Saturday, April 18, 2020

Why Did Xi Jinping Deliberately Sicken The World?

thediplomat |  We often ascribe a basic level of humanity to even the cruelest leaders, but People’s Republic of China leader Xi Jinping’s actions have forced us to rethink this assumption. Although the emergence of the novel coronavirus now known as SARS-CoV-2 was probably not due to China’s actions, the emphasis that its authoritarian system places on hiding bad news likely gave the disease a sizable head start infecting the world. But most ominously, China’s obsession with image and Machtpolitik raises serious questions about its lack of moral limits.

At some point the Chinese Communist Party learned of the epidemic and made a decision to hide its existence, hoping it went away. Exposés in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and the Chinese mainland’s Caixin show that the information that did flow out of China early in the crisis did so only because of the courage of individual Chinese people in the face of government repression. People in the Wuhan epicenter, however, began to get wise — and scared (here and here) — by the end of December 2019, forcing their government to say something. The authorities gave the impression of a nontransmissible disease already under containment. We know now this was entirely false, likely designed more to ease civil unrest than protect the people.

The mayor of Wuhan even suggested that the central government prevented him from revealing details about the epidemic until January 20. Considering the first public announcements came out of Wuhan on January 1, we can assume that Xi had a sense of the danger prior to that.

Clearly, downplaying the disease wasn’t working and it was time for the Party to get serious. But how serious? Would it provide full cooperation to the international community? Would being seen as the source of this virus hurt its international image? Beyond these, there was a darker dimension: the more Beijing cooperated, the less the disease stood to affect other countries. This includes countries China sees as a threat to its existence, like the United States. Why should China suffer the effects of a pandemic while others stayed safe — and increased their strength relative to China — based on China’s own costly experience?