Argument

Chinese Officials Can’t Help Lying About the Wuhan Virus

Despite calls for transparency, repression is baked into the system.

Medical workers hold a strike near Queen Mary Hospital to demand the government shut the city's border with China to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in Hong Kong on Feb. 3.
Medical workers hold a strike near Queen Mary Hospital to demand the government shut the city's border with China to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in Hong Kong on Feb. 3. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

As fear of the Wuhan coronavirus seizes China, the outlines of the local government mistakes that gave the disease a critical monthlong head start are becoming apparent. Reporting in both foreign and domestic media paints a picture of a city government in Wuhan more concerned with political meetings than epidemic control—and where attempts by insiders, including eight separate doctors, to speak out were stamped on by police.

The central government is now promising to perform where Wuhan officials failed. Officials in Beijing have pledged greater transparency to both the public and outside groups like the World Health Organization—even introducing a whistleblower hotline within the massively popular WeChat messaging app.

Such measures are about as convincing as an organized crime boss who launches a “Start Snitching” campaign. The hostility to transparency and fear of speaking out baked into the fabric of Xi Jinping’s China can’t be thrown away for one crisis. Transparency is not a window that can be opened and shut at the state’s will when it finds it useful. Brave calls for transparency by Chinese media aside, the Chinese government’s habits of opaqueness, concealment, and distrust of the public will impede attempts to control the outbreak.

The central government authorities may truly want transparency—if only so that they themselves know what’s going on. But they don’t want it across the board: only on this one specific issue. And the repression of speech and distortion of data in China aren’t a matter of a singular central will. It’s mostly carried out by local officials, who have the most to lose if people can complain freely about mistakes or cover-ups. In a public health crisis, that could have fatal consequences. For instance, it’s unclear whether it’s deliberate policy or simply an overwhelmed system, but numerous reports testify to bodies being cremated in Wuhan without the death being recorded as a coronavirus fatality, which has made it highly difficult to tell just how lethal the virus is.

To be sure, the men responsible for covering up the initial outbreak—the online monitors who stifled the doctors’ comments (originally posted to a relatively private group chat); the police who threatened them; and the local government officials who signed off on their harassment or detention—will be punished at the central government’s insistence, if only to appease public anger. But there’s a perverse injustice, given that they were following the expected standards of the party-state.

Under ordinary circumstances, in fact, their behavior would have, from the party’s perspective, been laudable. Hundreds of similar incidents play out every day across China as part of a program of “stability maintenance” that officially costs the country around $200 billion a year, more than double the figure of a decade ago. (That figure includes some policing activities that would be normal in any country, but it also excludes much of the apparatus of control, such as the domestic United Front programs that look to co-opt non-party groups into serving the party’s purposes.)

The kind of repression that occurred in Wuhan didn’t even need any special conspiracy behind it to specifically cover up the coronavirus. Rumormongering—a euphemism for drawing attention to potential sources of social or political scandal—has been a priority of the authorities since 2013, especially online. Most of the time, of course, it’s over far smaller matters than an epidemic: a police killing, a polluting factory, a hospital turning away a dying child. The monitoring of messages for destabilizing information intensified in 2017, when the administrators of chat groups began to be held accountable for content posted by any user, allowing the authorities to leverage the power of self-censorship. For Wuhan’s police, threatening people for posting information that might cause trouble, true or false, was as routine and automatic an action as a traffic arrest. The local government authorities tipping the national media off about the story showed their bosses they had the situation under control.

The public is well aware of what the score is. For years, the government has signaled that the fate of whistleblowers isn’t a happy one. This is not a new habit; take Shuping Wang and Gao Yaojie, the heroic doctors who exposed the illicit blood sales and subsequent AIDS crisis in Henan in the 1990s. Both of them faced years of persecution as a result, even after the state admitted they were right; both were forced to take refuge in the United States. Activists like Tan Zuoren, who attempted to document the corruption that led to the collapse of supposedly reinforced school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, were put in prison.

Despite all this, between around 2000 and 2012, the Chinese internet developed its own watchdog culture, particularly over local corruption. Journalists often shared information from scandals, backed by a public keen to haul greedy officials over the coals. Crackdowns were relatively rare, and there were those within the party itself who saw this kind of monitoring as a useful tool to engage the public in the work of maintaining some accountability. All that ended in 2012-2013, as a concerted campaign against some of the most prominent watchdogs, combined with sweeping new online restrictions, signaled the end of any tolerance for outside monitoring. By the end of 2013, Weibo, the most popular social media site for such stories, had seen its traffic drop by 70 percent. In the next few years, that campaign broadened to a mass crackdown on human rights activists, lawyers, and anyone else who dared to monitor officials’ business, even as it was joined by a sweeping purge within the party of supposedly corrupt figures, who also happened to be Xi’s political foes. Humiliating TV confessions became a normal part of evening broadcasts.

Even now, arrests and threats continue throughout China for spreading so-called rumors about the virus. Some of that is directed against genuine misinformation, but some of it is simply the state’s usual crushing of any perceived dissent. Any potential whistleblowers eyeing up that WeChat hotline, for instance, have to be very aware that the app requires them to sign up with their real government ID numbers.

To speak up, citizens need to believe not only that they won’t be punished now but that local authorities won’t remember them and take vengeance later. Given the record, that’s unlikely. Take the village of Wukan, once heralded for resisting corrupt local officials in 2011. By 2016, the villagers involved in the protests had been picked off one by one, and the local government was more repressive than ever. The state has a long memory and keeps records.

It’s true that Chinese reporting has enjoyed a rare spring and that media has been doing brilliant and honest work from inside Wuhan itself and elsewhere. (See this compiled list in Chinese, put together by the reporter Shen Lu.) But such flourishing has happened after disasters in the past, such as the Tianjin explosions of 2015 and the high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou in 2011, and it has always been short-lived.

There’s no real new transparency. Instead, the old red lines have been temporarily erased in the wake of disaster, and the many talented and frustrated journalists in China are able to quickly occupy the new space created—until the authorities decide what can and cannot be said and the lines are drawn again. In the case of the coronavirus, the disruption may be such that the freedom lasts longer than usual—but it’s still ultimately temporary. Officials, on the other hand, persist unless unlucky enough to be scapegoated; as some sardonically noted this week, the man in charge of the port area of Tianjin that exploded is now a prominent member of the Hubei government.

Actual, lasting openness would need watchdogs outside the party-state itself. It would need a media environment where the censor’s pen doesn’t hover over every piece of copy filed. It would need protections for whistleblowers and an independent judiciary able to enforce those protections. It would need a willingness to let control slip out of the party’s hands and to bear the consequences. None of this is remotely likely in the foreseeable future. That means the Chinese people will be left in darkness about what their institutions are doing—until something else slithers out of the shadows that endangers them all.

James Palmer is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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