NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE ‘W ho controls the past controls the future,” wrote George Orwell in 1984. “Who controls the present controls the past.” In the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China, many interested parties have attempted to rewrite recent events that are barely even history, much as happens in Orwell’s dystopian novel. These parties hope to cast in their own favor the still-congealing consensus about the sequence of events that led to the outbreak, its spread, and its severity.
The most brazen such efforts belong to the Chinese Communist Party, which is now reinterpreting recent events to exploit the outbreak that its own actions and inactions caused. One would think that, CNN — a news organization that declares itself fond of speaking truth to power, that likes to declare that an apple is an apple — would block the CCP’s attempts to rewrite recent history.
But one would be mistaken. In a CNN “analysis,” James Griffiths admits that China’s leaders “have not been blind to the opportunity” that coronavirus presents to flaunt the supposed superiority of their own political model. Yet Griffiths then proceeds to toe the Beijing line on China’s handling of the coronavirus, America’s efforts, and the global implications of both. It’s propaganda thinly disguised as reporting.
Griffith’s most egregious propagandizing concerns the Chinese government itself, which deserves most of the blame for the spread of COVID-19. Griffiths seems eager to whitewash that government’s conduct and undercut its critics’ valid concerns. It is “debatable how communist modern China actually is,” Griffiths offers. That may technically be true — China is no longer taking Great Leaps Forward, to be sure. But its political apparatus remains oppressive enough to send hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs, a disfavored minority, to concentration camps. And, directly bearing on the crisis at hand, China engaged in typical totalitarian behavior by suppressing early knowledge of the infection’s spread. By imprisoning whistleblowers, it delayed public awareness of the virus’s spread by several weeks (something it had done before, in the 2003 SARS outbreak).
So it’s strange for Griffiths to quote German foreign minister Heiko Maas’s assertion that “China has taken some very authoritarian measures, while in the U.S., the virus was played down for a long time.” These are not mutually exclusive actions: The Chinese government took authoritarian measures to downplay the virus. The suppression of the information allowed China to publicly condone mass gatherings in a knowingly infected city and to allow thousands of citizens to leave the country
Griffiths takes at face value China’s self-reported figures indicating that it has dealt better with the coronavirus than other places have. But we should be skeptical of these figures; the actual number and extent of cases may be orders of magnitude higher, but China’s totalitarian control of information will probably make it impossible to learn the truth. At the very least, we should put asterisks next to the data from China.
We should also condemn the truly oppressive measures the government took to contain the virus. No humane society can approve the welding shut of apartments, the home confinement of the overwhelming majority of residents, restricted travel into, within, and out of the city, and a variety of other measures. These measures would not have been necessary if the government had been honest about the spread from the beginning. One study estimates that up to 95 percent of the virus’s spread could have been reduced had the Chinese government acted earlier, when fewer cases would have made treatment easier.
Despite all this, Griffiths depicts America’s response as worse than China’s. The effectiveness of the Chinese response, he writes, “could be perceived to be a strong argument that an empowered state is what is needed to respond to the pandemic.” He adds:
The crisis has also highlighted the benefits of a strong government and centralized planning, while . . . exposing the limitations of private industry to respond quickly, particularly in the healthcare sector. . . . In the United States, which is often held up — for better or worse — as the example par excellence of a Western democracy, the alternative to the Chinese model appears to be somewhat chaotic.
But where he sees an apparently disempowered state unable to do anything, a more accurate picture is an American government with plenty of resources, though too often it’s incompetent at deploying them, hamstringing both public and private efforts at fighting crises, including this one. That is a valid critique. But it is not the ironclad case for stronger government that Griffiths supposes. As it was left to Joe Biden to point out in a Democratic-primary debate, coronavirus is not itself a case for complete government control of health care; if it were, Italy, which has universal health care, would not have experienced arguably the Western world’s worst outbreak. There are other variables at play.
Griffiths might have a point about America’s “chaotic” response if he were talking about the different approaches takes by individual states. But America believed in letting a thousand flowers bloom well before Mao claimed to. America’s 50 states are not mere administrative units: They are, and always have been, considerable sources of political power. In this crisis, they have also proven to be more effective — and more accessible — administrators of mitigation measures than a centralized state would have been. This is not to say that all states have handled the crisis perfectly. But their measures are implemented on a smaller scale, and in a fashion closer to the ground, because of how our political system distributes power. And America gets to benefit from seeing what works and what doesn’t, as different states try different approaches to fit different populations and conditions. The Chinese approach might appeal to tyrants, but it would have never been possible here, or desirable.
Griffiths’s bias continues when he describes China’s relationship with the rest of the world. He casts China as a newly invigorated defender of international institutions. But just maybe this is a strategy China has adopted to maximize its self-interest. He doesn’t consider the possibility. “China has emerged as the strongest defendant of the World Health Organization (WHO) as it faces pressure from Washington,” he writes. But this is the same organization whose head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a controversial Ethiopian politician, had China’s support in his accession to the position. After taking the helm, Tedros steered the WHO in China’s favor at every step in the first few weeks of the outbreak. He went so far as to deny the possibility of human-to-human transmission at a time when the Chinese government demanded that the WHO push this message.
Griffiths also cites examples of Chinese beneficence, such as its provision of medical supplies around the world, but he fails to note that many of these products China sold are defective and don’t work. He lauds Chinese influence, such as the popularity of its Internet model in the wake of “crises around fake news and online disinformation,” but he doesn’t mention that China itself is pushing coronavirus disinformation. In light of such perfidy, it is impossible to take seriously, for example, a statement made by the Chinese Communist newspaper China Daily, which Griffiths nonetheless does:
The United Nations will be 75 this year, COVID-19 is reminding countries of the continuous and increasing value of multilateralism in a closely connected world. We will only halt COVID-19 through solidarity. No country can do it alone.
It is true that no country now can stop coronavirus on its own. But that is largely thanks to the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party in the first place.
Amid the pro-China blather, Griffiths does make the good point that “many of the governments praised for their handling of the virus — Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, and Germany — are democracies.” One of that series, in particular, deserves to be highlighted. Taiwan, perhaps most of all nations in the world, has reason not to trust China, which has sought for decades to snuff it out. Excluded from the World Health Organization, Taiwan ignored its downplaying of the virus, disregarded the Chinese government’s prevarication, and acted quickly and aggressively against COVID-19. As a result, it experienced perhaps the developed world’s least severe outbreak (429 cases, 6 deaths) and looks set to return to normalcy soon. It, too, is providing medical supplies around the world — though, unlike China, it is donating them rather than selling them. Does Griffiths consider the possibility that Taiwan will emerge stronger, or in a better position, than China? Or that Taiwan’s model for political life will become more attractive? He does not; this is the only mention Taiwan receives in his “analysis.”
Griffiths concludes that “Beijing also appears to have a greater appreciation than most of its rivals of the potential opportunities presented by the current crisis to emerge stronger and more influential than ever before.” This may or may not be true. But it is strange that a supposed “analysis” seems so keen on sharing the Chinese government’s assumptions and perspective, and eager to help it rewrite recent history. Maybe Winston Smith isn’t the only one who loves Big Brother.