors, and one had contracted the virus in treating a patient.

Placing all the blame on local officials, a well-worn practice in China, is too neat. They weren’t authorised anyhow to declare an emergency by themselves. Chinese law required them to co-ordinate with Beijing – sensibly enough, as such declarations have global ramifications.

Such co-ordination was all the more important given the time of year, when tens of millions of Chinese travel, within China as well as overseas, for the new year holiday.

Still, the narrative seems to be hardening that the centre will conclude the latest pandemic requires more control of information, not more openness.

As British academic Steve Tsang told The Washington Post: “They will conclude the problem was not too much concentration of power, but rather not enough concentration of power” at the top. “ A few officials will be held accountable. And none of them will be Xi Jinping.”