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The story of the coronavirus is the story of today’s China

Sometimes a top-down, authoritarian system can simply move more quickly in times of crisis. But that doesn’t necessarily equate with making the right decisions.

Central Hospital of Wuhan
Medical staff attend to patients at Central Hospital of Wuhan.
The Central Hospital Of Wuhan via Weibo/REUTERS

In important ways, the story of the spreading coronavirus, with its daily escalation of worrying news, is the story of China itself. 

The numbers of those reported to have died and those who have been infected jump every day. New infections are cropping up in numerous other countries, including the United States. There are a couple of possible cases in Minnesota. Warnings from Chinese officials are increasingly dire. Still, this is not meant to portray China as some sort of global menace. In comparison with its slow and clumsy response to the SARS outbreak of 2003, the government is moving with speed and determination to contain this outbreak. 

Even in the midst of Chinese New Year celebrations, it has 50 million people in the central city of Wuhan, where the infection was discovered, and surrounding areas under virtual lockdown. It has banned travel packages for citizens heading abroad. Authorities said they would build a new hospital in a matter of days to help treat all those who have gotten ill in Wuhan. 

On one level, the outbreak and the fear it engenders simply are reminders of China’s size and global connections. China was important at the time of the SARS outbreak, of course, but not nearly as central to the world’s commerce as it is now. Among other things, China is positioning itself at the center of a new global commercial network stretching all the way to Europe and Africa, its “Belt and Road” initiative.

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At the same time, where else would you find such a mix of traditional and modern: A popular “wet market” selling wild animals (most likely the way the disease was transmitted to humans) in a city of 10 million people where an estimated 300 of the world’s top 500 companies also have some sort of representation? 

And China’s response exhibits the hallmarks of its top-down political system: Local officials initially downplay the problem. When the central government wakes up to the situation, the orders come fast and furious. National officials can instantly impose measures that would be taken only in the most extreme cases elsewhere. 

Chinese authorities said the outbreak appeared centered around market areas, and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post provided this useful look at how those markets function. A menu purportedly posted online by one market stall listed around 100 types of animals and poultry, including foxes, wolf cubs and civet cats, and it quoted a resident as saying she saw snakes, rats and hedgehogs for sale, as well. Research suggests that SARS jumped to humans from civets.

Although many Chinese cities banned such sales to prevent the spread of disease, the Post said captive breeding for sale still was permitted under license in China, and that Wuhan city authorities reported in fall that they had inspected and approved eight such stalls. The national government suspended the trade altogether on Sunday.

Wuhan is more than just any city. It is a manufacturing center focusing on cars, steel and optics, and the transportation hub for central China. This crisis, coming into focus at Chinese New Year when millions are on the move, could hardly have come at a worse time.

China’s response to the disease kicked into high gear last Monday with comments by President Xi Jinping. Local officials hadn’t hidden the problem, but they soft-pedaled it in the three previous weeks: failing to disclose that a patient undergoing surgery at a local hospital had infected a doctor and a number of nurses; sending the police to talk to people posting what they said was unreliable information about the disease; and allowing a local tradition to go ahead Jan. 18 in which 40,000 households gather to share meals.

That all changed when Xi spoke out forcefully on the matter. It’s good that he did, of course. His attention focuses all of China’s bureaucratic muscle on the problem. Officials otherwise have a reputation for playing down bad news. SARS is one case in point, but just last year there also were questions about how open China was being about an epidemic of African swine fever, which was expected to wipe out about half of the country’s pigs. 

Wang Xiangwei, the Post’s former editor, says that Xi’s consolidation of national power in recent years only encourages lower officials to wait for instructions from Beijing, and that the president’s drive for accountability from bureaucrats might actually prompt them to try to hide problems. Finally, a tighter rein on journalism means news organizations are less willing to stick their necks out and report stories that might make officials look bad. 

Sometimes a top-down, authoritarian system can simply move more quickly in times of crisis. Who else announces that they’re going to build a new hospital at the snap of their fingers? But that doesn’t necessarily equate with making the right decisions. And the real trick is devising a system in which local authorities have the rules they need, the willingness to implement them without looking over their shoulders – plus the backing of a central government providing whatever resources and expertise they’re lacking. 

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It’s unlikely that China and the rest of the world will be able to totally eliminate such outbreaks in the future. But it’s not only about medical treatment. A more flexible political system probably would save some lives, as well.