This crisis reveals China’s weaknesses

Published by The i paper (13th April, 2020)

Ever since this pandemic started rampaging around the planet, there has been talk of a transformed world. Yet when the history books are written, will the biggest impact be seen in a changed global order? For when this tsunami struck the world, the West was in a weakened state with dire leadership, divided citizens and dogged by a crisis of confidence over its economic and political systems. This was bad enough in Britain. But it was seen with even sharper clarity in the United States, the nation that took over our baton of global dominance after the Second World War.

Now turn to Beijing. There is a mood of triumph after Wuhan, the central city where this cruel disease first erupted, began to loosen after months of rigid lockdown. Fears remain that a new wave of infections could strike and strict containment measures are still in force. Yet there is a sense their nation is emerging in stronger shape than the West, still being battered so hard. President Xi Jinping aims to take advantage of emerging early from the epidemic by promoting a narrative of global responsibility. This is why his state makes substantial play of sending aid to other stricken countries – and indeed, why the shameful complicity of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is so helpful to his stance.

Partly this is to restore national pride and prop up the government, left shaken by the social media backlash when a whistleblowing doctor died two months ago. After the usual purge of local officials to protect bosses in Beijing, one sycophantic new official in Wuhan suggested cooped-up residents show their gratitude to Xi, only to be met with such ridicule that he hastily withdrew the idea. Yet China is also sending a blunt message to the world: that its style of government, with the Communist Party displaying an iron grip, demonstrates how to handle huge disruption, thus showing the superiority of its autocratic one-party system.

This is one reason it is vital to establish the truth about this coronavirus. China’s leaders have sought to sweep aside any culpability, cover their tracks and promote fake news. There are signs they are adopting the Vladimir Putin playbook to fuel conspiracy theories after one state spokesman accused the US army of introducing the disease. Yet the reality is more prosaic. Beijing deserves some blame for this pandemic – and it also exposes the deficiencies, not the strengths, of dictatorship.

We know this virus most likely emerged through zoonotic transmission from the horseshoe bats found in southern China, possibly due to consumption of pangolin. The finger of blame has been pointed at a market in Wuhan, where hundreds of merchants sold fish, farm animals and exotic wildlife close to one of the country’s biggest rail stations. It was shut down the day after China alerted WHO to a new respiratory disease in the city – and then officials, in the words of one Hong Kong expert on infectious diseases, ‘cleaned up the crime scene’.

This is a familiar saga. Sars, a similar lethal disease, emerged in China 18 years ago and spread death around the world. It was the first time we saw a coronavirus with pandemic potential and was blamed on eating civets. China suspended wild animal markets in southern China, but they soon resumed. One review of studies into the outbreak found horseshoe bats to be a reservoir for these viruses, which were then ‘amplified’ by civets. ‘The culture of eating exotic animals is a time bomb,’ they concluded.

So are we now witnessing the impact of that time bomb exploding because these squalid markets were not shut down or tidied up? Ignore any idea this was some kind of bio-weapon engineered by evil scientists. But there is another suggestion we cannot rule out: that this contagion leaked from a laboratory. Near the market was a facility that studied bat-borne diseases, while a few miles away is another that was the first in China with highest biosecurity status and held the biggest bank of viruses in Asia. The Lancet noted ‘patient zero’, the first case, had no clear link to the market. One Chinese study that backed this idea was mysteriously withdrawn. This feels implausible, like a bad disaster movie. But it is not impossible.

Whatever the cause, one thing is certain: Communist Party chiefs resorted to their usual brutal tactics when the virus started killing people. Rather than track the disease and control its spread, they sought to silence doctors, stifle discussion, smother data and suppress truth. Scientists had to leak information that allows creation of diagnostic tests and vaccines. Offers from outside nations to help investigate were rejected. Analysts believe this was done so a key party meeting and lunar new year festivities could go ahead unimpeded.

We will never know if this coronavirus could have been contained in those critical first few weeks – and yes, we have seen zoonotic epidemics break out elsewhere before. But it is certainly possible that more freedom, more transparency and rather less repression might have stymied this pandemic. We have seen the same thing before in dictatorships, most infamously with the Chernobyl disaster under the Soviet Union. Even now, few experts really trust China’s data and fatality figures. Yet its leaders push propaganda that they deserve international plaudits for their response.

China has made spectacular progress in recent decades, although the plummeting economy may prove challenging for a regime that offers its people prosperity in exchange for political impotence. But have no doubt it is engaged in a global struggle for supremacy that pitches its version of dictatorship against the West’s increasingly blurred vision of democracy. We have just seen the flaws exposed in its autocratic government system. So how profoundly ironic that it can exploit paralysis elsewhere to boost its power after recovering first from a crisis it caused.

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