After every disaster, there is a search for answers: how did this happen, what could have been done to prevent it, and who should be held responsible. With cases of COVID-19 now reported on every continent save Antarctica, nearly 100,000 confirmed cases, and at least 3,000 deaths, discussion of these questions continues to dominate the media.
The How and When
A few things are known: the first cases appeared in mid-November or early December 2019—accounts differ—in Wuhan, a city located in central China, in an area not far from a market that sold live animals and also in proximity to a laboratory that did research on viruses similar to this one. However, neither the animals in the market nor the work of the laboratory has been conclusively proved to be the cause of the outbreak. By the end of December, the unusual cluster of illnesses drew the attention of Li Wenliang, a doctor who mentioned them to his colleagues over social media. Summoned by the Public Security Bureau, he was told to sign a letter saying that he had made false comments that had severely disturbed the social order and that if such acts continued, he would be “brought to justice.” Chinese law provides strict penalties for those who spread rumors, even when the rumors are proved true. The doctor signed the document, and then returned to treat the now rapidly growing number of patients. Soon after, he died of the virus.
As cases of the highly infectious disease proliferated, China’s annual lunar new year population migration, in which tens of millions leave their homes to celebrate with their extended families, was just beginning. As many as five million of Wuhan’s 11.1 million citizens were estimated to have left the city, at least some of whom carried the disease, whose initial symptoms may be mild, with them. Meanwhile, the Wuhan government, hoping to boost the city’s economy during the annual lunar new year holiday, gave away free tickets to mass events to encourage participation, thereby facilitating the spread of the disease. Not until January 23, the day after one such event, did officials order the city’s airport closed and its train and bus stations shut. Hundreds of thousands struggled to get out by whatever means possible. Others besieged hospitals and medical supply facilities in search of medical masks and disinfectants that soon sold out. The disease continued to spread. While the great majority of cases occurred in Hubei, the province of which Wuhan is the capital city, incidences were reported from many other provinces as well in several foreign countries.
Who Should Be Held Responsible?
When a university professor, citing an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, complained on social media that medical professionals had known by early January that the virus could be spread by human-to-human transmission, the post went viral. It was deleted after two hours, but not before tens of thousands had read and shared it.
The central government then moved belatedly to take control of what had become not only a health crisis, but also a public relations nightmare, both domestically and internationally. Xi declared a “People’s War” against the virus, and Beijing’s media duly began a mass effort to re-write the narrative. Another effort involved deflecting responsibility to lower levels. The party chiefs of Wuhan and Hubei were replaced, and Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang issued an apology for the shortcomings in his administration—while hinting that he had been instructed to minimize what was happening. At first, General Secretary Xi Jinping appeared to delegate authority to his premier, Li Keqiang, but after criticism, asserted the leadership role. State-controlled media ran photographs of his visit to a Beijing hospital wearing a mask, while netizens wondered why he had not gone to Wuhan and noted that many of them had been unable to obtain masks. China’s state-controlled media railed out against foreign reports that blamed China, saying that the scientific world had come to no conclusion on the origin of the virus and that it was “detestable” and “racist” to hold China responsible for their own failures to control the epidemic.
Beijing’s efforts to praise the deceased doctor and circulate heart-tugging stories of the health personnel who were working tirelessly to treat the afflicted fell short of credibility, with netizens openly ridiculing many of them and one blog post advising that “news coverage should stop turning a funeral into a wedding.”
Xu Zhiyong, a professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University who had earlier been dismissed from teaching and served prison time for his criticisms of party and government, accused Xi of being unable to cope with the virus, not intelligent enough to run the country, and creating a dictatorship, was arrested. As if to confirm the last-named charge, Xi announced to a meeting of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee that officials must keep a tight grip on the media and “direct public opinion” in order to win the war against the virus. The general consensus, however, was that Beijing’s propaganda machine, despite having become increasingly sophisticated, had lost a great deal of credibility, as had the citizenry’s faith in the party-state.
At the end of January, Xi met with World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Beijing to discuss the crisis. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Ghebreyesus praised the high speed and massive scale of China’s moves to contain the virus, saying that they showed the country’s efficiency and the advantages of its system, and adding that Xi’s “personal guidance and deployment show his great leadership ability.” Skeptics described Ghebreyesus as a politically pliable director who channels political orders from the Chinese Communist Party, and that his country, Ethiopia, had received generous political donations from China.
North Korea and Russia quickly closed their borders with the PRC—ironically, since the two are among China’s closest international friends. South Korea did not, with President Moon Jae-in saying that the virus would quickly disappear. The result was that South Korea has far and away the greatest number of COVID-19 cases outside of China, currently numbering around 4,000. Moon’s approval rating fell, and within three weeks, over 800,000 people had signed a petition on the presidential office website demanding his impeachment. A center-left paper was kinder, editorializing that “some groups” were politicizing the issue and echoing the WHO’s opinion that exclusionary measures were ineffective and could inflame racist sentiment. Moon’s supporters argued that his actions had been reasonable before a cluster of cases occurred in a particular church.
Japanese media were initially considerably kinder to Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, with his major foe, center-left Asahi Shimbun, concentrating its criticism on the irregular finances involved in a cherry blossom viewing festival last spring. Most of the annoyance with the administration’s decision to quarantine the cruise ship Diamond Princess in port until symptoms became evident had come from passengers, who complained that they felt they were living in a petri dish. Abe’s major misstep was when, before consultation with more than his closest ministers, he asked the country’s elementary, junior, and senior high schools to suspend classes until spring break. While sympathetic to his reasons, citizens asked who would take care of the children—should nurses who were treating the sick now stay home? How would missing class time be made up and exams scheduled? Abe then announced an emergency fund to help with this and other related problems, such as subsidies to small businesses who have been adversely affected by the virus. Amusement parks, such as Tokyo Disneyland, announced voluntary closings; major sporting events, including the nation’s Grand Sumo Tournament, may have to be held without audiences, to the lament of millions of fans; and there are doubts that the long-anticipated and carefully planned-for 2020 Tokyo Olympics may not take place. Despite Chinese predictions that the stakes for Abe were high, so far, Abe’s political position does not seem to have been appreciably impacted.
Hong Kong, with its status as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, did not initially close its border with China despite calls from the citizenry to do so. Since the political status of its nominal head, Carrie Lam, was already at a nadir due to her efforts to pass an unpopular extradition law, the lack of decisive action, though widely resented, was not unexpected. In early January, China replaced the head of its liaison office in the SAR with the former party head of Shanxi province, a man with no known experience in Hong Kong. In what seemed a portent of things to come, three pro-democracy activists, including media billionaire Jimmy Lai, were arrested, five months after the demonstrations against the extradition bill began. Not until January 30 did the Hong Kong government order some transportation links and border checkpoints closed, and, a week later, a mandatory quarantine for anyone, regardless of nationality, who had visited China within a 14-day period. At the time of writing, schools remain closed. At the end of February, the government announced a wide range of counter-cyclical measures to stimulate Hong Kong’s economy, including a one-time cash payment of US$1,282 to each permanent resident of the SAR to help cope with the disruptions.
If there is any “winner” in the response to the plague, it is Taiwan. The nation’s first confirmed case, a woman returning to the country from Wuhan, did not occur until January 21, with the woman sent directly to a hospital where isolation facilities had already been prepared. Factories were producing two million masks a day by late January, with sales restricted to two per person per week based on national identification cards, and a ban imposed on their export until domestic supplies proved adequate. Heretofore excluded from international organizations due to opposition from China, Taiwan’s longstanding pleas for participation in the WHO received added impetus due to the health crisis, and, in the end, it was allowed to do so.
Schools closed briefly, but have reopened. Polls indicated that nearly 70 percent of the population approved of the government’s handling of relations with China during the outbreak, and President Tsai Ing-wen’s popularity rose to 68.4 percent.
Two basic scenarios can be imaged. In a worst-case scenario, the credibility that Xi has lost in his handling of the epidemic may not easily be restored, either domestically or internationally. And charges that criticism of the Chinese system are racist are more likely to annoy than convince those who hear them. After covering up the HIV/AIDs epidemic until 1995, the Chinese government was said to have learned a lesson about the need for transparency. As shown by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003, it had not. The same will doubtless be said about COVID-19: next time will be better. But perhaps with less conviction than before.
For the Chinese population at large, enhanced surveillance measures put into place to track individuals’ movements during the health crisis are likely to remain, allowing the party-state to cross-check recent whereabouts with big data ranging from smartphone location to train ticket purchases and key them into social credit scores. While useful and efficient in curbing the spread of disease, the data can also provide notice of mass protests and even small group gatherings of people who hold views that run counter to official policy.
There may be long-term effects on the Chinese economy as well. Mindful of the disruptions to their supply chains, several major manufacturers are reportedly considering moving them to other countries. Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief economist for Asia-Pacific at the French investment bank Nataxis, argues that, because supply chains have become overly dependent on China, diversification is necessary to reduce risk. She predicts that countries like Mexico, Turkey, and the Eastern European states with their large supplies of available labor, adequate logistical capabilities, and comparatively low dependence on China should soon be busy entertaining visits from major multinationals. An analyst for Japan’s Nikkei points out that supply chains once shifted will not easily return. There are apt to be follow-on consequences for China since, he opines, these companies also supply technological information whose loss would slow or impede China’s efforts to move up the economic value chain.
In a more benign scenario, none of this may happen. It is entirely possible that, as has happened with past epidemics, the number of those affected will soon dwindle. Work on vaccines began immediately after the outbreak, and may provide a cure. Quarantines will be lifted; factories and schools will reopen. The impact of transferred supply chains may be minimal: already, Toyota has announced plans to build a new $1.22 billion electric vehicle plant in Tianjin in conjunction with local partner FAW Group and expand production in Guangdong with another partner. It is not clear whether all the EVs produced are meant for sale in China, in which case a supply chain would not have to be moved. But, at the very least, Toyota’s decision represents its confidence in the Chinese market. Also, China is far less dependent on foreign technological information than previously. There may be a v-shaped recovery from this quarter’s current dismal economic data, with financial stimulus measures easing the transition period. Life will return to normal. Painful memories of the COVID-19 crisis will recede: China has successfully weathered HIV/AIDs and SARS outbreaks, as well as the politically induced catastrophes of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
We just don’t know which scenario will occur—though as in all things, it will probably be some combination of the two.
 Albeit a highly qualified victory, with the director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, Michael Ryan, saying “We will have Taiwanese colleagues online, as we will have experts from the rest of China online.” Taiwan has never been ruled by Beijing and the overwhelming majority of its citizens reject the idea of unification.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles onAmerican foreign policy and national security priorities.