Truth about China’s virus ‘recovery’
COVID-19 is no longer the "Wuhan Virus". The city which saw the first outbreak in the global pandemic today reported no new cases of infection. Is this too good to be true?
China's health ministry says the COVID-19 epicentre province of Hubei has reported no new cases. Its capital, Wuhan, did however register eight more deaths.
Only 34 new cases were detected in the whole of China during the most recent 24-hour reporting period. Beijing recorded 21 of those.
Overall, China has had a total of 80,928 confirmed virus cases with 3245 deaths. Another 70,420 people have been released from hospital and 7263 remain in treatment.
It's an exponential collapse in instances of COVID-19, as dramatic as its rise.
But Beijing has a problem in selling the good news.
As the virus exploded upon his population, Chinese President Xi Jinping and regional officials enacted a draconian plan.
Cities and towns would be sealed off. Millions of residents would be ordered to shut themselves indoors. The streets were patrolled by police and party loyalists alike.
It's a powerful way to choke off the chances of a virus finding fresh hosts.
But it's also incredibly harsh on society - especially the weak and poor.
Soon reports were emerging of children dying home alone, of the sick and infirm being abandoned.
It had to be stopped. Not necessarily the deaths. But any spread of such stories.
It was an explosive environment. Suspicions fell on the Communist Party's rigid power structures for delays in recognising and responding to the threat.
🇨🇳 arresting doctors, ignoring warnings, suppressing information during the provincial party congress, weeks of inaction. All of it being erased until soon it will be as if none of it had ever happened. https://t.co/RqjmEqr0x9— mhar4 須平心再想。 (@mhar4) March 17, 2020
After all, one of the doctors who first warned of the strange new disease had been arrested and gagged. Dr Li Wenliang's death turned him into a public martyr.
Then bloggers began broadcasting their own arrests for questioning local authorities, exposing cover-ups or simply sharing contradictory information.
Chairman Xi rolled out the People's Liberation Army to establish field hospitals and help enforce discipline. Leading them was Chen Yixin, Mr Xi's personal protégé. He'd been given responsibility for containing the outbreak, along with Premier Li Keqiang.
He wasn't medically qualified.
He was secretary-general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission … a Communist Party propaganda and law enforcement agency.
Now we're seeing why.
China's foreign affairs spokesman has been blatantly denying COVID-19 originated in China. It's against all the evidence. Even that supplied by the (now shut down) Chinese viral institute that first discovered it.
Instead, Zhao Lijian is openly supporting a conspiracy theory that the virus was deliberately introduced to Wuhan in October by a US soldier.
Nevertheless, leading Chinese Yang Jiechi felt compelled to express "strong objections" at US attempts to "slander and smear China's efforts".
It's a message not necessarily targeted at an international audience. Some diplomatic analysts believe it's an effort to shore-up support at home.
It's certainly part of a distracting culture war erupting between Beijing and Washington.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo was on the phone to China early this week to complain about the "spread of disinformation and outlandish rumours".
President Donald Trump didn't help: on Monday he tweeted that he would help industries affected by "the Chinese virus". It was wording aimed at stigmatising COVID-19's source.
The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 16, 2020
None of this was the first shot in this new war of words.
"The propaganda organs are certainly spinning up the narrative that China's fight has helped save the world from much worse, and that they are willing to share their experiences and help other countries," wrote China analyst Bill Bishop in his Sinocism newsletter.
"There is also glee in some quarters with what so far has been a slow response by the US government."
Beijing sees its early recovery from the virus as an opportunity.
Its people have been ordered back to work even as the epidemics first economic shocks ripple around the world.
It's a scenario the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is keen to exploit. But, first, it needs to make sure its own people remain on-side.
Chinese diplomats are aware that racist and bigoted attitudes have been spreading with the virus. It has seen attacks on its citizens for crimes as minor as wearing a face mask the world over.
Some analysts argue this has prompted Beijing to realise there may be an international kickback in the wings.
Beijing's determination to control and suppress information about the virus in the early weeks is coming back to haunt it. It implies responsibility and culpability for the extent of COVID19's spread.
"I am increasingly convinced the anti-Chinese sentiment globally will get quite ugly, far beyond what we are already seeing in some places," Bishop writes.
Australian strategic affairs analyst Brahma Chellany agrees.
"This time around, the Chinese Communist Party's proclivity for secrecy was reinforced by President Xi Jinping's eagerness to be perceived as an in-control strongman, backed by a fortified CCP," the Australian Strategic Policy Instutute analyst says.
"But, as with the SARS epidemic, China's leaders could keep it under wraps for only so long. Once Wuhan-linked COVID-19 cases were detected in Thailand and South Korea, they had little choice but to acknowledge the epidemic."
The global epidemic could have been avoided, Chellany writes: "None of this would have happened China had responded quickly to evidence of the deadly new virus by warning the public and implementing containment measures. Indeed, Taiwan and Vietnam have shown the difference a proactive response can make."
Beijing has a credibility problem. Even with its own people.
"It's all fake!" Wuhan residents shouted from their balconies when Vice Premier Sun Chunlan toured the city earlier this month.
As he and an entourage of VIPs were taken on a guided tour of Kaiyuan Mansion estates in Qingshan District, residents were brave enough to express their true feelings.
"Fake, fake?" "It's all fake," "It's a show put on for you. Everything is faked!"
“Everything is faked!” #Wuhan resident shouting out loudly when Sun Chunlan, vice premier of #China inspecting a residential area during #CoronavirusOutbreak 近日，中共国务院副总理孙春兰视察#武汉 青山区中建开元公馆小区，封城后被困在家里40多天的业主们愤怒高喊：“全部都是假的!” pic.twitter.com/vjnGauhMG6— Jennifer Zeng 曾錚 (@jenniferatntd) March 6, 2020
It was a rare public outburst against government officials. Typically they fear for their freedom, their "social score", and their lives when speaking out.
News of their outburst flashed around China.
Until it didn't.
Days later, official propagandists attempted to spin the outburst to their own advantage. They attempted to recast the incident as an attack on local government officials - not the central politbureau and chairman-for-life Xi.
"It's fake! It's fake!" shout residents of a community in #COVID19 epicenter Wuhan in a viral video on China’s social media. They have accused property management of cheating them by only appearing to provide promised necessities. Investigation is underway https://t.co/kzq4gbB4RM pic.twitter.com/0ujObfedR8— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) March 6, 2020
"The Chinese method is the only method that has proved successful (in fighting the virus)": That's the message China wants broadcast worldwide.
"This is not necessarily true. After all, other wealthy Asian states have shown different, effective models. But it is certainly a message that seems to be resonating with opinion leaders around the world," a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) assessment finds.
Certainly, Japan and South Korea have proven this not to be true.
So can we trust Beijing's infection numbers?
BY THE NUMBERS
The answer appears to be, mostly.
International experts are there. On the ground. Observing. Learning. Helping.
Something as obvious as an exponential viral outbreak cannot be hidden. Even if the bulk of the West's journalists have this week been expelled from the country.
And China's still not in the clear.
It has suppressed the virus: not eradicated it, experts say.
"It could even be reintroduced into China from the countries now experiencing outbreaks. Because China's measures protected so many people from infection, a large pool of people have no immunity against the virus."
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This is a real risk as Chairman Xi urges his nation to rush back to work to capitalise upon the international trade crisis.
And Beijing's credibility may never recover.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the costs of Xi's increasing authoritarianism," ASPI's Chellaney writes. "It should be a wake-up call for political and business leaders who have accepted China's lengthening shadow over global supply chains for far too long."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
Originally published as Truth about China's virus 'recovery'