China publishes sanitized timeline of its COVID-19 response

Domestic News

standing committee covid mourning

General Secretary Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 and other top government officials bow their heads to observe a moment of silence at 10 a.m. on April 4 for the “martyrs in the fight against the novel coronavirus and the compatriots who have passed away.” Image via Xinhua (English, Chinese).

Today, Xinhua published a “Timeline of China releasing information on COVID-19 and advancing international cooperation on epidemic response.” It is also available in Chinese here.

The purpose of the timeline is obvious from its title: to counter the narrative that China covered up information about the coronavirus outbreak, and to promote China as a responsible and competent steward of international public health.

The content of the timeline is overwhelming: At over 21,000 words (or 28,000 Chinese characters), it is clearly meant to be seen as comprehensive.

The start of the timeline, however, is “late December 2019.” We know from reporting in the Wall Street Journal, among other sources, that signs of trouble were emerging as early as the “second week of December.”

Missing from the timeline, unsurprisingly, are mentions of the multiple errors that delayed the official confirmation of human-to-human transmission for weeks. There are also no details on when Lǐ Wénliàng 李文亮 was reprimanded (December 30), or what he was reprimanded for (raising alarm about a SARS-like virus spreading). Instead, an entry on March 19 contains the only mention of Li:

An inspection team of the National Supervisory Commission released the report of an investigation into issues related to doctor Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist with the Central Hospital of Wuhan. Following the report, Wuhan Public Security Bureau decided to revoke the previous reprimand letter and apologized to Li’s family over the mistake.

The true start of the COVID-19 timeline is accurately reflected in this compilation of media reports by Sense Hofstede, a Ph.D. student at National University of Singapore. According to the South China Morning Post, “The first case of someone in China suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, can be traced back to November 17.”

For other accurate timelines of China’s early COVID-19 response, see the Wall Street Journal article linked above, or reports from Caixin, the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Financial Times.

U.S. response timeline also examined

An early entry in the Xinhua timeline, dated January 3, says, “China began to inform the United States of the pneumonia outbreak and response measures on a regular basis.”

The U.S. government agrees with that date. Per the Washington Post:

At a White House briefing Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said officials had been alerted to the initial reports of the virus by discussions that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had with Chinese colleagues on Jan. 3.

From there on out, the U.S. response took on a life of its own. For more, see these stories:

—Lucas Niewenhuis