As China appears to have turned a corner on the coronavirus pandemic, and the West appears to be struggling with huge increases in infection and death, propagandists on both sides are attacking.

The Chinese Communist Party, facing serious criticism at home, trumpets President Xi Jinping’s personal leadership of the war against the virus. Party mouthpieces are working overtime on social media to spread this narrative of the superiority of China’s political system. The party also claims that the virus may not have originated in China.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping visits areas affected by the coronavirus. Photo: CGTN screenshot.

Xi’s aggressive nationalism shows the party successfully taming the invader. Propaganda from the West shouts that democracy respects human rights and is more transparent. Although not perfect, they seem to say, it’s the best system the world’s got. But this narrative does not frame the issue properly.

The start

If Xi has been (is) personally leading the battle, then he must own responsibility for the party’s failure from at least December 2019 until 20 January 2020 to take appropriate action. The evidence is that he knew about a virus in Wuhan from at latest January 5, 2020.

From then until January 20, the party apparatus he heads kept information from the public that could have saved countless lives. This part of the narrative is well established both inside China, among those who were directly involved, and outside China.

In the West, politicians watched the cascade of community spread in Asia (China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Iran) with little apparent concern. They appeared to be in denial.

President of the United States Donald Trump. File photo: US Gov’t.

In the US, the President, facing a battle to stay in office beyond 2020, said publicly that he was unconcerned. He accused the Fake News Media of inflaming the situation. It’s low risk, he said. He called criticism of his response a ‘hoax’.

By March, the full story of the deadly nature of the disease in Asia had spread around the world. Yet leaders of Western democracies, for the most part, downplayed the contagion and did not prepare.  Consider the response in Italy, where authorities appeared to have been shocked when confronted with the virus.

Politicians in both authoritarian and democratic systems adopted broadly similar positions for probably similar reasons. They sacrificed the wellbeing of their citizens and others for short-term political gain. Democracy was not the problem. Consider one democracy that moved quickly to protect citizens: Taiwan.

In Taiwan, a vibrant competitive democracy, political leaders acted on 31 December, soon after the WHO was notified of a mysterious contagion spreading in Wuhan. Taiwan public health officials began to board direct flights from Wuhan. They checked for fever and signs of pneumonia.

Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen. File Photo: Taiwan Gov’t.

On 5 January Taiwanese authorities extended surveillance to include any individual who had travelled to Wuhan in the past 14 days and had fever or symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection. They screened for 26 viruses, including SARS and MERS.

Taiwanese officials quarantined at home those with indications of virus and assessed them for treatment in hospital. These, and other measures taken in January-February, reduced the spread and severity of the virus in Taiwan. There have been 49 confirmed cases, and one death at the time of writing. On 27 January, authorities in Taiwan linked the immigration and health insurance databases. This allowed them to see who had a recent history of travel to the mainland. They took many other actions in a timely manner to protect the health and lives of citizens.

Undoubtedly Taiwan’s experience of SARS in 2003 was a factor. As a result, authorities set up effective central command structures for public health and emergencies. They activated these institutions on 20 January.

Democracy did not slow Taiwan’s response. In this case, it is likely that Taiwan’s widespread distrust of the Mainland’s official news and propaganda organs played a key role. This distrust enabled Taiwanese public health authorities to act swiftly with local community support.

Mainland-based infectious disease experts have complained publicly that the authorities in Wuhan and Hubei failed to act in a timely fashion to protect citizens. The Mainland government has apparently underfunded and shackled the Chinese system that manages disease control, this time with initially disastrous consequences.

Expert critics in the US and Italy tell a similar tale of underfunding and political complacency.

As the propaganda war blazes, let’s dig deeper. Politicians in democratic and authoritarian systems have initially sacrificed citizen wellbeing for short-term political gain. But the problem is not about the political system so much as trust in authority.

The case of Taiwan demonstrates that healthy scepticism and questioning of messages from politicians should be the order of the day. Trust and empower public health experts and treat with utmost skepticism the political trumpets spouting fake news.

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John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.