Although many people have criticized the Trump administration for politicizing the COVID-19 pandemic with regards to China, there is good cause to hold the Chinese Communist Party to account for its initial handling of the outbreak as well as for its self-reported containment of the virus.
Currently, governments around the world are struggling to translate an unfolding epidemic into current and future policy, without reliable data from China, the origin of the outbreak. In such an information blackout, avoidable missteps will likely be made which could mean the difference between life or death for untold numbers of people.
With its 70 year history of brutal cover-ups of natural and man-made disasters – including such whoppers as the famines of the 1950s and 60s and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake – the CCP is following a familiar playbook with the coronavirus. Like these earlier catastrophes, the cover-ups have exacerbated the tragedy in human life – only now the suffering is no longer contained to Mainland China.
Many Chinese people have learned to understand reality to be the opposite of what the CCP promotes through its media outlets and official (and unofficial) spokespeople. Unfortunately, the West has a tendency to play into the hands of the CCP by relaying official pronouncements, ignorant or oblivious to the truth behind them.
The Beijing regime’s much-repeated claim that China has the virus “under control” for instance, conveniently eschews mention of the fact that Wuhan residents are still barred from entering Beijing, or news about the multi-provincial brawl that ensued recently when workers from Wuhan tried to return to work in other cities but were forcefully blocked by police from Jiangxi and Henan from entering those provinces. Clearly there are differences of opinion among various CCP authorities about what “under control” means, and whether or not the virus has indeed stopped spreading.
The CCP has always kept a tight rein on foreign journalists, regularly blocking them from any area deemed “sensitive,” and spreading a culture of fear amongst ordinary people to prevent sharing of details the authorities find unattractive. With the CCP evicting journalists from major media outlets in the US, getting a grasp on real information is especially tough. However, the West also needs to do more to be on its guard against CCP propaganda.
For instance, while some of the stories of coverup of the virus are widely reported – such as that of Li Wenliang, the doctor who was publicly censured by the CCP authorities for sharing information online about the outbreak in Wuhan and who later died from COVID-19 – the West seems to look the other way when imbibing official CCP data on the disease, as though numbers cannot be manipulated for political expedience.
In the case of the coronavirus, for example, the number of infections and deaths in China as officially reported should be taken with great skepticism. In Wuhan, in the months during which the virus raged most wildly, hospitals and clinics were overwhelmed and regularly turned sick people away, forcing the ill to return home with no medical care. Deaths lacking an official diagnosis have not been counted – though it goes without saying that an untold number with a diagnosis have not been included in the official tally, either. Many were literally barricaded in their homes with chains, locks, and plywood. All in a city more populous than New York, where the authorities had suppressed news of the virus until it had been circulating freely for at least six weeks, including during the busiest travel season of the Chinese calendar.
Now, the CCP central authorities have pronounced the epidemic “under control,” even as officials have stated unequivocally that asymptomatic cases have not been included as part of the total number of cases, despite the fact that such infections have been proven to transmit the virus and are a major cause of its spread.
Indeed, the authorities seem to be doing their best to erase mention of the total number of deaths before the truth leaks out. Last month, people in Wuhan began receiving notices to collect ashes at the city’s eight crematoriums, which were each issuing 500 boxes of remains per day in advance of Qingming, the annual ritual for remembering the dead. After only one day, photos and information about the notices and long lines were deleted from the domestic social media accounts. Simple math suggests that deaths in Wuhan far outnumber the official line of 3,400 [ck] for the entire nation.
Why would the CCP want to manipulate numbers in this way? It’s all part of its ongoing propaganda campaign at home and abroad in service of propping up a legitimacy based primarily on its claims of economic success.
Declaring itself victorious in the fight against the coronavirus furthers the CCP’s narrative of the superiority of authoritarianism for domestic audiences, especially when combined with the rumor spread by party officials that the virus actually began in the U.S. or Italy.
Abroad, the CCP’s claims of containing the virus with an artificially low death rate sows confusion in countries where the virus is emerging while casting its control efforts in a positive light – just don’t ask any questions about human rights or even science – all of course masked by the deliberate opacity of the controlling regime.
Unfortunately, transparency does not seem to be part of the CCP’s DNA. Until regular people in China are able to tally the number of loved ones lost and can share this information freely, we simply cannot know the total number of deaths from COVID-19 in China, and the number of ongoing or new cases cannot be known either. Leaders and public health officials in nations around the world will continue scratching their heads, trying to figure out why China’s total mortality rate is so much lower than places like Italy (and likely for the U.S.), and thus denied potentially life-saving information.
The CCP has a responsibility to the rest of the world – now – to be open about the disease. Nations around the world should demand nothing less than the truth.
Chen Guangcheng is a Chinese civil rights lawyer and activist and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at The Catholic University of America.