Incompetence, Insecurity and an Epidemic

The Chinese city of Wuhan saw the emergence of a novel coronavirus – officially designated “2019-nCoV” – in December last year. Information about the virus was communicated to the World Health Organisation at the end of the month but it was only towards mid-January that the Chinese leadership found it necessary to reveal the information to its own people.

Wuhan had come to the attention to the average Indian because of the eponymous ‘informal summit’ between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in April 2018 that followed the Doklam standoff the previous year and was supposed to have mended bilateral ties. It might be more relevant, however, for Indians to think about Wuhan as a sign of the failure of China’s vaunted efficiency and of the selection system of its supposedly meritocratic leaders.

In 2015, the Uttar Pradesh government wrongly arrested Kafeel Khan a doctor posted at a Gorakhpur hospital on false charges of negligence following the deaths of 30 infants owing to their oxygen supply running out. The supply had run out because bills had been unpaid – an administrative failure on part of state government officials.[1] In Wuhan, meanwhile, authorities took “legal measures” against eight doctors who had shared information of the growing epidemic in chat groups at the end of December. The authorities even widely publicised the punishment of the eight “rumor spreaders”. It was not until a month later on 29 January that the Wuhan city mayor finally admitted a failure to disclose information on the outbreak to the people in a timely manner.[2]

The admission of guilt by the Wuhan mayor is part of a common Chinese political practice of local authorities becoming the fall guys for mistakes that often have their genesis in policies and practices of the central government. Indeed, the Wuhan mayor did hint that it was existing central government instructions restricting disclosures on disease outbreaks that were responsible for his decision to delay informing the general populace.[3]

While restrictions can be justified on grounds of ensuring time for verification of information, the massive delay in informing the public despite the clear signs of an epidemic outbreak also suggest that authorities saw this as a political issue of management and control of the population rather than of safeguarding their health. This is not a reality that is lost on China’s educated and digitally-connected population – there are no Internet shutdowns in China – who have their ways to get around online censorship. It is, therefore, no surprise that after a brief period of openness of a few days, the authorities appear once again to be clamping down on free flow of information within China.[4]

The Chinese province of Hubei of which Wuhan is the capital had a GDP of approximately of US$560 billion in 2018[5] which is a little more than the GDP of India’s two richest states Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu put together. The city of Wuhan itself is the 6th most populous in China with approximately 9.8 million people,[6] or roughly a million fewer than Delhi. It had a GDP of over US$210 billion in 2019 the ninth-largest among cities in China[7] and about the same as the GDP of Kolkata and Chennai put together.

The economic consequences of the shutdown of an economy of this size is, therefore, quite considerable. The Lunar New Year that began on 25 January is one of China’s two main holiday seasons and the epidemic has already cost its restaurant, tourism and movie industries more than US$144 billion.[8] There are likely to be political consequences too which need to be added to those the leadership already faces from the US-China trade war, the protests in Hong Kong against Chinese central government high-handedness and the recent electoral victories of pro-independence forces in Taiwan.

The Wuhan coronavirus epidemic and its management underlines the fact that the Chinese system is one that actually muddles along in times of crisis as badly as, if not worse than, the open, democratic polities that the China’s propaganda machinery advertises that its Communist Party-run state is better than.

India’s and China’s economic and development challenges might look similar and, suggest therefore, similar approaches and remedies, but India must also necessarily answer to a different political values system and set of objectives despite the temptation of the quick-fixes the so-called Chinese model offers. Individual liberty and civil rights are not encumbrances or obstacles to the state in the path towards development. Freedom of speech and the diversity of opinion that it engenders are not a reflection of seditious tendencies endangering state security even if they might threaten the regime in power. On the contrary, these are enablers that strengthen and sustain institutions and process, in a democracy, including a system of checks and balances that guarantee genuine efficiency and meritocracy.

China’s repeated crises – whether man-made such as environmental disasters or industrial accidents – recall the Tianjin explosion of 2015 that killed over a 170 people, including a 100 firefighters alone[9] – or the handling of natural ones such as the 2003 SARS epidemic and the latest coronavirus epidemic – also point to the weaknesses in the political system of reporting and accountability. Building 1,000-bed hospitals in record time,[10] while impressive and worthy of emulation, is also a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.

As of the night of 9 February, 2019-nCoV had claimed over 800 lives, more than SARS did. Li Wenliang, one of the eight aforementioned doctors was among those who died, leading to an outpouring of public grief and criticism of Chinese authorities. In one of his last statements he said, “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don’t approve of using public power for excessive interference.”[11]

This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Coronavirus: An epidemic of incompetence and insecurity’, Moneycontrol, 10 February 2020.













Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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