China’s COVID-19 response: A year of ‘government secrecy and top-down control’

Domestic News

China’s initial failure to respond quickly to COVID-19 as it emerged in Wuhan was due to a “political logjam,” the New York Times reports. But the AP reveals that political controls have only tightened in the time since, with new research on the origins of COVID-19 monitored and subject to approval by a task force set up by Xi Jinping.

china's response to covid-19
Illustration by Derek Zheng

The Chinese government’s response to COVID-19, since the first alarms of a new disease spreading went up exactly a year ago, has followed roughly three phases:

  • Failure in the first few weeks due largely to information controls, as scientists strongly suspected, but could not get the government to say publicly until January 20, that the virus was contagious among humans.
  • An extraordinarily harsh, but effective response to contain the outbreak in Wuhan and in other Chinese cities where it had spread.
  • All-out efforts to retake the narrative of governmental failure, or at least dilute it — mask diplomacy and now vaccine diplomacy, but also a large dose of censorship, propaganda, and conspiracy theory.

Two reports published today, by the New York Times and the Associated Press, add detail to how the information controls worked in the early days of China’s response — and reveal how new mechanisms for Beijing to control the narrative have been put in place.

  • By January 8, Chinese CDC director Gāo Fú 高福 was on the phone with his American counterpart, “emotional” and “agitated,” acknowledging that the new virus was probably contagious among humans, the NYT reports.
  • In a long New Yorker piece that focuses on the catastrophic failure of the American government to respond to COVID-19, Gao is said to have “started to cry” on what is apparently the same phone call, and stated, “I think we’re too late.”
  • But the political bureaucracy is explicitly prioritized over the medical bureaucracy in China’s government, so Gao could do little on his own. Even Mǎ Xiǎowěi 马晓伟, the director of China’s National Health Commission, had his hands “tied,” though he was “hardly oblivious to the rising risks.”
  • “Doctors in Wuhan knew that, politically, there was little incentive to own up to the problem. In the Communist Party pecking order, the secretary of Hubei Province — whose officials had promoted a reassuring line about the virus — overshadowed the National Health Commission director.”
  • China doubled down on political controls after February, the AP reveals in its report. Even as Chinese scientists study the origins of COVID-19, the government is “monitoring their findings and mandating that the publication of any data or research must be approved by a new task force managed by China’s cabinet, under direct orders from President Xi Jinping.”
  • The AP says that its investigation, based on leaked documents, dozens of interviews, and public notices, reveals “a pattern of government secrecy and top-down control that has been evident throughout the pandemic.”