Wars have never reached the level of mass killing that diseases have achieved, and the new viral pneumonia spreading throughout the world from its incubator in China may yet do more damage than the terrorists and the war against terror. But even if it doesn’t, we’ve learned some things about the Chinese government that should give our political and business leaders plenty of food for thought.
It is widely reported that the Chinese kept the story secret from the rest of the world. Why? Most seem to think it’s because it’s their nature to suppress bad news (remember that they still deny there was a massacre in Tiananmen Square). No matter that an epidemic in China could produce millions of deaths at home, and even more overseas. It was more important to keep the information from their own people.
I’m not so sure that the authorities were keeping the information from the people. It may well be that the people were keeping it from the authorities.
There is an unusual relationship between the government of the People’s Republic of China and its people, one which we do not begin to fully comprehend. We don’t comprehend it because we don’t know very much about recent Chinese history, and even those few of us who study it fail to grant it the great importance it has in contemporary China.
Not very long ago — within the past five years, let’s say — an American businessman of my acquaintance, a leading figure in the health-care field, was approached by an authoritative official of the Chinese government with a truly fabulous offer. How would the American like to set up a nationwide network of clinics, under his own name and with clear American identification? He would provide the medicine, the staff, the doctors, the technology. The Chinese would provide the money, the land, the labor force to build the clinics, and guarantee a substantial profit for at least a decade.
The American was impressed; who wouldn’t be? And of course he was curious. Why were they being so generous?
The answer helps understand why it took so long for the Chinese to fess up to the existence of the new Viral pneumonia. The Chinese official put it this way: “we are having a terrible time getting people to see doctors, even for routine physical checkups. And this is because of an event that took place back in the late 1940s, following Mao’s revolution. At that time, the government promised to eradicate venereal disease in China. And it did. Everyone was forced to undergo an examination by a certified doctor. And anyone with venereal disease was executed. Ever since, most Chinese stayed far away from medical doctors.”
So the current regime, which would like to improve the health of the population, thought that it might be possible to get the people to a doctor if that doctor were clearly separate from the government. Indeed, as far removed from Chinese officialdom as one could imagine: an American doctor in an American clinic that guaranteed utter privacy.
That’s quite a confession by the Chinese government, isn’t it? In essence, the Chinese official told the American that there was no way a Chinese citizen would see a doctor, because of fear that the doctor would kill him. A sick Chinese might fear death from the disease, but that was only a possibility, not a certainty, whereas going to the doctor was certain death.
Given this background, the most surprising part of the story about the new pneumonia is that the government found out within a few months. It would be interesting to know just how they discovered it (my own guess is that someone under their control — maybe a prisoner? — contracted the disease, and could not escape medical treatment), and it’s most encouraging that they informed other governments.
There are many things in this world that we never imagined, and you can find most of them in China. Just remember, if it’s a one-in-a-million possibility, there are more than thousand of them in the People’s Republic.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen, Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, can be reached through Benador Associates.