Tiananmen and COVID-19 show China's fragility as a great power

Tiananmen and COVID-19 show China's fragility as a great power
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Bad news does not get better with time. As children, we are taught that taking responsibility to report and deal with bad news is always preferable to cowardly hiding and covering up. And yet, as the world again marks the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the attempted cover-up by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), we are still grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was worsened by another CCP cover-up

China’s goal of supplanting the United States faces a key hurdle — its propensity to hide bad news and cover up mistakes damages its credibility. Unlike middling powers, great powers cannot function in this world without credibility. 

China under the communist regime continues to sacrifice credibility to expedience, hoping to avoid dealing with bad news. As an aspiring great power, denying and covering up has resulted in nearly 4 million global deaths from the pandemic and near-pariah status. Beijing has yet to recognize the imperative of matching words to deeds. The resulting lack of credibility undermines legitimacy. Responsible responses to incidents such as Tiananmen and COVID-19 required only accurate reporting on loss of life. Reporting death tolls is straightforward — you cannot hide the fact that somebody didn’t come home that night.

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The June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre crushed a nascent pro-democracy movement, which sought a more representative and accountable government similar to what democracies enjoy. Thirty-two years later, the official number of those who died when Chinese tanks and troops opened fire on protesters still do not come close to what television cameras and bereaved families reported, a disparity that continues to damage the Chinese Communist Party’s credibility.

Beijing still maintains that only 200 citizens and a dozen security forces were killed. Yet a BBC report in 2017 estimated around 10,000 died, 50 times the number the Chinese government acknowledges. China has prevented an honest assessment of what occurred at Tiananmen Square, which would help to bring closure, healing and learning. Instead, the CCP recently outlawed the annual Tiananmen vigil in Hong Kong, as it squeezes out Hong Kong’s last drop of autonomy — contrary to its commitments.    

In late 2019 and early 2020, rather than deal with the bad news of a novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China chose to try to cover it up, allowing what might have been a manageable public health incident to explode into a global pandemic. The Chinese government has yet to own up to the obvious impact inside China, where the official death toll in Wuhan/Hubei is still around 4,500 people — in a city of 11 million where the virus spread unchecked for nearly three months.  

Realistic estimates are that tens of thousands of people died from COVID-19 in Wuhan, based on circumstantial but credible data — in one case, counting more than 40,000 funeral urns given out in Wuhan during the pandemic’s early months. Bad news leaks out; it does not just go away. China’s reported rates of infection and death are not in keeping with those for similar urban areas in other countries. And while the lockdown in Wuhan was draconian, it beggars belief that the pandemic did not kill many more after the lockdowns because of infections from outsiders and re-infections, which would be in accord with global patterns in this sustained pandemic. Beijing continues to block access to key areas of Wuhan where evidence related to COVID-19 might help prevent even more suffering and loss of life globally.

Other incidents also reflect China’s preferred tactic of burying bad news. Following a high-speed rail collision near Wenzhou in 2011, the Chinese government is reported to have literally buried the train wreckage, and the evidence inside, to avoid acknowledging failure. It’s the type of action taken by fragile authoritarians with profound concerns about their legitimacy — resist transparency and strive to bury negative news.

Tibet, where repression is severe, has been off limits to diplomats and nongovernmental organizations for decades, and the Dalai Lama has been ordered to reincarnate in China in accordance with Chinese law. Beijing continues to block meaningful access to Xinjiang and the evidence there of the genocide of its Uyghur and other Muslim minorities. That these affronts are no longer buried in the Western media suggests that Beijing’s long-term tactic of “deny and cover up” may no longer be viable and the communist regime’s credibility is suffering accordingly. 

Ironically, in 1989 the CCP delayed rolling its tanks into Tiananmen Square until Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had departed Beijing after a historic visit. The 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster and cover-up at Chernobyl had forced recognition that authoritarian systems must be accountable to their citizens and the world. But that lesson evidently has been lost on the Chinese government, which still prevents transparency and accountability.  

The proud people of China must recognize that their government’s inability to hold itself accountable has held China back — and will continue to do so. They deserve better. The recent anniversary of Tiananmen and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic give us occasion to ask whether China possesses the credibility required of a great power.

Brig. Gen. (Ret.) David R. Stilwell was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs from 2019-2021. He served in the Air Force for 35 years as a linguist, fighter pilot and defense attaché.

Bradley A. Thayer is the co-author of "How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics."