Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Robert Peckham
by Robert Peckham

Coronavirus is testing the limits of China’s – and Hong Kong’s – preparedness

  • Mounting criticism of Beijing’s response to the outbreak and depictions of life in a society under lockdown puncture the image of China’s efficient, tech-invested regime
  • In Hong Kong, the crisis is exposing the fault lines of a divided city: governance failures and a demoralised people
International views on China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan have been divided, but in recent days criticism has become more strident. On his return from meetings in Beijing a week ago, the director general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, commended China’s “extraordinary” response, telling reporters how “very impressed and encouraged” he was by the handling of the epidemic.
An editorial in The Lancet praised the Chinese authorities, applauding the country’s efficient reporting and containment interventions: “The lessons from the Sars epidemic – where China was insufficiently prepared to implement infection control practices – have been successfully learned.”
As the crisis deepens, however, and international borders harden, approbation is giving way to censure. Many commentators are now pointing the finger at China’s confused response, noting the critical time wasted in the early stages of the outbreak.
Officials are accused of suppressing critical information and instigating a police crackdown on unhelpful “rumour-mongering”. It is now clear that human-to-human transmission of the virus was known to be taking place as early as mid-December, although this was only confirmed by authorities on January 20.

This growing international reproof has converged with frustration on the part of anxious Chinese citizens now experiencing full lockdown. In fast-deleted posts on China’s social media, scientists and officials have been lambasted.

Meanwhile, officials have been keen to pass the buck, with Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, admitting that mistakes were made but blaming Beijing-directed protocol for the delayed response. On its side, the central government has laid responsibility squarely with local bureaucrats in Wuhan and the wider Hubei province.

Whatever position one takes on this, it is evident that the 2019-nCoV outbreak is influencing perceptions of China around the world in ways that will undoubtedly matter for the future. And Hong Kong is part of this global reappraisal.

How ‘xenophobia’ spreads amid coronavirus, protests in Hong Kong

According to China’s more vocal critics, systemic weaknesses have been disclosed that counter the hype of an efficient, tech-invested regime. There are cracks in the self-projected image of the new China – a nation of smart cities, remote-sensing technologies and space exploration – that aren’t easy to paper over.

Governance is stretched between Beijing, the provinces and municipalities. When the going gets tough, the system can switch back to default mode: secrecy and clampdown in the name of public order.

The African swine fever epidemic, which has decimated China’s pig population from August 2018, killing millions of animals as a result of disease and culling, stands as an ominous foreshadowing of the coronavirus outbreak. It points to what can go wrong when a mass production system catering to 1.4 billion people works in reverse.
Both events – the coronavirus and swine fever outbreaks – along with a recently reported highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu outbreak in Hunan, stand as stark reminders of the extent to which animal and human health are enmeshed with a host of environmental, social and economic concerns that China (like much of the world) has yet to tackle.

Wuhan has now been put on the map internationally, its name irrevocably linked to disease. There is great symbolic importance in China’s new viral epicentre. More often than not, infections have threatened from the periphery, feeding into a geopolitical imaginary that pits the Middle Kingdom against pathogenic threats from without.

In the mid-19th century, the bubonic plague moved from Yunnan on China’s southwestern borders to the cities of Guangdong, while the pneumonic plague of 1910 and 1911 emerged on China’s northeastern frontier with Russia. In 1989, the first indigenous cases of HIV/Aids in China were reported among heroin users in Yunnan. The avian influenza H5N1 virus was detected in Guangdong in 1996. Similarly, severe acute respiratory syndrome erupted in Guangdong in 2002.

Wuhan, however, lies in central China. It is a strategic hub with considerable historical significance: the place from which the Wuchang Uprising was launched in 1911 that brought about the fall of the imperial Qing dynasty. A city that served briefly as the capital of China under the Kuomintang and during the second Sino-Japanese war. What is at stake, here, is the containment of infection at the very heart of the nation.

Why Wuhan is so important to China’s economy

Hong Kong’s role has also shifted. With the focus now on Wuhan, the city has relinquished (at least temporarily) its position as a global hotspot of disease. It is also at risk of losing its coveted post-Sars status as a city with a robust public health infrastructure and a community spirit second to none.
Today, Hong Kong society is deeply divided, with a government that appears to lack resolve, and a demoralised health care workforce no longer prepared to sacrifice itself for an uncommon good.

The coronavirus outbreak is disclosing the limits of preparedness, even as it throws into relief entrenched social and political fault lines that will persist long after the immediate viral threat has gone.

Robert Peckham is MB Lee Professor in the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong and author of Epidemics in Modern Asia

Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.