Who is the real hero of the current coronavirus crisis? Silly question, because if you read Hong Kong’s Quisling press and tune into the latest propaganda outpourings from Beijing, you will know that the answer is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

And here’s why: there’s nothing like the good old authoritarian government to get things done at a time of crisis. Dictatorships (although it’s most impolite to call them that) are really good at mobilising resources and taking control. Wishy-washy democracies just aren’t up to the job because they just faff around instead of taking decisive action.

Hong Kong residents prepare to leave Hubei province. Photo: GovHK.

So far, so Orwellian, but it gets worse because while CCP Leader Xi Jinping was taking his “victory” stroll around Wuhan and all but declaring the virus licked, officials in Hubei Province’s Qianjiang city, no doubt anxious to show how right he was, removed all travel restrictions on March 12 before reinstating them half an hour later. It appears that pleasing the Leader is a tricky business. Almost as tricky as bringing a virus to heel.

However pleasing the Leader is how things work in a dictatorship. The survival of the ruling party takes precedence over everything else and the survival of those inside the system involves contortions of sycophancy and lavish amounts of second-guessing.

The Quislings can, no doubt, explain all this away, probably in terms of decrying Western ignorance and prejudice but it’s much harder to explain away the bald fact that over 3,000 people have died and way over 80,000 people have been infected by the virus in China. I mean the Wuhan virus, which we’re supposed to call the Covid-19 virus because it’s so impolite to be point fingers and assign blame.

Only the most bigoted of commentators would be so crude as to point out that this is the second time (the first being SARS) in the space of two decades when China has been the source of a fast-spreading and deadly virus. In both instances, the epidemic arose from contamination in the food chain.

And only the even more bigoted would be vulgar enough to mention that on both occasions vital time was lost at the initial stages of the outbreak by officials covering up the problem either because the stultifying bureaucracy made it difficult for them to report the truth or, more likely because telling the truth in a Communist system tends to be a very bad idea.

But wait a minute, even if all this is true how can you possibly maintain that once the great Chinese state swung into action, it was not mightily impressive? Did you miss the fact that hospitals leapt out of the ground almost overnight, that the armed forces plus many other servants of the state were bundled onto planes and dispatched to the epicentre of the virus to do battle and that affected areas were effectively sealed off with precision?

Featuring less prominently in this rose-tinted picture was the almost unbearably heartbreaking story of a boy suffering from cerebral palsy in Wuhan who was left alone to die in his own excrement, without food or water because his parents had caught the virus and were not there to look after him. The authorities were probably too busy building new this and that to have time for the less headline-grabbing effort of mobilising a way of caring for him.

And then there are the more than 20 people killed and over 40 injured at a quarantine centre located in a shoddily built hotel that collapsed. A toxic mixture of carelessness, corruption and lethal haste causes building collapses all over China, all the time. This collapse just happened to be layered on top of all the other woes afflicting Wuhan.

Despite the earnest efforts of China’s Number One cheerleader Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who moonlights as head of the World Health Organization, to paint the most glowing of pictures of how China has handled the crisis, there is clearly another side to the story.

Xi Jinping. File photo: CCTV.

And while the Beijing propaganda machine busies itself spinning the political narrative of how wonderful dictatorships are at times of crisis, spare a thought for what’s been happening in the only part of Chinese society under democratic rule.

It’s a place called Taiwan, where the government sprung into action back in December, where the number of virus infections is very low, where there has been an orderly distribution of protective equipment, and where, without drama, effective controls on the movement of people have been imposed to great effect.

Oh, I just remembered, we’re not supposed to talk about Taiwan… sorry.

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Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster and runs companies in the food sector. He was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent. Vines is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously - Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium and Market Panic and most recently, Food Gurus. He hosts a weekly television current affairs programme: The Pulse.