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Coronavirus crisis reveals the dark side of China's success

So much has changed since the SARS epidemic -- and so little

HONG KONG -- Back in 2003, I covered the SARS epidemic that hit China. So for me, the coronavirus outbreak that has dominated the start of 2020 has had a "back to the future" feel to it.

Of course, so much has changed over the past 17 years in terms of China's economic strength and its place in the world. And yet so little seems to have evolved in the way the country's deep state deals with a big homegrown crisis.

Then, as now, the prime reflex was to cover up the extent of the bad news. Then, as now, China is paying for its miscalculation with the lives of its people, its international reputation and the growth of its economy.

The reason for such clear echoes across the chasm of time is that public health crises have a unique capacity to reveal the dark side of China's success. The frailties that have contributed to the hundreds of coronavirus deaths are as much a product of China's authoritarian system as are the country's extraordinary economic advances. This dynamic was on display this week in Wuhan, a city of 11 million at the center of the outbreak.

On the positive side, authorities finished building a hospital from scratch in the space of just 10 days to provide beds for the sick. The facility, known as Huoshenshan Hospital, has two floors, spans 60,000 sq. meters and is staffed by 1,400 medical workers from the People's Liberation Army.

But on the flip side, that breathtaking achievement may not have been required if authorities had decided to come clean about the virus during a crucial three-week period from late December. Although infections were spreading fast, Wuhan authorities insisted in repeated announcements that no increase in cases was seen from Jan. 3 to Jan. 16.

The testimonies of several doctors who witnessed hospitals thronging with new cases during that time period now reveal that such claims were false. When more truthful reporting resumed, the number of cases surged, growing for instance by as much as 95% on Jan. 18.

The main reasons for the cover-up, according to a senior adviser to the Chinese government, derive mostly from the intensely hierarchical power structure of the Chinese state. Local officials in Wuhan did not dare to report bad news and, in any case, they needed to ensure social stability ahead of the important Chinese New Year festival.

"In the current political atmosphere, which values obedience more than competence, local officials have an incentive to avoid taking responsibility," said the official, who declined to be named.

The most fateful consequence of the cover-up has been that some 5 million residents of Wuhan managed to leave the city in the weeks before the Lunar New Year, helping to spread the virus further afield and abroad -- across Asia and on to the U.S. and Europe.

All of this chimes with 2003. At that time, a doctor, Jiang Yanyong, challenged the official assertion that only 19 people in Beijing suffered from SARS. His report showed that there were at least 170 known cases. Ultimately, his actions forced the Ministry of Health to confess to the truth.

Dr. Jiang became a hero for a while. But it is not in the nature of China's system to tolerate whistleblowers for long. With obedience and unity as the central tenets of the state, people who speak out -- even for patriotic reasons -- hold a short tenure on fame.

In 2004, Dr. Jiang wrote a private letter to the National People's Congress and other Chinese leaders detailing what he witnessed during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. In the letter, he said that China must "correctly characterize the students' patriotic movement of June 4, 1989."

The doctor was swiftly detained.

James Kynge is editor of Tech Scroll Asia, a newsletter on technology in Asia that combines the best reporting from Nikkei and the Financial Times. He is also the FT's Global China editor, writing about China's growing footprint in the world, and won the Wincott Foundation award for the U.K.'s Financial Journalist of the Year in 2016. His prizewinning book, "China Shakes the World," was translated into 19 languages.

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