Why China Couldn’t Stop Coronavirus

The country’s totalitarian state went into overdrive to fight the outbreak. Why didn’t it work?

Faced with a crisis like coronavirus Covid-19, there are tools available to a totalitarian state like China that simply wouldn’t be options somewhere like the UK.

Yet as of midday on February 24 there have been more than 77,000 confirmed infections on the mainland, and all but 27 of the 2,619 deaths globally have occurred in China.

So why haven’t the country’s extreme measures worked?

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Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, told HuffPost UK: “If you look around the world, China is the only country so far where this has really gotten out of control.

“Granted, other countries had more notice so they were able to start containing the virus from a smaller scale, but that is exactly the problem.”

“The political system in China is actually making it harder to deal with this crisis in a way that reduces public panic.”

What is China’s political system?

China’s political system is vast and complex. In essence, though, it is a one-party communist state.

That party is the Communist Party of China, which exerts full control over the country and exercises power through a network of regional and local party offices as well as the state-run media.

Local officials are elected by the public but the people really in charge – President Xi Jinping and the Politburo (the Chinese equivalent of the cabinet in the UK government) – are not democratically elected.

There is an unwritten social contract between the Chinese public and its government that the state will provide security and economic prosperity and in return the people will let those in power remain in power.

How does it react to crises?

In a one-party state, the reputation of that one party comes first.

The communist government’s rigid structure has long favoured officials that toe the party line and suppress negative information about China rather than speak out.

Officials fear that flagging even legitimate worries will earn them nothing but a demotion – even though, of course, dealing promptly with a potential future disaster would help China save face in the long term.

Professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, told HuffPost UK: ”[It is] a system that has an incentive for people to underplay the problems rather.”

China’s reactions to a number of crises over the last two decades amply demonstrate this.

During the Sars outbreak in 2003 it took months for Chinese officials to acknowledge the outbreak at all.

The resulting global spread of that disease was due in part to a secretive government’s desperate fear of being shown up on the international stage.

Ultimately, China’s response backfired and it was forced to apologise.

Then, after a devastating earthquake in 2008 that killed nearly 70,000 people, it took nearly a year for the government to acknowledge that more than 5,000 schoolchildren had died because of shoddy construction standards.

A masked woman in a plastic rain coat walks on a street in Beijing, Tuesday, Feb. 11.
A masked woman in a plastic rain coat walks on a street in Beijing, Tuesday, Feb. 11.

In 2011, a train collision on the country’s much-vaunted new high-speed railway killed 38 people and was accompanied by a media blackout and allegations of a cover-up.

Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch, told HuffPost UK: “We haven’t learned from the Sars outbreak, the 2008 earthquake or the 2011 train crash.

“Almost in every case they try to cover up the death toll or the way the government responded. It’s an authoritarian impulse – they’re not accountable to the people because they not elected.

“They’re accountable to their superiors.”

So how did it react to the coronavirus outbreak?

In exactly the same way, at least initially.

“In many places in China, it seems authorities are equally, if not more, concerned with silencing criticism as with containing the spread of the coronavirus,” says Wang.

“Among other things, authorities have taken away citizen journalists Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi who tried to document the situation in Wuhan under the name of ‘quarantine’.”

The most infamous case of stifling criticism is that of Li Wenliang, a medic at a hospital in Wuhan who tried to raise the alarm about the new strain of coronavirus in December.

At the start of January, he was warned by police to stop “spreading rumours” about the illness now known as Covid-19, with officers telling him he had “severely disrupted social order” and he would face criminal charges if he continued.

Li died of the virus last earlier this month.

The way the Chinese authorities, at least on a local level, reacted to the emerging crisis severely hampered their ability to fight the virus.

“When Dr Li and his colleagues first tired to alert people and the authorities, there were only a handful or a few dozen cases,” said Cook.

“And their efforts were quashed precisely because of the internal incentives and political priorities of the Chinese totalitarian system.”

Following an online uproar over the government’s treatment of Li, the Communist Party struck a conciliatory note, saying it was sending a team to “fully investigate relevant issues raised by the public”.

A member of a Chinese honour guard wears a face mask as he stands guard on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Tuesday, Feb. 4.
A member of a Chinese honour guard wears a face mask as he stands guard on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Tuesday, Feb. 4.

What should they have done?

Stamping out criticism and stamping out a virus are obviously two very different things.

Professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, told HuffPost UK that if the Chinese government had truly learned lessons from the Sars outbreak then the first cases of animal to human transmission confirmed in early December should have triggered a different response.

“If the government that dealt with Sars and avian flu had learned anything, it would have acted decisively at that stage,” he said.

“They should have culled all the livestock, incinerated them and quarantined the staff who worked at that particular location.

“It didn’t happen.”

What about those massive building projects, though?

There’s no doubting that few states would have the resources and manpower to pull off the feats China has.

The 1,000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital and a second facility with 1,500 beds were built by construction crews in 10 days who are working around the clock in Wuhan, the city in central China where the coronavirus outbreak was first detected in December.

The ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, sent 1,400 doctors, nurses and other personnel to staff the Wuhan hospital.

“The Chinese government is reporting it widely,” said Tsang. “They are showing how heroically they are confronting it, how they have built impressive new hospitals that no other countries could even imagine doing. They’ve reported how dedicated medical staff are, to the extent that some of them died fighting the virus.”

But it is all too little too late – at the time of writing 2,619 people have died and 79,434 are infected, the vast majority within China itself.

“Fundamentally, it’s this element of the [Chinese government] putting its political interests and ‘social and political stability’ over the basic rights of the people of China [...] and of public health,” concluded Cook.


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