My first visit to China came four days after a massive earthquake struck Sichuan Province, killing more than 70,000 people in May 2008. Beijing didn’t waste a minute in organising an unprecedented, nationwide push to rescue and reconstruct. While the People’s Liberation Army was dispatched en masse to Sichuan, the party-state mobilised the entire nation in what was a staggering multipronged response.
The one memory that stands out for me from the time was the one week anniversary of the tragedy. On May 19, at noon, the country came to a standstill. On the usually busy Nanjing road in Shanghai, even cars and buses stopped in their tracks for the most immaculately observed minute’s silence I’d ever seen.
The mobilisation worked wonders. Everyone I knew in Shanghai got involved, either fund-raising or even going straight to the quake-hit zone as volunteers. Of 41,130 projects for reconstruction and rehabilitation, 99% would be finished within two years. When I visited the epicentre, Wenchuan, two years later, I found a newly built city with gleaming buildings and cropped trees on broad roads.
Barely a month after the quake, however, China was grappling with a fresh tragedy. In July, newspapers began reporting about hundreds of children developing kidney stones and falling ill after consuming baby formula that was tainted with melamine. But the stories abruptly stopped. China was all set for the Beijing Olympics in August, and a reporter at the Southern Weekly , the first paper to break the scandal, later told me they had been told to stop reporting. The cover-up lasted two months. By the time the government finally lifted the lid on the scandal in September after the Olympics, more than 50,000 children had been hospitalised, and six died. The censorship, my friend believed, magnified the tragedy.
These two stories came to mind this week, as the world watched China’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Beijing’s all-out response has been praised by the World Health Organization for its scale. But not everyone in China is awestruck. As one veteran journalist wrote from Wuhan this week, the current top-down response was necessitated by many bottom-up failures. Writing under the pen-name Da Shiji for the China Media Project, he presented a remarkable account of how the outbreak was covered up and allowed to spread for close to 40 days, during which some 5 million people from Wuhan had left the city and many others had travelled there, unaware. Caixin , a bold Chinese media outlet, reported that the first infected patient was found on December 8. That month, police hauled up eight people for spreading “rumours” on pneumonia, after they had posted concerned messages online about patients with SARS-like symptoms in hospitals. It later emerged that those eight people were doctors.
The new virus was confirmed on January 11. Up until January 17, Wuhan authorities maintained there was no need for concern. Incidentally, January 12 to 17 was when the province was holding its annual political congress, which precedes China’s March national congress. During such political events in China, stability is the utmost priority.
It was only when President Xi Jinping made his first comments on January 20 did the top-down machine kick into action. The government is sparing no effort to contain the spread. Openness is being encouraged, but Da Shiji thinks it will be temporary. “What will tomorrow bring,” he asks. “Here in Wuhan, 11 million of us are waiting — not for dramatic action, but for openness and a real plan of action.”