Authoritarian regimes are ill-equipped for public health emergencies
by Prachi Vidwans, HRF research associate
When the Wuhan coronavirus rose to international attention in mid-January, we saw many well-reported articles detailing the ways that Chinese authorities suppressed information about the epidemic in its early stages.
From Li Yuan’s detailed description in the New York Times of the CCP’s treatment of critics, to the BBC’s reporting on social media censorship used in Wuhan, it seemed clear that the CCP’s authoritarian instincts and internal climate of fear were a direct threat to global health.
But on January 23, members of the World Health Organization’s emergency committee directly opposed this narrative of repression by praising the Chinese government for its transparency, cooperation, and urgent response. The praise has prompted the question: Is the CCP lying, or not?
For those of us at the Human Rights Foundation, the answer is abundantly clear. After all, how can anyone trust the CCP’s “official” data, given its long history of misinformation and censorship?
Here are the facts. The coronavirus was first identified as a problem in Wuhan, a city in central China, in December. The CCP’s first reaction was to repress communications and information sharing in the city. Eight people, some of them medical workers, were arrested for alerting WeChat netizens about the danger of the virus. Last week, Li Wenliang, a doctor who was one of the detained, died from the disease, sparking a massive outcry.
Journalists say that they were prevented from reporting on the virus, even as state-run newspapers busied themselves writing puff pieces about the upcoming Lunar New Year festival. Government censors in China reportedly took down early social media posts in an effort to “control the narrative.”
In mid-January, when the international media caught wind of the virus, credible reports emerged suggesting that China’s official numbers were seriously misleading. On January 18, the Imperial College in London announced that the real number of coronavirus cases had to be close to 1,700. The CCP had confirmed just 60. In the meantime, news emerged that short-staffed hospitals in Wuhan were turning patients away, ambulances refusing to pick up patients with suspicious symptoms, and doctors struggling to properly diagnose patients because of a shortage in test kits, further skewing the data and endangering many lives through neglect.
The CCP’s repressive policy shifted after coronavirus cases were identified internationally. Many had already compared the coronavirus to 2003’s SARS epidemic, during which the CCP received harsh criticism for its negligent response. Xi Jinping and his allies feared that renewed international criticism would lead to anti-regime dissent at home. So they shifted the narrative, and made it clear that anyone suppressing numbers would be “nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.” Then, suddenly, the number of reported cases jumped.
Official numbers from the Chinese government spiked, and continue to climb precipitously, from 400 reported cases to more than 42,750 within China in just three weeks. A great part of this increase is also due to domestic and international travel. Because the CCP failed to warn Chinese citizens of the health risk in a timely manner, they continued to travel, and cases have now been reported in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, and even the United States. In Singapore, an outbreak was linked to a business conference. In Japan, 10 cruise passengers tested positive for the virus, leading to a quarantine of the entire ship.
At a press conference on February 3, the Chinese government’s spokesperson admitted that the Chinese government has been in close contact with the United State’s Center for Disease Control since January 3. Yet, it wasn’t until just before Chinese New Year — the largest annual migration in the world — that the Chinese government sounded the alarm to its own citizens.
The failure to appropriately warn the public and share information on public health best practices also facilitated the spread of the virus. Many in Wuhan and elsewhere underestimated the severity of the spread and the importance of containment. Some even joked that it was a “patriotic virus” that only seemed to affect foreigners. So when the CCP suddenly announced that an entire city would be quarantined, it sparked a panic. The hashtag #EscapeWuhan sprung up on Weibo, and some desperate residents reportedly took fever suppressants to evade airport screenings.
The Chinese government’s dishonesty has put the rest of the world at risk. The CCP’s response can be interpreted as a well-trained, knee-jerk reaction to crisis. In the years since SARS, Xi Jinping has centralized power and stifled public discourse in a way that hasn’t been seen since Mao’s reign. Increasingly, the country’s authoritarian leadership has responded to bad news by downplaying the story — or eliminating it altogether — sometimes going so far as to bury people alive rather than deal with a PR crisis. And now, the results of authoritarian fear, repression, and intolerance are being felt well beyond China’s borders.
This is far from the first time the CCP has lied about data. China has been suspected of lying about everything from the size of its population, to its coal consumption, to its crime rates. And it’s not alone in fudging the numbers. A recent study of nighttime lights in satellite imagery indicates that lying about development data (specifically GDP) is a distinctly authoritarian habit.
As a rule, you should be highly skeptical of data provided by any authoritarian governments, even if (or especially when) it’s used by institutions like the U.N. or the World Economic Forum.
Indeed, although official coronavirus infections are increasing, many suspect that the Chinese government is still lying about the rate of infection. A new study suggests that the real number of cases within China could be as high as 100,000 — more than double China’s official number. Hospitals in Wuhan continue to experience severe shortages of equipment and staff, with family members of patients reporting that no tests are being done on their sick loved ones, despite the Wuhan local government ordering hospitals to complete testing on 99% of all suspected cases within two days.
So why would international organizations like the WHO ignore the abundant evidence of information suppression? One possibility is that its leaders are hesitant to criticize the regime in case that would lead the CCP to end its cooperation with the international health community.
Rewarding good behavior through good PR protects this relationship. But the praise has had serious consequences that should not be overlooked — and it has certainly worked in favor of the CCP’s international public image. This proliferation of the question, “Is the CCP repressing information?” casts doubt on something that should be completely obvious: Of course it is.
The WHO’s praise also correlates with the emergence of new stories on censorship and reprisal within China. In January, international pressure seemed to have prompted the CCP to allow a surprising amount of political speech on Chinese social media platforms. Posts detailing the local government’s failure to control the outbreak remained on WeChat, where normally, they would have been removed by the CCP’s censors within hours.
But only days went by before censors came back in full force. Perhaps emboldened by the WHO’s praise of its so-called “transparency,” the CCP disappeared citizen journalists in Wuhan and deleted trending hashtags that called for freedom of expression surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.
What this pattern tells us is that there is real value in holding power accountable. The pressure and criticism the CCP faced after SARS served as a warning that prompted them to make an unlikely shift toward openness at the end of January. Now, the international community’s praise may be turning back the tide.
If you live in a democratic country, it can be easy to feel that an autocrat’s habit of crushing bad news and faking data does not really affect you. Infectious disease proves, suddenly and violently, that our supposed safety from authoritarianism is an illusion.
Today, the CCP’s unparalleled need for control over public information and discourse has posed a direct threat to the health of individuals far beyond its borders. But pressure works. If we want a better public health response today, if we want a better one seventeen years from now — if we want justice in general — we must question leadership, insist on facts, and hold power accountable.