The coronavirus is the greatest crisis to have faced President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012.
Since the outbreak began in the central city of Wuhan last December, it has killed 565 people and infected more than 28,200. All but two of the deaths were in mainland China. It has forced the government to lock down cities with a population exceeding 60 million and is likely to cut GDP growth this year by at least 0.5 percentage points.
Who is responsible for this catastrophe? Beijing cannot blame it on the United States and the hostile foreign forces it holds responsible for eight months of protest in Hong Kong and helping Tsai Ying-wen to win a second presidential term in Taiwan. No the guilty parties are within China.A bitter war is being waged on the Chinese internet over this issue.
Many believe the government is guilty of a cover-up after the first patient in Wuhan experienced the symptoms of the disease on December 1. On the social platform Douban, many people have written reviews of the television series Chernobyl, about the Soviet nuclear disaster in April 1986. The Soviet government delayed news of the catastrophe and did not report faithfully what had happened. In any era, any country, its the same. Cover everything up, wrote one blogger. That is socialism.
On December 30, Li Wenliang (pictured), a Wuhan doctor, informed fellow doctors in an online chat group that seven patients from a local seafood market had been diagnosed with a SARS-like illness and were quarantined in his hospital. Contaminated animals in the market are the most likely source of the virus.
Li and seven other doctors were visited by city police; they accused them of rumour-mongering and warned them not to discuss the disease in public. Li himself was tested positive for the virus on February 1 and died in the early hours of February 7.
His death caused an outpouring of grief and anger on social media. Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology, said one. We want freedom of speech, said another. Tens of thousands read the comments before the censors deleted them.
If any of us here is fortunate enough to speak up for the public in the future, please make sure you remember tonights anger, said another comment.
Lis death is the most tragic result of a cover-up. On January 2, hospitals in Wuhan accepted 27 patients who had direct exposure to the seafood market. By January 18, the number of infected patients in Wuhan had risen to 62; that day the city government arranged a public banquet with 40,000 families making and sharing food. By then doctors had told the city government that the virus could be spread from human to human.
But it was only on January 22 that the city was quarantined and severe measures put in place. In the weeks before, five million people had left Wuhan to travel all over China and around the world. It is they who have carried the disease across the globe.
Chinese are asking why it took seven weeks from the first case to the public announcement and imposition of drastic measures. The answer is Chinas highly centralised reporting system. The Wuhan government is likely to have reported details of the disease to Beijing; but it could not announce anything or take strong measures without approval.
Was it only Xi himself who could make such a major decision? Did the Prime Minister and Minister of Health have to wait for him?
Many of the bloggers direct their anger at Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang and Hubei governor Wang Xiaodong. During an interview that Zhou gave to state television, one commentor wrote in a live stream: Stop talking. We just want to know when you will resign.
To avoid the censors, bloggers must be ingenious. Some refer to Xi Jinping as Trump. Others describe the police and police stations with characters that are incorrect but have the same sound as the correct ones. This works because most of the censoring is done by computers, which cannot detect wordplay.
In the early days of the crisis, control of the Internet was eased, allowing criticism of the local government. Then this week President Xi said that the government needed to step up propaganda and strengthen online media control to maintain social stability. Many WeChat accounts have been shut down. State news media runs positive stories about how China is defeating the virus and about health workers in the front line.
This epidemic is devastating and figures at the very top of government are implicated in the appalling response. The Chernobyl catastrophe was so horrific that it helped to speed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The question now is what the consequences will be for the Chinese government of this terrible, growing crisis that it has handled so incompetently.
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