29 January 2020
In 2003, a semi-retired surgeon in China, Jiang Yanyong, wrote a letter to the nation’s leaders, revealing that authorities had been covering up the extent of the SARS epidemic. Chinese authorities responded by sacking the minister of health and mayor of Beijing. They then put Jiang under police surveillance before detaining him.
Five years later, six children died and 300,000 became ill from contaminated infant milk formula. More than twenty Chinese firms had used the toxic chemical melamine to inflate the protein content of their product. Company staff were executed or jailed, food safety regulators were sacked, and the government was accused of suppressing the scandal until after the Beijing Olympics.
As China faces another public health crisis, the credibility of the state is once again being tested. Australia and countries around the world are closely watching China’s response to the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus to determine whether the current leadership can be trusted to deal with it transparently.
The initial handling of the epidemic largely resembled that of previous crises. Local authorities seemingly tried to contain reports about the virus by detaining people for spreading rumours and concealing the number of known cases.
But then President Xi Jinping stepped in. His intervention appeared to lead to the lockdown of Wuhan and other cities, effectively quarantining about 56 million people. A shutdown on this scale is, as the World Health Organization put it, “new to science”.
The crisis is demonstrating the extent of Xi’s power as the head of a centralised, increasingly authoritarian state. But it is also revealing its limitations. Information is still being tightly controlled. Chinese media has downplayed the situation, probably to avoid public panic. And it is impossible to know whether reports about the number of cases identified are accurate. The crisis is likely to further damage trust in a hierarchical system that leaves local officials fearful of delivering bad news to their superiors.
However, there are signs that progress has been made since the SARS epidemic. There was no prolonged cover-up, especially after Beijing became involved. And, from the outset, Chinese scientists and health officials shared information about the virus with the World Health Organization and other international experts.
The current epidemic will test the political support in Beijing for Xi, who has already faced dissent over China’s economic slowdown and the protests in Hong Kong. But the Chinese response is also of global interest.
China’s increasingly mobile population and crucial role in world trade meant the virus was quick to spread abroad. Australia, for instance, has direct flights to Wuhan and is one of several countries outside China that have recorded cases of infection.
The outbreak is also having global economic consequences. The spread of SARS, which left about 800 people dead, caused losses of about US$18 billion in the region. The current crisis may be more consequential. China is now much wealthier and more enmeshed in world trade. In Australia, China’s ban on overseas tour groups is set to affect about 25 per cent of Australia’s visitors from China, its largest tourist market. More than 1.4 million Chinese tourists visited Australia in the year preceding September 2019, up from around 200,000 during the year of the SARS outbreak.
This epidemic will also affect ties between China and the world. Trust is a vital ingredient in handling foreign affairs, particularly when dealing with a country whose leader holds so much power. In recent years, a lack of trust in China has severely damaged ties between Australia and its largest trading partner. It has led to Australia’s refusal to sign an extradition treaty with China and to allow Huawei to build its 5G network. It has also prompted tighter foreign investment and interference rules.
This outbreak is, above all, a human tragedy. But the handling of the crisis is a crucial concern for countries, such as Australia, whose fates are so dependent on determining whether Xi’s China is a partner they can trust.