China is not the hero in this darkest hour

Published by UnHerd (23rd March, 2020)

First came the virus — a parasitic germ so small that it cannot be seen by an optical microscope but so powerful that it is threatening the entire world order. It emerged in China at the end of last year, spread rapidly to Iran and Italy, and now sparks pandemonium across the planet. It has infiltrated the bodies of millions of people, trailing death and astonishing disruption in its wake.

Now comes the blame game. China is proclaiming that it has defeated coronavirus, accused other countries of responding too slowly, sent aid to afflicted European nations and even suggested the disease may have originated elsewhere. But Donald Trump, who is struggling to contain the crisis after a series of blunders, pointedly calls it the “Chinese virus” while supporters call for reparations and accuse Beijing of having “blood on its hands”.

So what is the truth about China and this disease that has exploded with such devastating consequences from Wuhan, a little-known city in Hubei province? Did this emerging superpower demonstrate a model response to the virus with its tough tactics — or as critics claim, did autocratic Communist Party chiefs make matters much worse with attempts to cover up the disease?

To answer these questions we must turn first to a nondescript building in Wuhan, where masked security men stand beneath a blue-and-white sign proclaiming Huanan Seafood Market and rows of scruffy stalls are all shuttered.

Until recently, this was a bustling place filled with shoppers. Many stalls were filled with fish in crowded tanks, crustaceans trying to clamber from tubs and counters sloppy with the blood and guts of creatures sliced up for customers. But elsewhere there were chickens and ducks alongside dogs and dozens of exotic species such as civets, rodents, porcupines, snakes and even, reportedly, wolf pups. “It was well known for selling lots of weird, live animals,” one local resident told Time magazine.e

Such ‘wild’ markets are common across China. “I’ve always seen them as a melting pot for disease with all those domestic and wild animals in cages and then killed in front of you,” said one animal activist who has visited many of them. This activist described to me seeing endangered species stacked in cages, dogs bludgeoned and left to bleed to death, children running around in entrails. “They are horrible — the sights, the sounds, the smells, are all the stuff of nightmares.”

Wuhan’s market — which sits less than a mile from one of the country’s busiest railway stations in the midst of a city with more residents than London — was probably the birthplace of this terrifying pandemic.

As soon as local doctors detected a new influenza-like respiratory disease, the government shut it down and suspended all wild animal trading. Of the first 41 identified cases last December, 27 involved people exposed to the market. A Chinese study into 191 Wuhan cases, including 54 fatalities, published this month by The Lancet concluded the outbreak “likely” began with “a zoonotic transmission event” — when a disease jumps between animals and humans — at the market.

This is a familiar story. In 2002 Sars, another lethal type of coronavirus, emerged in China and spread rapidly around the world after a hospitalised seafood seller in Guangzhou infected dozens of doctors and nurses. This was the first time a coronavirus with pandemic potential emerged — and it was blamed on the consumption of civets. China slaughtered many of the cat-like creatures and suspended wild animal markets in southern China, but they soon resumed.

A review of studies into the outbreak published in 2007 by four Hong Kong experts found horseshoe bats were a reservoir for such viruses, which were then “amplified” by civets. “The culture of eating exotic animals is a time bomb,” they concluded. The professors at the Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases even warned of the need to be ready for “reemergence of Sars and other novel viruses”. But the risk of these sordid wild markets was ignored — with tragic consequences.

Yet what followed the sudden eruption of cases in Wuhan was perhaps even worse — a deliberate attempt by Communist Party chiefs to silence reports of a deadly new virus and smother emerging data.

In mid-December last year, doctors started seeing patients with coughs, fevers and breathing problems — but they struggled to determine the cause. By the end of the month, when a laboratory had confirmed a new coronavirus in samples, worried medics began sharing the information and health authorities demanded urgent details about a “pneumonia of unclear cause”.

Yet even as China notified the World Health Organisation, security forces started to stifle information from seeping out. Eight doctors were detained in early January for spreading ‘rumours’ and police issued a stern warning against fake news.

Meanwhile cases were spiralling in Wuhan as Chinese New Year loomed, a time when 400 million people travel home to see their families. Yet officials ignored new cases, insisted it was ‘controllable’ and denied any human-to-human infection. Incredibly, an annual mass banquet for 40,000 families in Wuhan was allowed to take place on January 18.

Only two days later — and three weeks after China had tipped off global bodies — did the authorities start telling the truth to their citizens. President Xi Jinping ordered the virus to be “resolutely contained” and a prominent medical expert confirmed human-to-human transmission. Three days later Wuhan was placed in rigid lockdown, then the rest of the province sealed off over following days.

Critics say this cover-up was costly by delaying measures to isolate those with the virus, trace their contacts, prevent travel and warn the public. There are also claims of shunning outside assistance, undercounting infections and manipulating data.

“We still don’t know a lot of things but we do know that by December they knew about human-to-human transmission in Wuhan,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London. He argues the government should have moved faster with imposition of quarantines and sharing of information to track infection and thwart transmission. “We don’t know for sure if it would have stopped the virus — but it might.”

Professor Tsang blames a system that has become more centralised under Xi, run by party apparatchiks who are scared to take decisions for fear of retribution. “If the Chinese government did what needed to be done at an early stage, we might not now be in this position.”

In early February Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, died from the virus, leaving behind a pregnant wife and young child. He had been arrested for warning students about hygiene but was forced to confess and retract his “misdemeanour”. The death of this young doctor sparked a national outpouring of anger over official obfuscation. “A healthy society should not only have one kind of voice,” Li said in the days before his death.

He was one of 81 people who died from the disease in Hubei on the same day, with another 2,841 cases detected. The number of total across China was then 31,161. As we now know, many more cases of this silent killer go undetected.

A joint study by experts in Britain, China and the US published this month found almost nine in ten cases went unreported in the fortnight before Wuhan was locked down. Clearly this hampered containment of the virus and facilitated its spread. “We see today the price of fear and silence caused by a dictatorship desperate to control the freedoms of its people, which led to this disease spreading around the world,” said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Yet even as it unleashed unprecedented controls on its own people including bans on movement, Beijing lashed out at other countries for imposing travel bans and suspending flights to China, accusing them of lacking “goodwill”. Officials also defended their response to this new virus. “Naturally it takes time for people to gain more understanding and knowledge about it,” said the foreign minister, Wang Yi, when asked about delays. “The same has happened in other countries.”

Beijing cranked up its propaganda machine, sending hundreds of journalists to Wuhan to shape a story of national solidarity, and reinforce the regime in public discourse. Videos focused on the heroism of exhausted doctors, the sacrifice of nurses shaving their heads to minimise exposure to the virus, and the arrival of armed forces in Wuhan. Then came the usual purge, with a couple of regional officials fired as scapegoats in mid-February to protect the precious party image.

Alternative videos shared on social media showed people tied to lampposts for failing to wear masks, beaten and even welded into homes as officials took drastic action to avoid criticism. In Hubei, married couples were told to sleep in separate beds. One US expert called China’s draconian measures “the largest public health experiment in the history of humankind”. But there remains scepticism over data with hospitals overwhelmed and suspicions of inadequate testing outside Hubei.

By early March the country was claiming its draconian shutdowns had stemmed new cases. A new party secretary in Wuhan even proposed a campaign for cooped-up residents to show their gratitude for Xi’s leadership, although the backlash and ridicule was so intense he had to rapidly remove his online post.

Xi was rebranded ‘Commander of the People’s War’ and hailed as a “calm balm” for the world. He stepped back into public view after an unusually quiet few weeks by visiting a Wuhan temporary hospital built in 10 days to proclaim success in turning the tide. “Now what you must do is fortify your faith — we will definitely win this battle,” he was shown telling a patient via video as he pumped his fist. “Wuhan must be victorious, Hubei must be victorious, and all of China must be victorious.”

Last Thursday — for the first time since start of an outbreak resulting in more than 80,000 Chinese cases and 3,245 deaths — the government claimed there were no fresh cases in the afflicted region, with any new cases imported. And while China still has 50 million citizens locked up in Hubei, huge numbers quarantined and the world’s second biggest economy has been shattered, it can point to the virus killing more people in Italy — which has, of course, a fraction of its 1.4bn population.

So has its tough response, if belated, shown the world how to defeat this disease? Analysts such as John Edmunds, an expert in the modelling of infectious diseases at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, are sceptical. He believes that Beijing’s measures broke internal chains of transmission, although adds that “information is fairly opaque” and hard to interpret.

But when I ask it the virus will return, he is unequivocal in his reply. “Of course it will come back,” said Professor Edmunds. “Unless you stamp out every case in the world, it comes back. China can get its cases down to zero but when it lets people out of their homes, open up its schools and businesses, what happens? Even if you can say for sure there are no cases in China, which is a big ask even for such a state, they would have to seal all their borders, which is impossible. This epidemic has become widespread and is beyond the point of stopping the disease.”

He thinks we can only modify the path of a virus that has become endemic either by building herd immunity or developing a vaccine. He accepts that the world lost vital time at the outset through China’s actions but is uncertain if this made significant difference.

Now we see international health chiefs praising China’s response, Beijing sending aid to stricken European nations and Communist Party chiefs proclaiming a model campaign to contain and suppress the outbreak. Maria Repnikova, an expert on China’s political communication at Georgia State University, said China was trying to shift its image from “trouble-maker to a rescuer and a responsible power”, partly to restore national pride.

Others put it more bluntly. “They’ve begun an aggressive campaign to say they saved China and are saving the world,” said Bill Bishop, publisher of a daily newsletter on the country. Certainly Beijing’s message is clear: their system of government under the wise leadership of the Communist Party displaying its iron grip has defeated the virus.

Bob Seely, Tory MP for Isle of Wight and member of the foreign affairs select committee, said he questioned the judgment of anyone praising their response. “You wonder how many lives might have been saved if the Chinese authorities insisted on better hygiene standards in its markets and then listened to doctors in the initial outbreak and not tried to suppress them when they spoke out. Instead, there’s a fake news campaign to deny responsibility.”

Chinese officials also seem to have adopted a strategy from Vladimir Putin’s playbook by sowing confusion, inflaming a conspiracy theory that has started cropping up in their media. ‘It might be US army who bought the epidemic to Wuhan’ tweeted Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman. He has also retweeted a post from a woman in Arkansas wondering if flu patients last year really had Covid-19.

Zhao, whose colleagues have accused the US of being “immoral and irresponsible” by shifting blame to China, has contrasted his nation’s approach with Trump’s dire response. “US should try to find a way to curb the outbreak! China has implemented measures for 2 months, allowing time & offering experience for US to learn from it, but US has hardly done anything.”

Analysts suggest China will exploit economic paralysis elsewhere to boost its firms as they recover from the crisis. There are also fears Beijing will ramp up its sinister surveillance of citizens using technology developed to track the disease. “China had already transformed itself into a surveillance state under Xi Jinping,” said one Western academic based in the country. “For instance, at one of the malls in my town, there is a big screen and they would shame you if you jaywalked. What we are seeing is a more blunt use of this surveillance.

“The data they are collecting is driving a lot of their response. For instance, every one is required to sign up to a health app. This gives you a colour code and based on what colour you have, determines if you are allowed out in public or if you have to quarantine. This is fluid, the code is live and changes as new information flows. My fear is things like this that are justified on grounds of combatting an emergency might become the new normal.”

One thing is clear: this pandemic, which burst out amid a trade war between China and the US, is driving a fresh wedge between the world’s two economic giants as leaders in both countries attempt to fend off fierce internal criticism. China has even expelled reporters from the three leading US newspapers, ramping up the tension while silencing a source that has consistently challenged the state narratives.

Trump has started calling it “Chinese virus” to the fury of Beijing, arguing this was in response to the false claims it was started by the US military, while some allies are calling for compensation to be paid for the impact of this virus. ‘China should pay reparations to the US because of their negligence that led to this crisis,’ said Jim Banks, a Republican congressman. One poll found this idea was backed by more than four in ten Americans. The hardline former national security adviser John Bolton has also said China was responsible for this crisis and should be held responsible.

These are scary times as this pandemic carves a cruel path around the planet. It will alter old certainties and change our world in unpredictable ways. Forget the propaganda, however — China’s despotic regime may have been stung into tough action but it should most definitely not be hailed as the hero in this darkest of hours.

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