Saturday, January 25, 2020

Commentary: Wuhan virus compounds challenges facing China

The Year of the Rat looks set to get off on a rocky start, says the Financial Times' James Kynge.
By James Kynge 

23 Jan 2020

HONG KONG: The “year of the pig” has gone from bad to worse for the Chinese Communist party and China’s President Xi Jinping.

Months of vituperative protests in Hong Kong and a landslide election in Taiwan have been followed by the scourge of a deadly SARS-like virus.

So far, there is little cause to expect the year of the rat, which starts on Saturday (Jan 25), will turn out any better.

The outbreak of viral pneumonia, which has spread from mainland China to Japan, Macau, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US, might seem like mere bad luck.

But allegations of official incompetence and cover-ups are threatening to besmirch the Communist party’s image.


Zhou Xianwang, the mayor of Wuhan, a city of more than 10 million people at the centre of the outbreak, told China’s state-owned television that “there was not enough warning” to local residents in a district called Baibuting who attended a huge banquet involving over 40,000 families on Sunday.

This was in spite of scores of pneumonia cases already reported in the city.

“The reason why the Baibuting community continued to host the Banquet this year was based on the previous judgment that the spread of the epidemic was limited to humans, so there was not enough warning,” he said.

Hundreds of commentators on Chinese social media castigated the mayor for his response to the crisis.

Many of the cases of pneumonia reported have been traced back to people travelling from Wuhan as hundreds of millions of Chinese go home to celebrate the lunar new year.

The virus has already killed 17 people and infected nearly 600 in 13 provinces of mainland China. Two cases have been reported in Hong Kong, with authorities confirming on Thursday that the second victim is a 56-year-old man who travelled to Wuhan earlier this month.


On Thursday, Chinese authorities also placed severe travel restrictions on Wuhan, suspending rail and air links out of the city as huge crowds tried to embark on the journey home for the lunar year.

China’s Communist party has warned that anyone who covers up details about infections will be “forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame”, partly because of the Sars epidemic in 2003 which flared up in China before spreading around the world, infecting 8,098 people and killing 774.

Months of systematic under-reporting of the Sars epidemic dragged China’s reputation into the mire, prompting the World Health Organization to issue stinging criticism of Beijing.

But although the authorities’ actions this time appear to have been quicker, echoes of the SARS crisis persist.

As China’s National Health Commission confirmed the first cases of people-to-people transmission of the disease on Monday, the Wuhan Nightly News ran a headline on its front page: “No need to wear a N95 mask in public places”, a reference to the type of mask that respiratory experts recommend.

The viral outbreak is potentially damaging to the Communist party’s prestige because it cannot be blamed on others, a contrast to Hong Kong’s protests that Beijing has attributed to “foreign forces” intent on destabilising the territory and sowing chaos.

The landslide election victory by Taiwan’s pro-independence leader Tsai Ing-wen this month was similarly blamed on a range of factors, such as “dirty tactics”, “dark forces” as well as allegations that Tsai “wantonly hyped up” the threat from China to influence the election.

This time it will be more difficult to shift responsibility.

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