‘China Threat’: The Wuhan Coronavirus

In response to the coronavirus outbreak in China, Dr Pak K. Lee, Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations, says:

‘On 30 January the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the outbreak is a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, but it “does not recommend any travel or trade restriction based on current information available”.

‘In addressing the declaration of the Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 31 January, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “acting with openness, transparency and in a responsible manner, China has provided timely updates of the outbreak and the genome sequence of the coronavirus. Such efforts are fully recognized and highly commended by the WHO and many countries”. But many states have ignored the WHO’s recommendation; instead imposing various travel restrictions on Chinese people. They are concerned about the “openness and transparency” of China’s handling of the disease.

‘Rumours about the virus outbreak circulating in Wuhan in early January were censored. Eight doctors in Wuhan were detained for ‘spreading false rumours’ after discussing the issue online. Hong Kong journalists were detained when visiting a Wuhan hospital. In late January, a group of Chinese researchers revealed that human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus began as early as mid-December 2019, weeks before government confirmation.

A story claims that the first known case was found on 8 December. As soon as the number of infected people rapidly rose, health professionals suspected a new SARS-like virus. Concerned over the news spreading, local officials treated it as a matter concerning “stability maintenance” and the Wuhan Health Commission prohibited hospitals and clinics from unveiling any information. On 11 January, the Chinese government informed the WHO of the Wuhan coronavirus, but news was still kept from the population. Until 14 January, Wuhan officials maintained that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.

‘Hubei and Wuhan officials participated in the people’s congresses and political consultative conferences from 12-17 January, so no new cases were officially announced during this time. Combined with the massive population movement across China in the run-up to the Chinese New Year and the fact that Wuhan is a transportation hub, the spread of the virus could not be reined in. When Wuhan authorities confirmed 45 cases of infection by 18 January, UK experts estimated the real figures as having passing 1700.

‘On 20 January, President Xi said it was “extremely crucial” to take every measure to combat coronavirus. Prime facie evidence also shows that local officials outside Hubei did not disclose the scale of the spread of the virus until 20 January, by when 278 cases were confirmed but restricted to Hubei, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. The following day, a single day later, 448 confirmed cases were reported in 20 provinces or municipalities.

‘According to Da Shiji, the lockdown of Wuhan was due to other provincial and municipal officials urging the central government to contain the virus. The lockdown was announced at 2am on 23 January, to be implemented 8 hours later. During this window, well-connected people allegedly exited the city by private cars, counterproductive to containing the disease.

‘In praising the “very highest levels” of the Chinese government for “their commitment to transparency, and the efforts made to investigate and contain the current outbreak”, the WHO seemed to have paid scant attention to the ineffective leadership of China’s local governments, jeopardising the credibility of the WHO and its Secretary-General.

‘As there are powerful incentives in the Chinese political system for officials to seek denials of or cover-ups for major crises, there is little wonder that commentators are asking whether Chinese authoritarian regime is the source of the problems the world pays for.

‘The Wuhan coronavirus illustrates that outbreaks of deadly contagious diseases are not only public health issues but also political issues of global concern.’

Dr Pak K. Lee is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Politics and International Relations at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent.

Dr Lee’s research interests include Chinese politics, non-traditional security threats in China and more recently the South China Sea disputes and the Belt and Road Initiative. At Kent, he is the Director of Studies of BA in Politics and International Relations with a year in the Asia-Pacific.

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