China’s COVID-19 response: ‘dilatory at best, willfully negligent at worst’

Scholar Geremie Barmé, who recently translated two scathing essays by prominent Chinese intellectuals Xǔ Zhāngrùn 许章润 and Xǔ Zhìyǒng 许志永 about China’s COVID-19 response, writes in the New York Times that “China’s coronavirus crisis is just beginning”:

The government of China’s first response to the deadly virus, detected in late December, was dilatory at best, willfully negligent at worst, and yet the party promptly lavished praise on the state, particularly on China’s president, Xi Jinping…

Not since Charter 08, the manifesto by Liu Xiaobo and other activists that called for constitutional reform more than a decade ago, has the Chinese Communist Party faced such a pointed challenge from its political critics…

A new crisis generates new dissent, followed by repression — and then more dissent.

As both Xu Zhangrun and Xu Zhiyong have pointed out, it is the canker in China’s body politic that turned the coronavirus outbreak into a health crisis far worse than it needed to become. And the epidemic, in turn, has only exposed the extent of the party-state’s sickness.

Xu Zhangrun is now “incommunicado in Beijing,” while Xu Zhiyong remains detained in southern China since February 15.

New evidence of the extent of online censorship during the early days of the epidemic, which accompanied the political blockages on official reporting on the outbreak, was released today. A report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found, as summarized by the Financial Times (paywall), that:

YY, a Chinese live-streaming platform, began censoring keywords about coronavirus [on December 31, 2019,] one day after doctors tried to warn the public about a flu-like virus…

WeChat…censored more than 500 keyword combinations over a six-week period from January 1.

One thing not being censored now, James Palmer writes at Foreign Policy, is conspiracy theories that divert blame away from Chinese authorities. “Conspiracy-minded sites such as College Daily, already vectors for deeply racist and Islamophobic stories winked at by the propaganda authorities, are pushing the idea that the virus really originated in the United States,” Palmer says. “Most worryingly, top Chinese epidemiologist Zhōng Nánshān 钟南山, who has been at the front and center of the response to the outbreak, recently made an enigmatic claim at a press conference that the virus may not have originated in China — winking at these conspiracy theories without explicitly endorsing them.”

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—Lucas Niewenhuis