The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – masters of propaganda and spin – know the importance of moving fast. When something happens that undermines the image of the party, and especially its leader, well-rehearsed techniques kick in. First, blame officials as low down the chain of command as possible. Then sack them and weigh in with high profile, heavy-handed actions to ‘restore order’, Then, most importantly, take control of the narrative by focusing on the wondrous achievements of Party members – this time the more senior the better – in winning the fight against harms that they were responsible for in the first place. Creating the image of a notional ‘struggle’, uniting party and people against the problem, is central to this process.
The global Covid-19 crisis is proving no exception to this rule, despite the literally existential importance of total honesty and openness about every aspect of what has happened from the very outset. The CCP’s chief concern today, just as it was when the disease first appeared, is to conceal the embarrassing truth and proclaim spurious virtue, for the rest of the world to accept and wonder at – both in an attempt to promote the party’s revisionist geopolitical agendas.
This essay does not examine the latter half of this campaign, now manifest as the current surge of CCP official virtue-signalling and disinformation across the world, strengthened by armies of internet trolls and foreign self-styled ‘experts’ willing to extol the supposed achievements of a brutal and mendacious authoritarian regime. Instead, it re-examines the true story that the CCP is determined to bury at whatever cost: how the pandemic really started, and how the supposedly omniscient leaders of the omnipotent party tried to hide and lied about it, at home and abroad, until signs of a deadly epidemic spreading across the world were obvious for all to see.
Crucially, returning to the question of responsibility for the Covid-19 disaster is not about politicising misfortune, re-litigating the past, or framing a racist anti-China narrative. As Mao Zedong, the first Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, used to advocate (but rarely practised), it ‘seeks truth from facts’. The basis for this argument is largely published data from Chinese sources. It has no bias whatever against the people of China – hapless victims of the unaccountable CCP elite in this, as in so many other, cynical abuses of power. If the world (as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO)) accepts the CCP’s distortions and ignores its arrogant refusal of transparency, what guarantee can there possibly be that the same disaster will not, sooner or later, happen again?
What follows is based on a resolute trawl through information from the real world, as well as from the virtual realities created by the CCP’s official propaganda media organs. To form a robust understanding of the story, it is necessary to observe the interplay between these two distinct narratives.
It now appears that the first cases of infection later attributed to a new virus called Covid-19 were recorded in Wuhan in mid-November 2019. From mid-December it became increasingly clear that the disease was capable of spreading rapidly through transmission from human to human (HTH). This is a crucial characteristic that distinguishes a manageable outbreak of environmentally-sourced infection from what could turn into a human epidemic.
From the earliest days, as observations of more and more cases piled up and conclusions began to be drawn by specialists, the CCP authorities imposed secrecy and censorship. Discussion, let alone publicity, about the outbreak was suppressed; would-be whistle-blowers forced to keep silence on pain of legal punishment; and no attempt was made to warn the public or take protective action.
But when the issue was something so potentially devastating, inevitably censorship and secrecy failed. Bit by bit, convincing evidence as to how the disease was behaving and how the authorities were hiding it has gradually come to light. When this material is set alongside reports of actions and statements by officials and political leaders, a shockingly familiar picture emerges.
Whether it ever has the courage to admit it, the CCP’s responsibility for the resultant pandemic will go down in history. No blame or criticism whatsoever can or should ever be attached to the people the party misrules.
For several months after the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak (caused by a pathogen similar and related to Covid-19) began in south China, the CCP tried to hide it, causing the avoidable deaths of hundreds of Chinese citizens, including many medical staff, and culminating in the spread of this highly dangerous disease spread to several other countries. SARS was a new disease, and existing medical responses were immediately seen to be inadequate. But information was not shared and fatal errors were repeated, causing needless loss of life.
Following SARs, virology and epidemiology research in China focused in on the coronavirus-SARS group of pathogens, and particularly important investigative work, including cloning, interbreeding different strains of the virus and comparison of their ability to bind to human receptors – in layman’s language, to affect humans – was undertaken, including at special laboratories in Wuhan. So after the Covid-19 infection appeared in Wuhan, urgent efforts began to establish what, and how infectious the virus was, with the participation of several of China’s most experienced specialists.
But despite this, the way the leaders of local medical and civic institutions reacted to the growing threat shows barely a sign that practical lessons from the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak had been learnt. Worst of all, to the alarm of responsible experts and practitioners, proof of rapid HTH transmission was ignored and deliberately concealed.
On 31st December 2019 the authorities finally had to declare the outbreak to the WHO. But it seems that detail about evidence for HTH was not provided. An active public cover-up now began. That same day the official Xinhua News Agency reported that ‘there were no signs of human-to-human transmission’. The Wuhan health authorities on the same day issued a low-key public health notice referring to a flu outbreak linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, with 27 cases and no clear sign yet of HTH transmission. People with a persisted cough were advised to seek medical attention. The public, beginning to prepare for Lunar New Year, were largely left in the dark.
In the first two or three weeks of January 2020, at the stage when the disease began to spread out of control, the authorities suppressed data on the rapid daily increase in registered cases. Despite knowing what lay ahead, senior local officials continued planning for large-scale civic celebrations and a major political meeting.
Back in Beijing, CCP publications were later to state that on 7th January, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, chairing a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, personally directed actions to contain and control the virus.
It is unclear what precisely these actions might have been. At any rate, they did not include measures to stop crowds flooding into Wuhan, despite the danger there; nor to prevent the departure from the city of a further 5 million people, among them certainly some, probably many, infected by Covid-19. Zhou Xianwang, the then Mayor of Wuhan, himself publicly revealed the figure of 5 million departing travellers. This unhindered exodus caused the later pandemic to develop.
Meanwhile, after a WHO official commented on 14th January 2020 that HTH transmission had been detected, the WHO leadership immediately denied that there was any evidence of this. Wuhan medical authorities confirmed it on 16th January, and gave a public warning on 18th January. That was the night when Wuhan celebrated an annual public banquet, this year with around 40,000 guests. Only a few days later, many were in quarantine.
On 20 January, Xi made his first public statement on the epidemic, stressing ‘the need for timely release of information’. This must be one of the oddest statements ever made by a national leader, especially one so keen to promote an image of omniscient control. The draconian lockdown of Wuhan which followed on 22 January was of course far too late.
And what of the WHO? It failed to declare an international emergency on 23 January, on the grounds that HTH transmission was ‘limited’. On 30 January, when cases of Covid-19 infection were being confirmed in several countries overseas, their belated declaration merely confirmed what had been obvious for weeks.
So let the propaganda about how well the CCP handled the Covid-19 outbreak be seen for what it is: a disgraceful, geopolitically-motivated campaign to obscure truth and praise actions that deserve nothing but the harshest condemnation. The Covid-19 outbreak originated in China. The Chinese government led by Xi was the first to know of it, and wilfully refused to share this knowledge or take effective action. Whether it ever has the courage to admit it, the CCP’s responsibility for the resultant pandemic will go down in history. No blame or criticism whatsoever can or should ever be attached to the people the party misrules.