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China, the media and truth-telling in a crisis

On February 3, Caixin, a Chinese magazine known for its independent reporting — at least as independent as a media outlet can get in China — published the first of a four-part investigation. The article, headlined “How Wuhan lost the battle”, laid bare how a month-long cover-up allowed the novel coronavirus outbreak to spread, while the Chinese public remained completely unaware. That very same day, the lead story on the front page of the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper, reported breathlessly on how a visit by China’s President Xi Jinping to a village in Qinghai province had transformed its fortunes. That visit, incidentally, was in August 2016.

A window to coverage

The two contrasting stories from two contrasting media outlets present a snapshot of how the media in China is covering the novel coronavirus outbreak, which as of February 16 has infected more than 68,500 people and claimed 1,665 lives on the mainland. In India, there is a widespread assumption that the media in China is one, single, heaving, Communist Party-controlled beast, where every article has to be signed off by the Politburo. Those perceptions, to be fair, have only deepened in the eight years since Mr. Xi took over the reins of the Party, a period that has seen a relentless tightening of controls over the media.

The Wuhan outbreak has served a reminder that below the surface, the media landscape in China remains a contested terrain, and that when given the space to work, Chinese journalists can play a much-needed watchdog role. Unfortunately, as the crisis and cover-up has reminded us, finding this space has become all too rare. We now know, thanks to the reporting of Caixin, Caijing, the Beijing News and a few other outlets, that the crisis was unfolding in Wuhan’s hospitals throughout December, even as the city and provincial leadership hid the scale of the outbreak. As a doctor at the Wuhan Union Hospital told Caixin, clinics were being flooded since late December with as many as 900 patients a day showing pneumonia-like symptoms. On December 30, eight doctors sent warnings on chat groups about the outbreak. Among the whistle-blower doctors was Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist. The eight were hauled up by police for “spreading rumours” and forced to sign statements withdrawing their claims.

It is now clear that the Wuhan government lied about the number of infections until at least January 16, which was, incidentally, when the city and province’s annual political congress ended. While the congress was being convened, the official number of infections remained constant. On January 11, the government said the number had actually declined to 41. By that point, there were likely tens of thousands of cases already in Wuhan alone. “All doctors in our hospital knew it was not correct as it was so different from what we’d seen,” one doctor told Caixin, which reported that the number of infections had grown so vast that CT scan machines in hospitals started breaking down.

Moreover, a number of doctors and medical workers began falling ill, although hospitals barred doctors from disclosing this. The provincial government would maintain until January 20 that this viral pneumonia was under control and there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmissions — a premature and ill-considered statement that helped magnify the crisis. Indeed, on January 19, the local government even held an annual community dinner for 40,000 families. It was only the following day, when respected Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan revealed the scale of the crisis did Wuhan realise it was in the middle of an unprecedented outbreak; Dr. Zhong rose to fame during the SARS or the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome fight, in 2002-03. And just three days later, with little warning, the entire province of Hubei would be put in quarantine — from buffet dinner to complete lockdown in 96 hours.

Structure of control

We know these facts only thanks to the brave Chinese journalists who have been reporting relentlessly from Wuhan’s ground zero. What explains the return of Chinese investigative journalism? Maria Repnikova, author of Media Politics in China: Improvising Power Under Authoritarianism, suggested in a recent article that the central government in Beijing has often deliberately granted limited space in times of crisis. Doing so serves at least two purposes: releasing a pressure valve that helps assuage public anger and assess public sentiment, and helping the central government better identify the source of the problem when under-fire provincial officials would be more concerned about saving their careers. The structure of control of Chinese media, to some extent, also enables such reporting. While the Hubei Party Committee would have direct control over media in their province, they have no such say over a magazine from Beijing or Shanghai. This explains why media from other provinces have led the coverage. Of course, even this is only possible because Beijing temporarily sees it as in its interest to project what Ms. Repnikova calls “an image of managed transparency”.

Unfortunately, the space for such reporting is usually fleeting, as was the case after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and the high-speed railway accident in Wenzhou in 2011, that claimed 40 lives. Indeed, there are already signs that the clampdown will resume. “The window now seems to be closing,” the China Media Project reported on February 5, citing an internal government directive stating “reports concerning the epidemic must take [information from] authoritative departments as the standard”.

“Without joint arrangements [with authorities], daring to use outside media reports is strictly prohibited.” Another instruction read: “Do not render commentary on the economic impact of the epidemic, resolutely preventing talk of the Chinese economy being undermined by the epidemic.”

The death of the whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang on February 7, after he had contracted the coronavirus, unleashed a wave of public rage on Chinese social media that was unprecedented on many levels. Perhaps the only close parallel was the public response to the Wenzhou train accident. But this time around, the scale was much larger, underlining the public anxiety over the outbreak and the sense of immediacy of this crisis — anyone could be affected. On WeChat, everyone, from businessmen and academics to taxidrivers and primary schoolteachers posted tributes to Li. The lyrics of “Do you hear the people sing” from Les Misérables went viral, and the phrase “freedom of speech” trended briefly on the Twitter-like social media website, Weibo, before censors stepped in.

Political impact

The current crisis is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Party in the Xi era. The Party taking the unprecedented steps of showing, for the first time, videos of leaders speaking at usually secretive Politburo Standing Committee meetings, and subsequently releasing on February 15 an internal speech by Xi, suggest it is more than a little concerned about how the public is looking at its response. In the speech, Mr. Xi said he had as early as January 7 issued orders to deal with the crisis, a rare instance of him taking the step of actually explaining the Party’s actions to the public. He called for lessons to be learnt, including plugging the loopholes in responding to such disasters. He also called for ensuring “societal control and security”. While a prolonged crisis could certainly hurt the Party’s legitimacy, an early victory in the fight against coronavirus — which the world will be hoping for — could still end up as a rallying call for Mr. Xi ahead of the Party’s 100-year-anniversary in 2021.

While the Party may well see more control as the answer, in the view of some Chinese, however, it is a systemic culture of secrecy that prides security above all else — one that only incentivises local officials to cover up, control their media, and maintain “stability” at all costs until a crisis has spiralled beyond control — that explains the Hubei provincial government’s actions. How else would they respond if “stability maintenance” is a leading criterion for a promotion? In their view, transparency is the solution, although one need only look closer to home to conclude it is perhaps a necessary but not sufficient condition to deal with such outbreaks, which require a robust and prepared health-care system too.

Winds of change?

Moreover, they see the stifling of independent Chinese voices as hurting the government’s own mission of trying to convince the world of its response. When much of the media is state-controlled and there are few independent outlets mediating China’s rapidly expanding engagement with the world, scepticism will likely abound overseas, even if China ironically has, at least since January 20, been far more transparent in handling the outbreak than it was during SARS 17-18 years ago. To that end, a petition put forward by a number of academics from the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, Mr. Xi’s alma mater, has now called to make February 7, the day of Dr. Li’s passing, a national day for freedom of speech. It is perhaps too early to tell where such calls will go, and whether the current sense of anger will end up as fleeting as this revival of Chinese journalism.

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