As the Covid-19 outbreak caused by the novel coronavirus has infected thousands worldwide, in nations such as South Korea, Italy and Iran, we are very much on the brink of witnessing a pandemic. What started off as a mysterious illness in the Chinese city of Wuhan has overwhelmed the country’s health services, spread across the region and around the world.

Yet, somehow, China thinks it can gloat and pat itself on the back. In a brazen act of premature self-glorification, a book has just been released that compiles state media writing congratulating China’s leadership on handling the virus outbreak, which of course is still ravaging the country. In particular, Chairman Xi Jinping is given plaudits for his “sense of mission” and “outstanding leadership.”

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping. File photo: Flickr/Creative Commons.

The editor-in-chief of nationalistic tabloid Global Times (disclosure: this writer worked there several years ago) brazenly chided South Korea for being “slow” and claimed that the low infection rate in the United States needed to be “verified carefully.”

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) continues to keep up its perplexing China cheerleading, claiming that the country set an example for others. Bruce Aylward, who led a WHO mission to China, repeatedly praised the country’s leadership, even bizarrely saying if he was infected with the illness, he would want to be treated in China. But no amount of praise can hide the fact that the main reason the coronavirus outbreak became so severe was because the Chinese authorities kept it under wraps for at least several weeks.

The WHO’s praise of China is compounded by its practice of not holding Beijing to account for its many actions that obscured and delayed a proper response. Many observers have questioned the organisation’s obsequious stance towards China, especially from its secretary-general Tedros Ghebreyesus.

All of this ignores the most glaring factor for the coronavirus outbreak, which is the ineptness of China’s response, which involved censorship, delays, and deliberate downplaying of the worsening outbreak.

The more reporting that is being done on the coronavirus outbreak, the more we are learning about how China has delayed action or withheld vital data. Even the WHO has admitted China refused to share information about front-line medical staff infections.

The first cases were recorded in Wuhan in early December and by the end of the month, local authorities were aware there was an outbreak of an unknown virus. Yet eight doctors who discussed this over social media in a private group in late December were detained and criticised by authorities – mind you, they had only been talking amongst themselves, not putting something out in public. There was also at least a one-week period when case numbers were stagnant. The fact that this happened during an annual provincial CCP leaders’ conference is very likely not coincidental.

For several weeks, the only mainland Chinese cases reported were in Wuhan, even though cases were showing up across Asia in Thailand, Singapore and Japan. Chinese netizens even joked that the coronavirus was “patriotic” because it was jumping borders whilst remaining confined to Wuhan. As we know now, that was certainly not the case.

During those several weeks when authorities knew about the outbreak but did and said little about it, five million of its residents had already left the city to other parts of the country as well as to overseas. There were also several large-scale Lunar New Year gatherings including a district banquet with tens of thousands of diners.

On January 23, Wuhan (and eventually all of Hubei province) was locked down but that was too late. The coronavirus by then had spread to every single province and region in China, causing major cities much further away like Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou to be locked down.

virus mask coronavirus
Hong Kong residents prepare to leave Hubei province. File photo: GovHK.

In addition, Chinese authorities insisted for a while that the coronavirus could not spread from human to human. But this, of course, has been proven to be wrong. However, there is evidence to show that Chinese researchers had known that human-to-human transmission was possible, which thus implies authorities were either lying or withholding vital information.

Either way, Chinese authorities fostered a serious sense of complacency during those vital first few weeks of January, during which they failed to let the public know how serious the coronavirus risk was and what precautions they should have been taking. Xi first publicly spoke out about the coronavirus on January 20, but apparently he had known about it since at least January 7.

When one of the eight “whistleblower” doctors, Li Wenliang, died from the coronavirus himself in early February, public outcry followed, which led the Chinese authorities to hail him as a hero. But almost immediately, the authorities began arresting Chinese citizen journalists again while censoring social media posts about the outbreak.

Clearly, Chinese authorities have no qualms about pretending to mourn Li’s death, then quickly continuing to chase down others for speaking out just as they had done to Li and the other doctors.

In a further attempt to shift responsibility, the central government in Beijing also tried to blame the delayed coronavirus response on local authorities. This is a standard tactic during crises to create the impression that the Chinese Communist Party regime is infallible and that major problems are always only due to corrupt or inept local officials.

But the Wuhan mayor wasn’t having this and said that having to wait for approval from Beijing meant he had his hands tied in taking quick action. This is not surprising given how China’s governance has become an increasingly top-down system where Xi has been accumulating power and titles to the point where he is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Tse-tung. That’s why the central government’s attempts to shift blame by punishing or replacing top Hubei and Wuhan officials is very inadequate.

Li Wenliang
Li Wenliang. Photo: Li Wenliang.

For a more open and successful way of handling the coronavirus outbreak, the WHO could easily look at Taiwan which has taken a transparent approach that encompasses daily public press conferences, government control of mask distribution, and early preparation.

As such, Taiwan only has 42 cases (as of Thursday), compared to over 100 for both Hong Kong and Singapore. Of course, this would necessitate the WHO actually admitting Taiwan existed. The island state is not only excluded from the WHO and its forums, but it is ignored or treated as part of China, to the point where important medical data is not shared with Taiwan.

By now, the coronavirus has infected more than 5,000 in South Korea, over 3,000 in Italy and in Iran, killing dozens. It has also spread to Egypt and Brazil, meaning every continent now except Antarctica has confirmed cases. It has truly become a global outbreak, despite the WHO being reluctant to declare it a pandemic. The world really needs to start focusing on dealing with the outbreak now, with no room for complacency or lack of preparations.

Make no mistake, China’s government must accept a lot of blame and responsibility for the coronavirus epidemic.

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Hilton Yip is a writer who has worked in Taipei, Beijing, and Hong Kong over the past decade. He has a strong interest in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan issues.