Coronavirus: China leader Xi Jinping knew about virus for weeks
The Chinese leader issued orders on fighting the coronavirus on January 7, during a meeting of the country’s Politburo Standing Committee, almost two weeks before his first public comments on the deadly disease.
It wasn’t until January 23 that Chinese authorities banned travel in and out of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. By this point, thousands of people had already travelled in and out of the city, around the mainland and overseas.
In a speech delivered on February 3, Mr Xi outlined a contingency plan to respond to the crisis, which he said could jeopardise China’s economic and social stability.
“I issued demands during a Politburo Standing Committee meeting on January 7 for work to contain the outbreak. On January 20, I gave special instructions about the work to prevent and control the outbreak and I have said we have to pay high attention to it,” Mr Xi said.
He also revealed he had personally ordered the lockdown of the virus epicentre.
“On January 22, in light of the epidemic’s rapid spread and the challenges of prevention and control, I made a clear request that Hubei province implement comprehensive and stringent controls over the outflow of people,” Mr Xi said.
The next day, Wuhan imposed an unprecedented halt on outbound transportation.
But by confirming he knew about the virus for weeks and continued to suppress knowledge of it, he now runs the risk of a further backlash.
It comes as the virus infection toll continues to rise, with almost 70,000 confirmed cases and 1669 deaths.
“Hubei province and Wuhan must further strengthen management and control over exits from the areas … to put a stop of the spread,” state broadcaster CCTV said.
Since the outbreak gained public attention last month, China’s social media pages have been flooded with angry netizens criticising officials for failing to contain the initial outbreak in the locked-down city.
Much of the anger was because authorities initially suppressed information of the outbreak.
“I hope everyone can understand why there wasn’t timely disclosure,” he said. “After I received information, I needed authorisation before making it public.”
It was a sign of the rare struggle between local government and Beijing, as Mr Xi continues to face the biggest challenge of his presidency.
CHINA’S ‘RUTHLESS SYSTEM’ SET STAGE FOR CRISIS
“China’s authoritarian culture in many ways set the stage for this crisis,” he said on The Daily podcast earlier this month. “For decades, China has built this ruthless system in which if you are an official in the Communist Party you are expected to be almost perfect. If anything goes bad you are the one who is going to take responsibility and fall.”
As a result of this, local Chinese authorities worry about attracting the ire of Beijing, and so their instinct is to cover up anything negative in the hopes Mr Xi and his inner circle won’t hear about it.
“This has created an incentive system where local officials fear saying anything about bad news,” Hernandez said. “They worry that if they are found to have done something wrong they will lose their power, so in a situation like this the incentive is to cover up, conceal, delay, and try to get a handle on these problems on your own, hoping that perhaps no one will ever hear about it.”
“Instead they tried to cover it up, see if they could deal with it secretly and maybe no one would find out about it. Maybe Beijing wouldn’t find out about it. But eventually it broke.
China said it would make a lot of changes to its system after SARS. It said it would expand its disease-reporting system … they promised to be more transparent in the release of data and other things.”
But according to Hernandez, even the SARS outbreak couldn’t stem China’s authoritarian culture, which has only worsened under Mr Xi’s reign and made people more fearful of being associated with bad news.
“He’s made himself out to be the most powerful leader since Mao. He’s someone who’s always speaking about this great ascendant moment for China, in which China’s going to be this superpower, and anything that goes against Xi’s vision of this harmonious resurge in China will be seen as a problem and the people creating that problem will pay the consequences,” he said.
“When I was there in Wuhan I could sense the fear just ripping across all parts of society. There were people like the ambulance doctors afraid of challenging officials’ statistics. “Hospitals didn’t want to test patients for fears of knowing the results. They didn’t want to be seen as speaking out or bringing the truth of this unsavoury story into public view. They’re fearful of being seen as responsible for this crisis. They don’t want to stand out.”
Originally published as Chinese leader’s coronavirus bombshell