Compared with the response in some previous outbreaks, including severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 and swine flu in 2009, biomedical detective work got underway quickly in China in December when people began to suffer a pneumonia-like illness. Chinese researchers isolated the new coronavirus, sequenced its genetic code and prepared reagents for diagnostics. But during all the weeks of this activity in December, Beijing largely kept the lid on information. It did not alert the public until well into January. The thought police were still on the beat, even as the virus spread.
The common reactions of Chinese leaders to crisis — strict secrecy, media censorship, desperate attempts to protect “stability” and slavish adherence to central authority — were evident throughout the early period of the crisis, according to a detailed insider account published by the China Media Project. On Dec. 30, this account says, the Wuhan Health Commission “issued an order to hospitals, clinics and other healthcare units strictly prohibiting the release of any information about treatment of this new disease.”
The account says that while Chinese officials informed the World Health Organization of a new coronavirus outbreak, “they did not inform their own people, but instead maintained strict secrecy.” A free press might have made a difference — it might have at least raised questions about people’s illnesses. But such a press does not exist in China.
Instead, local authorities projected an air of normality. Tourism authorities in Wuhan were issuing tickets to attractions in the city through mid-January, and one model residential community was still planning a “Spring Festival” banquet celebration for 40,000 residents. “There was no attempt to stem the flow of people to Wuhan from all over the country and around the world,” the insider account says. “During what was the most critical phase for controlling the outbreak, Wuhan was essentially an open city owing to the efforts of local officials to keep a lid on the story.” The silence of the local officials was broken when President Xi Jinping issued official instructions to tackle the outbreak on Jan. 20 — some 40 days after the first signs were detected.
Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, admitted in a later state television interview that city authorities had not provided timely information to the public, but he said the reason was that “we can only reveal it after approval” from higher authorities. This is the Chinese one-party state at work, worried less about people and more about permissions. Even now, China’s censors are telling state media what to publish and policing social media, deleting posts critical of the government.
If there is anything positive to come of this, it is the vibrant grassroots reaction. China’s social media is afire with concern, despite the censors. Some have recalled the HBO television series Chernobyl to raise issues of government lying, which happened in the 1986 disaster and is happening again in Wuhan. One user recalled a quote from the show, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt gets paid.”