Chinese white paper hails coronavirus triumphs, venerates Xi Jinping and conveniently glosses over mistakes
Under continued fire for its early mishandling of the coronavirus, the Chinese government vigorously defended its actions in a new, detailed account on Sunday that portrays the country’s approach to combating the outbreak as a model for the world
Beijing: Under continued fire for its early mishandling of the coronavirus, the Chinese government vigorously defended its actions in a new, detailed account on Sunday that portrays the country’s approach to combating the outbreak as a model for the world.
Calling the epidemic a “test of fire”, Beijing builds a comprehensive picture of its “painstaking efforts” to identify the virus, stop its spread and warn other countries — a narrative that discounts and ignores missteps by the government at the outset of the outbreak.
In the report, local and provincial officials are described as acting decisively. The World Health Organisation is said to have been kept informed in detail starting on 3 January, while Chinese scientists quickly released the genome sequence. China’s president, Xi Jinping, is described as playing a pivotal role throughout the crisis.
“Confronted by this virus, the Chinese people have joined together as one and united their efforts,” the report said. “They have succeeded in containing the spread of the virus. In this battle, China will always stand together with other countries.”
Like much of China’s state propaganda on the coronavirus, the report provides a sanitised version of events, leaving out political and bureaucratic problems that exacerbated the crisis when it first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
There is no mention of the doctor who was reprimanded by police for raising an early alarm about the virus or the young Chinese bloggers who were taken into custody after creating videos of the suffering in Wuhan.
There is no discussion of local officials’ delays in reporting cases and underplaying the outbreak, or their subsequent firing. Officials instead are lauded for dedicating themselves to defeating the virus in the report, which speaks of “an effective and well-functioning, whole-of-the-nation control mechanism.”
The report offers no new information on the origins of the virus. In a news conference on Sunday, a top Chinese official dismissed accusations about Beijing’s conduct as “completely unwarranted and unreasonable,” an apparent reference to numerous accusations by the Donald Trump administration that China is to blame for the pandemic.
China has much at stake in global perceptions of its actions. Whether China is pilloried or praised could have a big effect on Beijing’s world standing in the months and years ahead and its ability to continue playing an ever more assertive role in international organisations and geopolitical affairs.
The Chinese government put its full propaganda muscle behind the report. Three ministers, two vice-ministers and the president of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences held a joint news conference to release it Sunday at the State Council Information Office, an elite propaganda agency.
Xu Lin, the minister who oversees the office, characterised China’s handling of the disease in heroic terms.
“China’s fight against COVID-19 is extraordinary and should be remembered forever,” he said.
As the United States and other countries struggle to bring their outbreaks under control, China has largely returned to normal life. Its last remaining high-risk area, a district in the northeastern city of Jilin, lowered its epidemic response level Sunday. The city of Beijing gave permission on Friday for people to stop wearing masks when outdoors and well separated.
The government reported six new cases across the country Sunday. Five originated abroad, and one was said to have been transmitted locally in the southern island province of Hainan.
Since the outbreak began, the Chinese mainland has recorded more than 89,000 cases and more than 4,600 deaths. By contrast, the United States has confirmed almost 2 million cases and nearly 110,000 deaths.
Ma Zhaoxu, vice-minister of foreign affairs, complained bitterly about foreign criticisms of China’s handling of the coronavirus. Critics “went all out to smear and slander China; this is spreading a political virus, and in responding to such politicised practices, China, of course, will push back resolutely,” he said.
As evidence of China’s transparency, Xu said that 480 journalists from state news media had risked infection by reporting from the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province. In his only hint that China may have had any difficulties in handling the epidemic, he said, “They have also uncovered some issues and pressed for their solution.”
The report also highlights its cooperation with the United States.
It notes that the heads of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and its Chinese equivalent spoke to each other by phone on 4 January and again four days later. In the first call, the Chinese official briefed his US counterpart about the new pneumonia, the report said, adding, “The two sides agreed to keep in close contact on information sharing and cooperation on technical matters.”
Ma Xiaowei, the minister who oversees the National Health Commission, said Sunday that China had not covered up the epidemic.
“We have not delayed in any way” the release of information, he said.
But he indicated that China was stepping up preparations to make sure that it would catch any future outbreak of disease quickly.
“We shall also develop a smart early-warning system with multiple triggers,” he said.
He did not explain how the existing early-warning system, put in place after the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis in late 2002 and early 2003, mostly failed during the coronavirus outbreak.
The news conference on Sunday underlined how completely Xi has consolidated his power.
China’s top leader said little publicly in the early days of the outbreak and made a state visit to neighbouring Myanmar in mid-January as the virus spread swiftly through Wuhan. He sent Premier Li Keqiang, the country’s second-highest official, to Wuhan soon after that city’s lockdown began, on 23 January, and put him in charge of handling the government’s response.
But the new report barely mentions the premier, while Xi was praised at length. He is described in often martial terms as a resolute commander in combat, making important decisions every week and sometimes every day.
As in an earlier account, the report indicates that the Chinese leader was engaged in the fight against the outbreak since 7 January but offers little further details on his role back then. Toward the end of February, Xi “called for a greater effort to marshal the resources of the whole country to reinforce Wuhan and Hubei,” it says. Two months later, he said the country had “won a vital battle in defending Wuhan and Hubei against the novel coronavirus and achieved a major strategic success in the nationwide control efforts.”
Xi “made key decisions at critical moments and led the Chinese people in an all-out fight,” Xu said.
Keith Bradsher c.2020 The New York Times Company
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