Chinese people simply don’t believe their government. They know that government health data is suspect, just like China’s official economic numbers. And just as all success is attached to President Xi Jinping, so is every failure. China may be racing into the future, but its bungled response to the coronavirus outbreak is a reminder of how suddenly it can stumble.
The public’s distrust of the government emerged in interviews conducted this week by an American business executive who worked in Shanghai for three years and who shared with me conversations with former colleagues there. These Shanghai residents expressed deep skepticism about official data, which as of Tuesday showed more than 23,000 cases and 490 deaths.
“I personally doubt the numbers are accurate. I believe there are lots of missing cases, especially in rural area,” said one of the Chinese residents. “I think there are definitely miscounted numbers as some people died before there were cases diagnosed,” said a second. “Don’t trust the official numbers,” bluntly cautioned a third.
This third Shanghai resident expressed a widely shared fear that the authorities didn’t learn from the SARS outbreak in 2003: “Seventeen years after SARS, they are still making the same mistakes, nightmare mistakes, that’s my deepest despair. From holding back the truth, to [inadequate] preparations for disaster, to [slow] speed of reaction, to chaotic supply distributions. Those are all repeated mistakes.”
A dramatic example of how China’s police-state tactics backfired is the case of Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital. In late December, Li noticed cases of a virus that resembled SARS. He posted a warning to other doctors on Dec. 30, advising them to wear protective clothing. On Jan. 1, the Wuhan Public Security Bureau, the local equivalent of the FBI, summoned Li to sign a statement that he had made “false comments” that “severely disturbed the social order.”
Xinhua News Agency joined the public shaming of Li and other doctors who had posted warnings. “The police call on all netizens not to fabricate rumors, not spread rumors, not believe rumors,” the story said, but instead to “jointly build a harmonious, clear and bright cyberspace.”
Three weeks after Li had tried to sound the alarm, China declared the virus outbreak a national emergency. The Supreme People’s Court later denounced the arrests of Li and others and said: “Rumors end when there is openness.”
But China can’t have this openness when authorities work so diligently to control negative information — about disease or anything else. The New York Times gathered some chilling examples: Hong Kong journalists who went to a Wuhan hospital in mid-January were detained and told to delete their footage. A Hong Kong television reporter who had covered the SARS epidemic posted an article about the new virus, but it was quickly deleted. A military doctor who helped expose the seriousness of SARS was later pilloried for harming the interests of the nation.
Xu Zhiyuan, a Chinese journalist who decried Beijing’s actions in suppressing the SARS outbreak, wrote later about the costs of such censorship. The Times article quoted his social media post: “The system is successful in that it destroyed the people with integrity, the institutions with credibility and a society capable of narrating its own stories.”
The financial cost of suppressing information and letting coronavirus spread in its early weeks could run to hundreds of billions of dollars. Goldman Sachs estimated in a forecast for clients Tuesday that a severe outbreak could reduce China’s gross domestic product growth in 2020 by more than a full percentage point. Already, Chinese financial markets have taken a huge hit.
China’s command economy, managed by a one-party dictatorship, has achieved miracles in recent decades. In comparison, an open and contentious democracy like the United States can sometimes seem like a losing proposition. But we’re now witnessing a striking reminder of the need for open sources of information and public officials who aren’t cowed by political pressure.
Xi thundered on Monday that Chinese officials who “lack boldness” in responding to coronavirus will be punished. Perhaps he will dictate that patients who don’t get well quickly will be jailed, too.