On April 26, 1986 the nuclear reactor in the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl began to melt down. True to form, the initial response of officials in the old Soviet Union was to cover up. Workers and scientists at the site in neighbouring regions bravely tried to understand what was happening and apply emergency procedures to control it. Tens of thousands were unwittingly being exposed to potentially fatal radioactive dust. Its spread across western Europe was soon being detected.
The Kremlin reluctantly realised that it could no longer keep the disaster secret. Less than six years later, the all-powerful Soviet Union was gone. At the time of Chernobyl this had been unthinkable.
The Chernobyl disaster is often seen as a dramatic portent of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In truth, regimes tend to go out with a whimper, not a bang. Chernobyl was symptomatic of a Soviet Union that had already entered its protracted phase of terminal decline as the regime atrophied under economic stasis, inefficiency, corruption, cynicism, and plain incompetence on an epic scale. Mikhail Gorbachev the reformer was too little, too late to save the system.
COVID-19 could become China’s symbolic Chernobyl, but at this stage it is too early into the course of the disease to say much with any confidence. Obviously, a lot will depend on its severity and longevity, and whether this leads to economic paralysis in China.
The Chinese government’s response, however, has sharply divided opinion within China, notwithstanding strenuous efforts to censor wider public discussion. Reaction against the secretive manner in which the government first responded to the coronavirus continues to gain momentum through social media.
The fate of whistleblower Li Wenliang has become a rallying point for those calling for greater freedom of speech, and transparency and accountability from officials.
The Chinese party-state’s response has been true to form. Cover-up, punish whistleblowers, reassure that all is fine until the circumstances make that impossible to sustain. Then respond with mass mobilisation, making it a sacred duty to prevail over the emergency. Defeating the virus has become a patriotic struggle.
This also serves to divert attention from the leadership’s mistakes. However, the pattern of response is alarmingly familiar, and many have died needlessly as a result. People have become deeply mistrustful of the state.
In the 1990s, it took years for officials to acknowledge and respond to a scandal of HIV-infected blood transfusions, mainly in Henan province. The whistleblower on that occasion, also a doctor, was in 2001 hounded into exile in the US.
In 2003, the SARS (a virus similar to COVID-19) outbreak led to the same pattern of cover-up, denial and mass mobilisation that we see with COVID-19. An outraged public attacked the government over the tardiness of the official response and dissembling, and victimising whistleblowers. Beijing party officials involved in the cover-up, as now with Wuhan officials, were forced to fall on their swords and accept responsibility.
SARS led for a time to serious public discussion about the need for government transparency, accountability and media scrutiny. It occurred at the time of a trend towards greater openness in China, and political and economic reform. The movement of rights lawyers was gaining momentum. Citizens increasingly felt they could defend their rights against the state.
Then, in 2008, the Wenchuan earthquake hit Sichuan province in May and, immediately after the Beijing Olympics concluded, the adulterated Sanlu infant formula scandal that killed many babies, and had been concealed during the Games, hit the headlines. The baby milk scandal followed the established pattern of cover-up, denial, blame and victim persecution, followed by government retribution against the accused.
The Wenchuan earthquake was different for a while. For a period after SARS, high-level introspection was evident and an acceptance of greater openness. When the earthquake hit, Chinese and Western journalists rushed to the scene. For some days, the reporting seemed objective and free.
But then it emerged that the biggest cohort of deaths was among schoolchildren attending their afternoon classes. Attention focused on the poor quality of buildings. It soon emerged that the schools had been jerry-built. Suspicion of local government corruption was being aired. So-called “tofu buildings” were blamed by grieving parents.
Again, the familiar pattern occurred of shutting down media reporting, replacing reporting with propaganda, punishing whistleblowers and victims. A narrative of heroic citizens and military efforts to serve the people soon smothered all criticism. Another patriotic struggle, this time to rebuild Wenchuan in record time (which happened), was launched.
With COVID-19, the wider political trend for years in China has been for greater political control and propaganda, less transparency, and the suppression of the “rights movement” that sought to enable citizens to exercise their constitutional rights against the state.
A big difference this time, however, is that social media, which did not exist during previous disasters, has enabled far wider public discussion than ever before about the government’s behaviour, despite the fact that it is tightly controlled and many of the posts are promptly removed.
Clearly, a great deal of public mistrust of the government exists. Equally, there is overwhelming support for the government’s narrative that this is a challenge that only the country united under the wise leadership of the Communist Party can confront and defeat.
The government again is controlling the narrative. It draws on patriotism and skilfully uses this to bolster the Communist Party’s leadership in times of crises. Foreign commentators generally fail to recognise that support for the party is genuine and widespread.
Xi Jinping is not under threat from without over his handling of the crisis. Internally, within the party elite, others will be arguing that China today is too big, too diverse, too integrated in the international system, its people too wealthy and too international for the old instincts of secrecy, control and victimisation to serve the country’s interests.
Given China's opaque political system, it's impossible for outsiders to gauge how widespread or influential such views might be. Probably not very much. Moreover, the government’s extraordinary response of effectively shutting down the country seems to be working – at least the World Health Organisation thinks so.
China today is not the Soviet Union of 1986. China is a highly successful, well-functioning economy that keeps delivering ever higher material living standards to its citizens, while its international standing is built on respect. Cynicism exists, but is trumped by the Communist Party's patriotic narrative and the government’s performance in delivering on people’s expectations.
Moreover, given China's opaqueness at the highest level of politics, if President Xi faces political challenges, we are unlikely to find out until after they have occurred.