China’s reaction to charges it initially covered up the emergence of a new coronavirus in Wuhan in early January has ranged from sober refutations to full frontal attacks on Beijing’s critics by officials and armies of internet bots alike.
But not everyone in China has rushed furiously to defend their government, for fear that any acknowledgement of wrongdoing will be a stain on the nation and open it to overseas criticism.
"Some people say if we investigate our country’s culpability, we would be giving evidence to foreigners to pursue reparations and hurt our national interests," veteran economist Hua Sheng wrote on his social media account. "I must say, it’s precisely the opposite."
Secrecy is a feature, not a bug, of the Chinese party-state.
Hua is in a minority in China, at least in public, but perhaps not overseas, with Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister, calling for an investigation into the origins of the virus that would be independent of Beijing and the World Health Organisation.
Payne’s call is almost certainly part of a co-ordinated effort among like-minded countries to put pressure on Beijing to account for what happened rather than brushing off criticism as just another foreign plot.
Governments of any persuasion strive to avoid scrutiny and accountability. Witness the unseemly buck-passing over the docking last month of the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney, which alone contributed hugely to the spread of COVID-19 in Australia.
The combination of public pressure and the need for some kind of institutional and bureaucratic reckoning eventually forced the NSW government to order an inquiry into the Ruby Princess.
But China doesn’t do independent inquiries. After all, no outside body can scrutinise the ruling communist party, as the party oversees and manages itself.
At the heart of the blame game over COVID-19 is the same problem that China has grappled with for years, the lack of transparency in its political system, and along with it, as absence of trust.
In early January, in the weeks straddling the authorities’ suppression of the first cases of COVID-19 and Xi Jinping’s decision to put Wuhan into lockdown, a torrent of information poured out of China.
Brave local journalists, some working for established outlets, others citizen bloggers, reported on the plight of doctors forced to keep quiet about the virus. The Wuhan mayor admitted in a TV interview that a public warning about the spreading virus has been held back.
Since then, the system has managed to regain control of the narrative, at least at home. The media has been reined in. The bloggers have mostly been silenced. Officials are back on message.
The rest of the world is now relying on leaks, the most devastating last week to the Associated Press, documenting how Chinese officials realised they were facing a pandemic but waited six days before ordering the Wuhan lockdown.
There has been some accountability, with the party chiefs in Wuhan and Hubei province sacked. But that, for the moment, is where China’s responsibility for the virus bringing the world to its knees ends.
In its place, a Foreign Ministry spokesman has spread conspiracy theories blaming the United States for bringing the virus to China. (The same official later complained Washington was spreading incorrect information.)
China’s offshore propaganda campaign is not going smoothly. Governments in France, the US, Kazakhstan, Uganda, Ghana and the African Union have all summoned Chinese ambassadors with complaints in recent weeks.
Mainstream Chinese diplomats who eschew the aggressive tactics of their younger colleagues insist the world should let science determine the origins of the virus. But that avenue has been closed off, as Beijing has centralised approvals for local scientific papers on COVID-19.
Secrecy is a feature, not a bug, of the Chinese party-state, just as it has been in communist administrations from time immemorial. Under Xi, the opacity has become worse.
With a single centre of power in place of the usual, though mostly underground, bustling between families, factions and policymakers, the world has ever less insight into what is going on at the top in China.
None of this is an excuse for the missteps of well-resourced governments in the US and Europe that acted late in full knowledge of the coming storm and are now paying a terrible price. Blaming the World Health Organisation, for all its faults, is pathetic.
Nor does it mean Beijing is telling lies when it says it has few locally transmitted cases these days. The figures may not be exact but they undoubtedly reflect the trend, of rapidly falling infections. It is natural Beijing wants to tell the world about how its government crushed the virus, not how it spread under its watch.
But imagine how differently the world would view China if it had an open accounting of what went wrong as the starting point for making sure it won’t happen again.
The party would be upending the habits of a lifetime in doing so, but they dare not, for fear of where such an inquiry might end.
It is not just that Xi’s reputation might be damaged. The whole system would be in the dock, and that can’t be allowed to happen.
Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.