The case for optimism
China's biological 'Chernobyl': Different country, same lies
China's recent deadly coronavirus outbreak, commencing in Wuhan in early December 2019 and rapidly spreading throughout the country and world, demonstrates that dictatorship can exacerbate a disaster, whether it is naturally occurring or manmade, such as the Soviet Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak in 1979.
The pandemic is China's Chernobyl. While the Chinese authorities initially reported about 800 cases and 25 deaths, that death toll in China has risen to 80 and the number of confirmed cases is growing by the thousands. Videos, texts and other information sent out from the epicenter through various outlets indicate the number of people exposed to the virus may be as high as 100,000. Videos show Wuhan hospitals packed with patients, people collapsing on the streets, and medical staff breaking down.
Chinese authorities have shut down Wuhan and 15 surrounding cities in the province, affecting some 41 million residents - but is this unusual action too drastic, and were the attempts to curb the virus imposed too late?
In 1986, the Soviets initially lied about the nuclear accident at Chernobyl before physical evidence forced them to disclose the truth. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) followed the Soviet playbook for this pandemic: On Dec. 8, doctors confirmed the first coronavirus patient but Wuhan's mayor now acknowledges the city's action was insufficient. Officials did not alert the public until Dec. 30, missing a valuable three-week window to control the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, authorities detained and punished eight Wuhan residents with knowledge of the health risk who had warned the public through social media, accusing people of "fabricating and spreading rumors." Journalists who attempted to cover news of the outbreak were harassed and had to show their reports to police.
The pandemic has touched many Chinese, inside and outside of China. People are trying to send medical supplies to Wuhan but say the police often stop them. One person posted his story on Twitter, saying he and his friends raised money and bought 4,407 cases of masks and goggles but policy threatened to throw him in jail if he didn't stop his activity.
More outrageous is that the pandemic coincided with a community new year banquet in the city, attended by more than 130,000 people, which created an opportunity for the virus to spread. While the local Communist Party leaders enjoyed the Chinese New Year celebration, hospitals were stressed to address the difficulty. As the situation worsened, China's President Xi Jinping warned of "a grave situation."
Chinese authorities initially likely did not disclose the severity of the pandemic because they feared this tragedy could trigger massive protests, shaking China's regime security. China strives always to show a prosperous, harmonious atmosphere, a stabilized society, even at the cost of the health of its citizens.
The crisis of this pandemic is far from over. The Communist Party's handling of the situation demonstrates that socialism with Chinese characteristics - a totalitarian model that lacks transparency, free speech, free press and respect of human rights and human dignity - cannot and will not resolve crises of this magnitude, and similar tragedies are likely to happen.
China's actions compel damning conclusions about the behavior of the CCP. Local party officials could not contain the disease and evidently chose to lie about its scope and severity until the truth was exposed. These actions likely worsened the impact of the virus far beyond China's borders. The government tightly controlled information for weeks after the outbreak in mid-December and shared the genetic sequence only recently after being pressured to do so.
China's leader did not publicly address the situation until he convened a special government meeting on the Lunar New Year, as frustration grew among those at the epicenter of the virus. As a dictator, Xi Jinping is beyond the reach of a popular election and therefore can avoid the fear and suffering of the Chinese people. This is a telling characteristic of the leadership model of his idol, Mao Zedong, who caused and was indifferent to the people's suffering.
Because the Lunar New Year is the most important holiday for the Chinese people, transmission rates are certain to increase. And, inevitably, the Chinese people will learn of the government's lies, evasion and deception. They will add this to their list of regime failures, which long ago caused the loss of the party's legitimacy to rule China.
Bradley A. Thayer is professor of political science at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and is the co-author of "How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics."
Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.