[Analytics] Covid-2019 after SARS: Will China learn from the epidemic?

People outside the Wuhan Medical Treatment Centre in Hubei province, China, on Jan 12, 2020. Fears that the virus will spread are growing ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday. PHOTO: AFP. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

When the SARS epidemic ended in 2003, many people in China thought that the government had learned its lesson. SARS was the most serious epidemic the country encountered in the reform era, killing 349 people in China. The government was roundly criticised for its cover-ups in the early phases of the epidemic, leading to some frantic bureaucratic reshuffles, greater transparency and an expensive control and prevention system for infectious diseases. In March 2019 Director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention Gao Fu confidently predicted that China would never again suffer from another SARS-like epidemic. Feng Zhang specially for the East Asia Forum.

China needs deeper governance reform to better respond to epidemics like the coronavirus.
Gao is facing a storm of anger for this prediction since the outbreak in December 2019 of new coronavirus COVID-19, more infectious and deadly than SARS. As of 7 March, according to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 has caused 3073 deaths and infected 80,813 people in China, with hundreds of thousands more under medical observation. A medical and humanitarian tragedy has wreaked havoc in Wuhan city and Hubei province, the epicentre of the epidemic.

A widely circulated social-media article describes 11 striking mistakes China has repeated this time around. The most grievous failings are the government cover-ups and censorship in the early phases of the epidemic which cost the country a precious three weeks in January to fight the virus.

The most notorious cover-up surrounded Dr Li Wenliang, the now renowned whistle-blower who drew attention to early cases of COVID-19 infection. The police admonished him for warning people about the virus on social media and he later died from infection himself. As news of his death began to circulate online on the evening of 6 February, there was an outpouring of mourning and anger — too much for the censors to manage. Dr Li is already a martyr in the eyes of his mourners. But will the present crisis tragically embodied by his death spur China to learn any real lessons?

Leaning from history is one of the most difficult skills for humankind to master. German philosopher Hegel once cynically remarked that ‘the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history’. Twentieth-century American philosopher George Santayana offered a dark warning that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. The value of historical learning is just as venerated in the Chinese tradition. The great 11th-century classic work of Chinese historiography Comprehensive Mirror to Aid Governance by Zi Zhi Tong Jian trawls the entirety of Chinese history up to that point for lessons in politics and governance.

Courageous Chinese intellectuals are signing online letters calling for the authorities to respect freedom of speech, supposedly guaranteed by the country’s constitution. They believe that if freedom of speech as an individual right were protected, voices like Dr Li’s would have been heard more widely and effectively, perhaps forestalling the spread. If Li’s death led to real freedom of speech in China, that would be a lesson well learned.

But there is no sign as yet of such learning taking place. No sooner had demands for freedom of expression gained traction than they too fell victim to censors. Information control is hardening, not loosening. Truthful depictions of the tolls of the crisis in Wuhan are condemned as rumours and swiftly deleted. This happened to Fang Fang, a resident of Wuhan and professional writer whose first-hand blogs of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in her city have gripped millions of readers.

The length to which the censors have gone to eliminate dissent is extraordinary. On 22 February, authorities killed an article run by the official Xinhua News Agency for its assertion that ‘the sky is not going to fall upon the telling of truth’.

A more promising avenue for learning is governance reform. This is where most Chinese discussions on managing the epidemic are centred. Various experts are weighing in on the need for institutional reform. Unlike Western commentaries which tend to blame the authoritarian system of President Xi Jinping, Chinese scholars raise a multitude of questions beyond politics. These include concerns about state–society relations, centre–local relations and the role of social organisations (including non-governmental organisations) and professional groups. While the rigidity of the Chinese system and the consequent governance failure are part of their criticisms, their comments are more nuanced and fine-tuned.

Some of these views may reach the very top of the Chinese system, but it is unclear how the leadership will learn from this crisis. There are likely to be plenty of technical fixes, such as those recently announced by President Xi. But will the learning be so deep as to inaugurate systemic governance reforms and ensure long-term progress? As China continues its fight against COVID-19, the best hope is that the country can learn real lessons from this crisis and prove Hegel wrong.

Feng Zhang is Professor of International Relations and Executive Dean of the Institute of Public Policy at the South China University of Technology, Guangzhou.

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