China’s shambolic handling of the coronavirus crisis in the initial phase of the pandemic in January involved a combination of lies, cover ups and bureaucratic bumbling.
But it was the stunning absence of the country’s leader that may have contributed significantly to the rapid spread of the disease in the country, and eventually throughout the world.
Startling new analysis released by the Lowy Institute, written by senior fellow Richard McGregor – an expert in China’s political system – lifts the veil of secrecy on some of Beijing’s actions in the first weeks of COVID-19.
Exact details of China’s initial handling of the crisis are unclear – press reporting was heavily controlled, the extent of interactions between officials on the ground and in Beijing remains secret – and the WHO inquiry is yet to deliver a verdict on the early weeks.
But as McGregor notes, some important details can be revealed about the month that was to change the course of the world.
A team of inspectors from the National Health Commission first arrived in Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, on December 31 to investigate a “pneumonia of unexplained causes”.
It was two weeks before talk of something more serious began, McGregor wrote.
“In a conference call on 14 January, national officials warned health experts in a closed-door meeting that the then epidemic was likely to become a ‘major public health event’,” he noted.
And still, there was minimal sense of urgency from the Chinese Community Party’s central leaders.
One possible reason for the deadly delay in enacting emergency measures is detailed within President Xi Jinping’s diary, McGregor wrote.
“On 17 January, President Xi went ahead with a visit to one of China’s important neighbours, Myanmar. He did not return to China until the following day.
“From 19 to 21 January, he was in Yunnan, the province adjoining Myanmar, still distant from the capital.
“The Wuhan lockdown was not declared until a day after his return, on 23 January.”
By the time he returned to Beijing, the State Council – China’s Cabinet – had been convened and was seeking urgent medical advice.
“Its recommendation for a lockdown may have been on Xi’s desk when he returned to the capital,” McGregor said.
It’s possible that officials in Wuhan initially intercepted and slowed the flow of information to Beijing, preventing the reporting of new cases until the end of January, as some analysts have suggested.
In addition, at the same time it should’ve been focusing on the severity of the emergency, the CCP was working to silence those who tried to raise awareness of it.
“Doctors in Wuhan who had treated the first patients tried to raise the alarm, but were ordered by police to keep quiet,” McGregor wrote “A number later died.
“The party-state soon managed to regain control of the narrative, at least at home. The media was reined in. Critical bloggers were silenced. Some critics disappeared altogether, into detention. Officials got back on message.”
Another contributing factor to China’s slow response was the timing of the crisis.
McGregor believes that officials in Wuhan’s Hubei province might’ve been keen to avoid announcing a deadly new virus during the Lunar New Year – an important and politically sensitive time.
The CCP’s strict and complicated political hierarchy also no doubt made things complicated.
“The country’s peak professional body, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, ranks below the National Health Commission, whose leaders in turn fall under provincial party chiefs in the bureaucratic pecking order,” McGregor wrote.
“The city and provincial leaders needed permission from the top of the party and central government in Beijing to make announcements of any gravity.”
But the revelations about President Xi’s absence from Beijing indicate that it wasn’t just local officials who failed.
“The entire system, beset with fear, uncertainty, cover-ups, bad faith, and indecision at multiple levels, misfired until the top tier finally realised the gravity of the situation,” McGregor wrote.
“The result was that the virus spread beyond Wuhan, into the rest of the country, and then the world — further, and faster, than it ever should have.”
There were also “odd” gaps in leadership during crucial moments of the early crisis, McGregor said, including President Xi’s long periods of absence.
The Lowy report also raises questions about how quickly President Xi had personally taken charge of the country’s response.
“In early February, at a moment when Beijing had not yet brought infections under control, the president authorised the publication of an article under his name in Qiushi, an authoritative party journal,” McGregor wrote.
“The article disclosed that Xi had delivered instructions at a 7 January Politburo meeting on the handling of the outbreak.
“If it was meant to show that he had acted with appropriate alacrity to a potentially deadly surge of the virus, it was an empty boast, as authorities in Wuhan did not report any cases for more than a week afterwards.
“Nor did they publicise the concerns of their city’s doctors about the virus.”
Eventually, China swiftly mobilised its defence and health arms, locking down the entire city of Wuhan, imposing quarantines, conducting large-scale testing and tracing contacts in a move that was later praised by the World Health Organisation.
It proved effective and allowed its economy and society to walk a path back to normality.
But the global damage was done in January, with coronavirus escaping its borders and spreading around the world.
To date, 15.1 million people have been infected and more than 620,000 have died, while economies are in ruins and daily life teeters on unending uncertainty.
“If Beijing had been open about its own early failings, instead of triumphantly promoting its later achievements, China’s global image might have been enhanced by the COVID-19 crisis,” McGregor wrote.
“Outside China, however, for the most part, the opposite is the case.”
Originally published as Damning detail in Xi Jinping’s diary