HONG KONG — Sometimes history seems to unspool in a continuous playback loop. That is the feeling I get from watching Hongkongers donning face masks, dousing hands with sanitizer, and once again bracing for the possibility that a deadly new coronavirus outbreak originating in mainland China will spread here.
Chinese authorities’ delayed response, the secrecy breeding mistrust, the lack of full transparency, and efforts to control the narrative by downplaying the seriousness — it all rings sadly familiar.
Public health emergencies should be handled quickly, transparently, and devoid of political considerations. But public health is inherently political and, with anything involving China, politics can never be fully excised. For Chinese Communist officials, particularly at the provincial level, there is an innate tendency to cover up and conceal, their long-imbued penchant for secrecy always taking precedence over trifling concerns like promoting public awareness and advocating proper precautions.
That was certainly the case in late 1997, just after China’s assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, when the territory was hit by an outbreak of the H5N1 virus known as “bird flu.” Well into the outbreak, with people sick and some dying, Hong Kong officials were reluctant to finger China as the source, even though 80% of the territory’s poultry came from the mainland. Hong Kong ordered the slaughter of more than 1.3 million chickens, ducks, pigeons, and other birds, but officials were still nonsensically hesitant to point to China as the culprit behind the contagion out of fear of contradicting Beijing, which insisted — wrongly — that all its chickens were healthy.
The same obfuscation and denial came from China’s Communist authorities in reaction to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, also caused by a coronavirus, in late 2002 and 2003. Even as the virus spread, Chinese officials continued to undercount cases and delay reporting information to the World Health Organization.
The government did not warn the public for months, allowing people carrying the virus to migrate freely, and did not alert the WHO until February 2003. China finally began concerted action in the summer of 2003 and SARS was quickly brought under control. But the inadequate reporting and delayed response led to a public health trust deficit that persists today.
Like bird flu in 1997 and the SARS epidemic of 2002 to 2003, the newest coronavirus has originated in the mainland, this time in Wuhan, most likely in a market where exotic wild animals are sold. Like before, there are suspicions that in these early stages the number of confirmed cases were undercounted, underreported, or both. Like before, there were delays and denials, with Wuhan officials initially downplaying the virus as mild, treatable, and contained while dismissing the likelihood of human-to-human transmission. Those who disagreed online were questioned by police for spreading “false rumors.”
But 2020 is not 1997, nor even 2003. China’s public health infrastructure and reporting system have become more reliable. Most importantly, internet use and penetration in China today makes it virtually impossible for a cover-up to last for long. Despite censorship of some news about the coronavirus — including blocking foreign media websites — social media platforms have been filled with debate, discussion, and questions from citizens asking what precautions they should take.
State media has also made much of President Xi Jinping’s instruction to local officials to open up about the number of cases and the severity of the epidemic or risk consequences. And WHO investigators and Hong Kong specialists have been allowed to visit Wuhan.
Does this signal that Beijing is opting for a new policy of transparency this time?
“It’s still very mixed,” said my colleague, King-wa Fu, who studies Chinese censorship patterns at the University of Hong Kong. “We see censorship. But we also see a lot of discussion online. We’ll have to wait and see.”
The rapid spiral in the number of identified cases of infection with the coronavirus, and the new draconian measures taken, like effectively quarantining Wuhan at the start of the busy Lunar New Year travel period, breeds suspicion that the real picture may be far worse than officials even now admit.
Even the quarantine smacks of too little, too late. It seems ill-planned, and likely to be largely ineffective. First there is the near impracticality of sealing off a city of 11 million people, larger than the populations of Hong Kong or New York City. The move was taken the day before the New Year’s Eve travel period, when many people would have already started on their journeys. Planes, trains, and buses were halted, but it was unclear what provisions would be made for private cars. Perhaps most inexplicably, the ban was announced to take effect at 10 a.m. on a Thursday, creating an early-morning crush of travelers trying to get out ahead of the quarantine.
Then there’s the matter of whether such a closure of Wuhan could even be effective. Some public health experts I spoke with said there seems to have been no provision made for getting food, fuel, and critical supplies like medicine into the city, or how investigators, decision-makers, or even journalists would enter — and whether they would then be permitted to leave. And while the closure might temporarily tamp down the geographical spread of the coronavirus — apart from those residents who have already left — it could also have the unintended effect of turning Wuhan into an incubator of infection.
Both the Hong Kong and Chinese central governments are facing crises of confidence.
The Hong Kong government was already facing a loss of public confidence after months of protests sparked by Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s botched extradition bill. Some pro-democracy lawmakers and ordinary citizens are accusing the government of dragging its feet on the virus crisis for fear of offending Beijing — for example, not shutting down the West Kowloon rail terminus, and not immediately demanding arriving mainland train passengers fill out health declaration forms.
Bird flu redux.
For the Chinese Communist Party, which just celebrated 70 years in power, its legitimacy derives not from any election but from its performance. China’s leaders base their right to rule on how effectively they have managed what is soon to be the world’s largest economy.
One may have thought China’s leaders had learned from their errors handling SARS. Unfortunately, history teaches us otherwise, and seems to be repeating itself again.
Keith B. Richburg, a former Washington Post correspondent, is director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre. This article was originally published in The South China Morning Post’s This Week in Asia.