THE EARLY phase of the coronavirus outbreak in China remains an important and still poorly understood lacuna. Prompt, early action could have saved lives and averted enormous disruption. Instead, the Chinese people were exposed to danger in the first weeks of the epidemic when their officials failed to sound the alarm, even though they knew something was afoot.

Not all the details of decision-making in the secretive Chinese system have yet come to light. But a key disclosure was made Feb. 15 in the Communist Party bimonthly journal, Qiushi, which reprinted the text of a speech that President Xi Jinping gave Feb. 3, according to the newsletter Sinocism. In the speech, Mr. Xi declared, “I issued demands during a Politburo Standing Committee meeting on January 7 for work to contain the outbreak.” Thus, he knew of the outbreak by that day, and quite possibly days beforehand.

This is important because at that moment, the information was largely withheld from the public. As we noted earlier, according to a detailed insider account published by the China Media Project, on Dec. 30 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.”

Likewise, eight Chinese doctors expressed concern in Wuhan in December and were reprimanded for spreading rumors. One of them, Li Wenliang, who died recently of the coronavirus, was warned by the police after sharing concerns about seven new cases in an online group chat on Dec. 30. Without knowing of the alarming developments about the virus, in those first weeks of January a “Spring Festival” was being planned for 40,000 people in a residential community in Wuhan. Also, annual provincial and city political meetings were held in Wuhan from Jan. 12 to 17. In that period, a city health commission issued public statements that no new cases were detected. And a delegation of Chinese officials was in Washington, to sign a “phase one” trade deal with President Trump on Jan. 15.

Mr. Xi issued instructions for dealing with the outbreak Jan. 20, nearly two weeks after he spoke about it to the Politburo. Why only then? What did he know, and when did he know it? Did he hope to avoid upsetting the Washington trade event? And why reveal his Jan. 7 intervention now? To make himself look like the wise captain of the ship, so that lower-level officials can be punished?

China has an immense challenge coping with the outbreak. Its success or failure will affect the whole world. It has now mounted an enormous containment effort. But these early weeks of the epidemic reveal the hazards of an authoritarian system that hides the truth from its own people.

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