Why the dictatorship makes a deadly virus even worse

January 24, 2020 14:45
An undated photo released by the Central Hospital of Wuhan shows medical staff attending to a patient. When a mystery virus started appearing, the first response of the authorities was to keep it quiet, the author observes. Handout photo/Weibo via Reuters

When it comes to a choice between securing citizens' health and maintaining the health of the Chinese Communist Party there is no contest. Citizens cannot expect the 'mere' spread of a deadly virus to change this state of affairs.

In 2002/3 over 8,000 people were infected by the SARS virus that originated in China and spread worldwide. Over 700 people died. In Hong Kong alone 1,755 people were infected and there were 299 fatalities.

Here we are again with an outbreak of a coronavirus in Wuhan. So, what’s changed? The depressing answer is a repetition of the lack of transparency, a dismal pattern of denial, dissembling and outright lies which went on for three months before the Mainland authorities fully owned up to SARS endemic.

First we were told that the disease was not life threatening and confined to Wuhan. Then it was admitted that maybe it had indeed spread but only to Hong Kong over 900 kilometers away, somehow not stopping in places like Hunan, Fujian and Guangdong which lie in between.

Why was this so? Clearly it has nothing to do with medical science and everything to do with the fact that Hong Kong still has considerably more freedom of speech and a far freer media than that on the Mainland. In other words it was impossible to keep news of infections secret in Hong Kong while the state-controlled media, was, incredibly, still down playing the story this week.

In Hong Kong, the waxworks who lead the government could not even bring themselves to issue either a travel advisory for Wuhan or insist that travellers from this area fill out health declaration forms which provide a means of contact to trace those who turn out to be infected. It took extreme pressure for this stupidity to be reversed. Meanwhile officials were careful to repeat the party line about this virus not being transmitted from humans to humans. Most incredibly, the government is still pursuing an appeal that will allow it impose to impose a face mask ban.

As for the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO), well she was in Switzerland doing incredibly important things like meeting the prime minister of Luxembourg. Go Carrie!

Over at Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flag carrier, now living in fear of offending anyone in Beijing, the bosses initially refused permission for cabin crew to wear masks on routes outside China because the party line was that the virus was not really spreading.

When it became clear that not only was the virus spreading, to as far as the United States, and that human to human transmission could no longer be denied, the Chinese authorities went into full panic mode in Wuhan and elsewhere in Hubei Province, where travel bans were imposed and in Wuhan itself, the city’s public transport network was closed down. The implication being that the problem was still really only about Wuhan.

This is clearly nonsense and as both the death toll and the infection rate rises precipitously there is much thrashing about and focus on who is to blame. In these circumstances the Communist Party’s first priority is to ensure that there is no admission of systematic failure or structural failure emanating from the practice of secrecy which is the hallmark of all dictatorships.

What usually happens and will predictably happen in this instance is that a clutch of individuals will be held to blame for their negligence and for failing to fully brief the infallible people who run everything from the Center. There will be a series of summary dismissals and/or resignations although, at the time of writing, this has yet to happen.

To understand why this appalling situation has arisen requires understanding of how things work inside the dictatorship. It seems obvious to say so but it is worth stressing that in China officials are only expected to have good news for their superiors.

This is why, for example, each province reports levels of economic growth that routinely amount to a higher figure than that given for the nation as a whole. What we learn from this is that the Center is well aware of exaggeration and outright lying from below and makes adjustments to better reflect reality. However no one is bold enough to tackle the underlying problem of why everyone in the bureaucracy has to lie because to acknowledge this requires a fundamental rethink about accountability.

Citizens in dictatorships are also well aware that officials routinely lie, so that even when they come clean their honesty is not rewarded with belief but is greeted with skepticism. Often this results in panic or at the very least irrational responses to situations that are quite controllable but only in circumstances where those exercising control have some credibility.

Therefore, as in this case, when a mysterious virus started appearing in Wuhan, the first response of the authorities was to keep it quiet because to do otherwise would be to admit to failure. As evidence mounted of the virus’s impact the authorities needed to pretend that either they had everything under control and or that the problem was less serious than might otherwise be feared. Thus the vicious circle of dissembling and delayed action emerged.

Even in more transparent and accountable systems bureaucrats might try to behave in this way but they are quickly found out precisely because democratic systems are designed to make officials accountable. Therefore anyone stupid enough to argue that the current health scare has nothing to do with politics needs to explain what’s happening right now as the Wuhan coronavirus crisis develops.

Hong Kong has been given a clear indication of how political considerations will trump the interests of citizens and how this can have deadly effect. Yet this is a lesson that some people refuse to learn.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.