Sue Sparks argues that authoritarianism, media frenzy, and racism make a dangerous combination.
29 January 2020.
The spread of the respiratory virus which originated in Wuhan, China, is dominating our headlines.
The story appeals to the media because it holds our attention: the incidence and mortality numbers change on a daily and sometimes hourly basis; it has a horrible capacity to frighten and fascinate, especially with the development of lockdowns in cities, reminiscent of a medieval plague; there are plenty of human interest stories about ‘our’ citizens trapped in China; and so on.
It raises some genuine questions. How worried should we be? Is it diverting attention from bigger but less immediate threats, such as climate change and antibiotic resistance? Why do these viruses often originate in China, and is the government there doing everything it should to deal with the problem?
There are many more deaths from influenza every year than there have been from outbreaks of viruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The same will probably be true this time.
Yet it would be absurd not to be concerned, for various reasons. The people who contract this virus and those who become very ill will add to the pressures on health services in addition to the ‘normal’ flu victims.
Vaccines do exist for seasonal flu and while not 100% effective, they protect many of the most vulnerable people and the health workers treating them. The death of a doctor in Wuhan and the infection of other doctors and nurses have already shown that medical personnel working on the front-line could die in significant numbers: tragic in itself and affecting the care which can be offered to all patients.
Many of the hundreds of survivors of SARS in Hong Kong and elsewhere are still suffering serious side-effects from the treatment they required and from psychological trauma. We do not yet know enough about this virus, its mode and speed of transmission, and its mortality rate to be confident in saying that it is less serious than SARS or MERS. There seem to be more people this time who have the virus but are asymptomatic, and this could make its spread harder to contain.
Is it diverting attention from longer-term threats? Definitely. For the reasons outlined, the media loves a ‘plague’ story. By contrast, threats to the existence of humanity from global climate change are less newsworthy, less immediate, more complicated, even ‘boring’ – as well as problematic in terms of the status quo and the interests of the powerful, including the owners of the media.
Antibiotic resistance, which is actually quite terrifying in its implications, gets a fraction of the coverage of an epidemic. Again, it is less easy to make it ‘sexy’, and it focuses attention on malpractices in agriculture, over-prescription to patients who demand antibiotics even when they will not have any effect, and the failure of pharmaceutical companies to invest in new alternatives. We could no doubt think of many more examples.
The fact that so many strains of influenza and respiratory viruses seem to arise in China also demands explanation. Simply put, China has large concentrations of population living in close proximity with animals. It also has highly intensive livestock agriculture, and farming, food processing, and retailing practices often fall far short of the standards mandated in, say, EU countries.
There have been numerous scandals about food quality in the past, such as the addition of melamine to milk, news of which was revealed in 2008, and which led to the hospitalisation of more than 60,000 babies and a number of deaths.
These scandals (similar to those that occurred in Victorian Britain) mean that many Chinese do not trust the food on sale. There is a brisk trade in baby formula across the border from Hong Kong.
The sale of live animals and birds, some of them wild, in urban markets has been identified as the origin of the SARS virus (in that case, Chinese horseshoe bats had infected civet cats and then humans) and the probable origin of the current Wuhan virus (again, the current thinking identifies bats as the origin, transferred to humans through another species, perhaps snakes or deer).
Very recent research published in The Lancet, however, suggests that the first case was much earlier than previously thought (on 1 December) and unconnected to the Wuhan market (though the majority of the others were). It might therefore be the case that the origin in this case is different.
Health experts called for these practices – the sale of live animals – to be banned after SARS and, for a time, such markets were suspended. However, eating wildlife is part of traditional culture in China, and animals are often viewed as having particular medicinal or other properties, such as warming or cooling the body.
In addition, famine is a recent memory for many Chinese, so it makes sense to eat everything that is edible. The incidence of eating wild animals has fallen quite sharply, however, and now over 70% of Chinese people report not having eaten wildlife in the previous year, down from 50% a few years ago.
MERS, of course, is not of Chinese origin, but the species in which it originates is believed to be the dromedary camel.
Most non-vegetarian cuisines include the consumption of game, and it is often seen as better to eat ‘wild’ fish, for example, than farmed ones, so this issue is hardly uniquely Chinese. The difference is really in the sale of live ‘exotic’ wild animals in markets in close proximity to humans and other food, with poor regulation and poor animal welfare.
The sale of live chickens and other poultry has also been implicated in other diseases, such as the outbreak of H5N1 ‘bird flu’ in 1997 in Hong Kong, where the live poultry was imported from mainland China. It is now illegal to bring poultry or eggs across the border.
The politics of epidemics
Is there a relationship between China’s political system and these outbreaks of disease?
There is a well-known proverb in China: ‘The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.’ This was rooted in the reality of China as a vast country where it was, and still is, difficult to enforce the will of central government right across the country.
In spite of massively improved communications and the current extremely centralised regime (concentrated more and more in the person of Xi Jinping), it is still not possible for the central leadership to be certain that its directives are being carried out.
Part of the reason is fear and inertia on the part of the local bureaucrats, part of it corruption, but it is also due to contradictory demands from the centre. If we take pollution as an example, it has long been central government policy to try to clean up industrial pollution, but at the same time provinces have GDP growth targets to meet (and there are also numerous close and often corrupt relationships between local officials and local industry).
Provincial bureaucrats turn a blind eye to violations or sometimes bid to host a polluting chemical plant that another province has rejected in the face of public protest.
There are many cases where the government has encouraged certain kinds of investigative journalism (within limits) in order to exercise control over local officials and expose corruption. But the perverse incentives remain: the Chinese Communist Party needs steady growth and rising incomes to maintain its legitimacy in terms of the monopoly of political power.
The South China Morning Post (a mainland-owned paper which is published in Hong Kong and much more critical therefore) contained a useful assessment of the drivers of concealment:
Ironically, the Chinese leadership’s keen efforts to push for accountability from bureaucrats and promise stiffer punishment for those who shirk responsibilities have contributed to their propensity to cover up disasters.
The latest example is from Tuesday, when Xinhua reported that the neighbouring Hunan province had punished 29 local officials for covering up a blast at a fireworks factory last month which killed 13 workers and injured another 13.
More importantly, as Xi has consolidated his power and urged other officials to conform completely to the party leadership, this has also strengthened a tendency to avoid making any important decisions and instead wait for specific instructions from the party leadership.
A central dictatorship and a corrupt bureaucracy
Xi Jinping: China's Stalinist dictator.
Looking at the disease outbreaks, local officials have every incentive to try to cover up epidemics, in spite of the central government’s greater commitment to transparency since SARS.
In the current situation it is becoming clear that the local Wuhan government was slow to take action on the coronavirus, including allowing a traditional banquet celebration involving people from 40,000 households bringing dishes to go ahead on 18 January.
The central government is permitting a certain amount of public indignation to surface on social media, and the party media has even expressed dissatisfaction with local officials. Heads will probably roll.
The drastic response of quarantining whole cities could also backfire, as it seems not to have been well-planned or executed, with shortages of food and medical supplies, and the possibility that it was too late anyway.
Medical facilities, expensive and never very good for the mass of the population, are overwhelmed, and although the strength of an authoritarian system is its ability to mobilise resources quickly – for example, building ‘pop up’ hospitals – the weakness is that information does not travel freely.
People are afraid to report things or are actually ordered not to. Most ordinary Chinese people, including health workers who are being quoted in the Western media, decline to give their full names – for obvious reasons.
It is of course true that Western governments are capable of cover-ups, incompetence, and corruption, and of punishing whistleblowers, though they tend not to be able to arrest and jail people for the crime of ‘spreading rumours and fomenting quarrels’ – a fairly common charge in China.
In Wuhan earlier in January, ‘local officials initially tried hard to suppress online discussions about the disease by having the police track down and admonish eight so-called lawbreakers for posting unreliable information online and warning others not to believe in rumours or spread them.’
The impact of the epidemic on the Chinese economy, already slowing down for various other reasons, and on public faith in the CCP, could be serious. Xi Jinping has taken personal charge, but the downside from his point of view is that he has now concentrated so much power in his hands that failure could be dangerous.
Disease and racism
Finally, it is becoming clear that the British media’s constant focus on the virus and its potential impact here – rather than its actual impact in China – is fuelling an extremely nasty wave of anti-Chinese racism in the UK. East Asians report that people are avoiding sitting next to them on public transport and expressing exaggerated fears of contact, and a friend told me that visitors to the British Museum were making sure they kept away from groups of Chinese tourists.
I heard a conversation in a shop at the weekend where someone confidently stated that ‘the Americans patented that virus years ago’. Though not directed at the Chinese, it was pretty bizarre.
Again, the real suffering of many Chinese people in China is being marginalised as the story becomes about how ‘we’ can protect ourselves – which in the process is probably going to lead to people putting quite unnecessary burdens on the NHS out of media-induced paranoia, and could lead to attacks on Chinese students and others in this country.
We should be ready to show support and solidarity if we see such incidents occurring. But we should be equally clear that our support is for the Chinese people, not its repressive government, which is partly responsible for this outbreak (through commission and omission) and wholly responsible for the handling of it.
Sue Sparks has long been active in socialist organisations and campaigns. Until recently, she was living in Hong Kong.