Crises, particularly unexpected ones, can make or break a government as much as an individual.
In 2019, China “celebrated” 70 years of Communist Party rule. China’s economic growth was at the lowest it’s been in three decades. And it faced the added political challenge of the Hong Kong protests, as well as the economic strain of an escalating trade war with the United States. Nevertheless, 2020 brought a more urgent challenge.
The Chinese government’s recent quarantine of 60 million people — roughly the size of Italy — is unprecedented. At the last count, China’s death toll from COVID-19 — also known as the coronavirus — had reached 1,367, and the number of confirmed cases was 59,804. Since no cure has yet been found, the most effective means of preventing further spread is isolation.
But reports from Wuhan and Hubei (the province of which Wuhan is the capital city) are bleak.
One district in Shiyan (another city in Hubei province) has implemented “wartime measures,” meaning that residents are prohibited from leaving their apartments. The infected are rounded up to face further isolation; the deceased are taken away and burned like dead animals. According to one official, any person who fails to come forward with his symptoms “will be forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame.” The Associated Press reports:
Authorities initially assured people that there was little to no risk of human-to-human transmission, a statement that was later retracted. Wuhan residents said hospitals were overcrowded and lacked sufficient medical supplies. Doctors who tried to share information early on were reprimanded by police for “spreading rumors.”
Possibly responding to public anger, the Communist Party of China has replaced its top officials in Hubei and Wuhan. President Xi Jinping has more or less absolved himself of guilt, publishing a speech by state media in which he claims to have given instructions to fight the virus as early as January 7. He says that he asked Hubei province on January 22 to “implement comprehensive and stringent controls over the outflow of people.”
Of course, the U.S. has its own version of quarantines, which — when implemented appropriately — are a legitimate government response to a public-health emergency. The 600 Americans evacuated from the Hubei province remain in a military quarantine. And after the Diamond Princess cruise ship was quarantined in Japan, the 380 Americans on board were given the option of taking American government-chartered aircraft back to the U.S., where they’d face another 14-day quarantine. But unlike in China, American civilians and government officials are approaching the challenge in a spirit of cooperation and willingness.
In the 1980s, few predicted the twilight of the Soviet Union. But with hindsight, Mikhail Gorbachev, its former leader, noted an important turning point: the disaster at Chernobyl, when a nuclear reactor exploded at a power plant in northern Ukraine in 1986. In 2006, Gorbachev wrote:
The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue. It made absolutely clear how important it was to continue the policy of glasnost.
The official death toll from Chernobyl is 31. But we now know that, in the weeks and months that followed the accident, the USSR recruited between 600,000 and 800,000 of its citizens as part of the deadly clean-up project. These human “liquidators,” as they were known, came into direct contact with radioactive substances. Within 20 years, 120,000 were dead, and, of the survivors, the vast majority have suffered health complications, ranging from respiratory problems to cancer.
The USSR’s response was an effective exercise in damage control. Practically, the mass evacuations, animal slaughters, and human “liquidators” undisputedly averted further disaster. But at what cost? When faced with a crisis, the Communists resorted to pride and denial, deception and confusion. This strategy was a devastating political miscalculation — enshrining a legacy of weakness and inspiring years of public resentment.
As unpleasant as it may be for the Chinese, their government’s approach may well have bought the rest of the world more time. Though the virus has spread to nearly two dozen countries, 99 percent of cases are in mainland China. The exact nature and scope of the coronavirus remains unknown. But the political cost of an authoritarian approach to public crises is high.