Public Anger Swells Over Official Opacity on Coronavirus

As the outbreak of a novel strain that originated in Wuhan last month continues to spread globally, official statistics from China’s National Health Commission showed 5,974 confirmed cases as of Wednesday and 132 deaths. Local authorities’ slow initial response to the outbreak, first discovered in late December and initially reported as viral pneumonia, has stoked widespread public anger, evoking memories of the official response to the 2003 SARS crisis that originated in China before killing over 800 in Asia (the total number infected with coronavirus in China has now surpassed that of SARS). While Beijing is eager to avoid a repeat of SARS and has maintained contact with the WHO since December, authorities are working hard to control the narrative: censoring online information and relevant “rumors,” penalizing those who spread “false information without verification” (even if they are frontline doctors), while broadcasting on diligent relief and containment efforts, optimistic outlooks from renowned experts, and fake images of nonexistent new hospitals for coronavirus patients.

Despite official efforts to control public opinion, Chinese web users have taken to social media to express their fears and castigate the government response. At the New York Times, Raymond Zhong reports on the surge of online vitriol directed at local and national officials:

[…] “Chinese social media are full of anger, not because there was no censorship on this topic, but despite strong censorship,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese internet controls. “It is still possible that the censorship will suddenly increase again, as part of an effort to control the narrative.”

[…] Nowhere has the local government been the target of more internet vitriol than in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is the capital.

[…] On Monday, social media users were similarly unrelenting toward Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang.

[…] Top authorities may be deliberately directing public anger toward officials in Hubei and Wuhan as a prelude to their resigning and being replaced. Many other targets within the Chinese leadership seem to remain off limits.

This month, as news of the coronavirus emerged but Mr. Xi did not make public appearances to address it, people on the social platform Weibo began venting their frustration in veiled ways, asking, “Where’s that person?” [Source]

While Beijing may be hoping the buck stops with local authorities, Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang has also attempted to share blame with higher authorities. In an apparent attempt to appease public ire, Wuhan’s mayor simultaneously defended his actions and publicly offered (but hasn’t yet acted) his resignation, claiming responsibility for himself and Wuhan Party chief Ma Guoqiang. The public statement did little to appease angry netizens, Reuters’ Josh Horwitz and Cheng Leng report:

“We locked down the city to cut the spread of virus, but it’s likely we’ll leave a bad reputation in history,” he said. “As long as it helps contain the spread of virus, I’m willing to resign as a form of apology. Wuhan’s party chief, Ma Guoqiang, and I will take whatever the responsibility it contains.”

But many comments on Chinese social media focused instead on Zhou’s sideline remarks – made after the interview had finished but also recorded by CCTV and broadcast online – that he would rate himself at 80 out of 100 for his handling of the interview.

[…] “I now understand what shamelessness is,” said one user on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

Zhou acknowledged during the interview that information about the virus outbreak in the early days was not shared quickly enough with the public.

But he blamed the delay partly on regulatory requirements for local governments to seek Beijing’s approval for making such disclosures – a statement that also drew ire on social media. [Source]

Authorities “dramatic action” of locking down Wuhan just ahead of the national Lunar New Year holiday transit period inspired over a dozen other nearby cities to follow suit, which also added fuel to public outrage and resulted in the virtual quarantine of about 35 million Chinese citizens. While concerns have been reported that a sizable portion of Wuhan’s population fled the city–potentially bringing the virus with them, as it has been confirmed to be airborne and transmittable before symptoms develop–the large-scale lockdown has also been characterized by the WHO as “new to science,” and criticized by public health experts for being highly risky. At China Media Project, veteran journalist and longtime Wuhan resident Da Shiji recalls how politics and the maintenance of stability took precedent over in Wuhan authorities’ response and information sharing after the first cases were discovered, and provides a view from inside the “grand experiment” of Wuhan’s ongoing lockdown:

China’s capacity to impress with such grand gestures calls to mind talk of the “Chinese miracle,” often used to describe the performance of the country’s economy over four decades. But is it fair to regard this case of large-scale quarantine also as a “Chinese miracle” in public health?

Everyone must understand, first of all, that this epidemic was allowed to spread for a period of more than forty days before any of the abovementioned cities were closed off, or any decisive action taken. In fact, if we look at the main efforts undertaken by the leadership, and by provincial and city governments in particular, these were focused mostly not on the containment of the epidemic itself, but on the containment and suppression of information about the disease.

[…] China is a society closely monitored by the government, and the shadow of Big Brother is everywhere. Social media in particular are subject to very close surveillance. So when the authorities detected chatter about the re-emergence of SARS, or of a similar unknown outbreak, they took two major steps initially. First, they tried to ensure that this new outbreak remained a secret; second, they put the stability preservation system into effect (启动稳控机制). On December 30, the Wuhan Health Commission (武汉市卫建委) issued an order to hospitals, clinics and other healthcare units strictly prohibiting the release of any information about treatment of this new disease. As late as December 31, the government in Wuhan was still saying publicly that there were no cases of human-to-human transmission, and that no medical personnel had become infected. [Source]

At the Daily Beast, Brendon Hong notes that China’s infamous surveillance state, one that incorporates cutting edge biodata and metadata aggregation into a highly invasive and controversial system that is officially justified as a means to keep the population safe, is proving inadequate against the novel coronavirus:

But at a time of critical need, as a medical crisis is escalating across the country and spreading to other parts of the world, threatening to become a global epidemic if quarantines cannot be enforced, the Chinese government’s vaunted ability to monitor the population has been nullified.

In the days leading up to a citywide quarantine of Wuhan and lockdowns in nearby areas, where residents of the Hubei provincial capital have been barred from leaving its limits, 5 million people left the city nonetheless.

In a cold winter where people are bundled up, and where many are donning face masks, face-scanning software has been rendered moot. And though every SIM card purchase requires a face scan to verify a user’s identity, tracking down millions of travelers who have left the viral outbreak’s epicenter is proving to be a Sisyphean task. […] [Source]

At ASPI’s The Strategist blog, Minxin Pei compares official opacity on the coronavirus to date to previous massive public health disasters in China, arguing that this new outbreak is a “disease of Chinese autocracy”:

It should be no surprise that history is repeating itself in China. To maintain its authority, the Chinese Communist Party must keep the public convinced that everything is going according to plan. That means carrying out systematic cover-ups of scandals and deficiencies that may reflect poorly on the CCP’s leadership, instead of doing what is necessary to respond.

[…] Yet again, the Chinese government’s attempts to protect its image proved costly, because they undermined initial containment efforts. The authorities have since switched gears, and their strategy now appears to show how seriously the government is taking the disease by imposing drastic measures: a blanket travel ban on Wuhan and neighbouring cities in Hubei province, which together have a population of 35 million.

At this point, it’s unclear whether and to what extent these steps are necessary or effective. What is clear is that China’s initial mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak means that thousands will be infected, hundreds may die and the economy, already weakened by debt and the trade war, will take another hit.

But perhaps the most tragic part of this story is that there’s little reason to hope that next time will be different. The survival of the one-party state depends on secrecy, media suppression and constraints on civil liberties. […] [Source]

Another element of Beijing’s current authoritarian governance that could prove disastrous amid the outbreak is the existence of a network of extralegal internment camps holding Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. At Vox, Sigal Samuel examines the risk these camps pose for infection:

“Cramped conditions, poor hygiene, cold, stressed immune systems — this could be a massive disaster,” wrote James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University who monitors the Xinjiang camps closely, on Twitter.

[…] China should do everything in its power to prevent the spread of the Wuhan virus into any camps because the consequences will be catastrophic, resulting possibly in the deaths of tens of thousands of Uighurs arbitrarily detained in the past three years,” said Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress.

Some worry that if outbreaks were to hit the camps, China might cover up the problem rather than working quickly and transparently to save lives. The government may have initially censored or at least downplayed information about the coronavirus, as it did during the SARS outbreak of 2003. What’s more, the Communist Party sees the Uighur people as a separatist and terrorist threat, and it has attempted to keep the true goings-on in the camps a secret. [Source]

At the Los Angeles Times, Alice Su recaps the slow local response to the disease, Beijing’s recent taking-of-charge by appointing Premier Li Keqiang the head of a new task force on virus control, and the dramatic quarantine efforts, to highlight the test that the coronavirus is posing to China’s central leadership:

[…] Beijing’s takeover of the virus response is a test of and window into the Communist Party’s style of governance. With China’s strong centralized control come mass mobilization and authority that would be unthinkable anywhere else. But that top-down grip also creates inertia that allows containable problems to flare into crises that demand wider action.

[…] Part of that opacity is purely bureaucratic. Local officials can’t release information about a confirmed new coronavirus until they get verification from the city, then from the county, then all the way up to the central disease control center, Huang said, calling the process “onerous.”

Another part of it is political. Local officials are rewarded for performance, which often translates into them concealing problems rather than exposing and solving them. Willy Lam, professor of China studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that provincial officials’ reluctance to disclose “embarrassing or negative developments” in their areas of governance is “long-standing Chinese political culture.”

[…] Failure to control the disease would come at a cost for China’s leadership and for the world, said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

The Communist Party has built a reputation on its ability to “concentrate resources to get things done — and big things done,” he said. “I hope they will rise to the occasion, because the consequences are not just for China.” [Source]

[…]

As China’s leadership struggles to maintain control of the narrative while also mitigating the domestic spread of the outbreak, the WHO is again considering declaring the virus an international emergency amid uncertainty over the potential of a global pandemic. British Airways has canceled all flights to and from China, joining a list of American and European airlines. Meanwhile, some forecasts suggest that the impact to domestic economic growth could be as high as four percent, double the quarter-on-quarter hit seen in 2003. Others, though, predict a more modest impact. Forecasting firm Oxford Economics suggested that “the faster reaction time by the Chinese authorities this time around, with increased transparency and firm actions taken recently, are certainly helpful in mitigating the impact on public health, confidence and the economy.” But The New York Times’ Peter S. Goodman highlighted doubts about the full, accurate, and timely release of information from Chinese authorities as a factor in the uncertainty fueling broader unease. He cited Oxford Economics’ Luis Kuijs’ observation that “this is, of course, still a government system where transparency is not really held up as an important criterion [….] This is still an overall system in which discretionary decisions by bureaucrats are driving everything instead of very clear rules.” The outbreak has triggered stock slides around the world, particularly affecting multinational companies with disrupted operations or those with dampened sales prospects in sectors such as travel or luxury goods.

To stay up-to-date on the domestic and global implications of the novel coronavirus outbreak, follow live coverage from The New York Times and The Washington Post. With relevant concerns capable of obscuring fact, also follow Buzzfeed’s Jane Lytvynenko on Twitter, where she is keeping track of debunked fake news on the topic.

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