Reporting from Shanghai
It is not possible to understand the situation of China’s new coronavirus infections without some context. Let’s place ourselves in the position of patient and physician. If you develop a headache, what is your first thought? Do you say to yourself, “My god, I have a brain tumor and I will die”? Not likely. Similarly, if you report your headache to a doctor, his range of thoughts is unlikely to involve your immediate demise. Both parties assume the event is merely one more common and typical occurrence and, barring unusual symptoms that indicate additional testing, the physician’s advice would most likely be to “take two aspirins and call me tomorrow”.
This was essentially the circumstance in China with the new coronavirus. The initial symptoms of the first patients were quite mild, seemingly no more than a typical winter flu and thus of no special concern. It was only after about two weeks, when the symptoms became more severe and patients required hospitalisation, that medical experts realised they were dealing with a new contagion.
After that, things happened very quickly with extensive tests and investigation, the discovery of the new coronavirus, the decoding of its entire genome and the distribution of that genome to the WHO and other authorities, all accomplished within about two weeks. China’s quick reaction and solid results generated worldwide praise from officials. Public announcements were made at the same time, revealing the facts available to date.
Chinese medical authorities took great comfort initially from the fact the infections at the outset showed no tendency to spread between humans, a blessing which was dutifully reported. No secondary infections had been identified, and no medical staff had become infected. Then suddenly, during that initial two weeks, perhaps due to adaptation or mutation, the virus began exhibiting contagious tendencies and about a dozen medical staff became suddenly infected, apparently from a single patient.
This constituted a material change in the circumstances, since a freely-contagious coronavirus could run rampant through the population. It was at this point that the authorities immediately instituted the effective quarantine first of Wuhan then of most of Hubei Province, a quarantine that has now expanded to several other cities in other provinces in an attempt to corral the virus and prevent wider contagion. And again, China’s quick reaction and solid results generated worldwide praise from officials.
I want to create some further necessary context by imagining a hypothetical situation. A major pharmaceutical company discovers that some batches of a frequently-prescribed medication may have been contaminated. At the beginning, there are still few facts and little is known about the extent or the severity of the contamination. How would a responsible corporation deal with this?
This may be counter-intuitive, but making an immediate public announcement would be reckless, potentially creating needless public alarm and even panic, as well as damaging public confidence and the company as well. Of course, the prime concern is the public welfare, but the company must first (admittedly very quickly) gather sufficient facts and information to understand the scope of the problem and the gravity of the overall situation. This fact-gathering process should require only a few days or perhaps a week or two at most, depending on circumstances. Public announcements in the absence of facts would be premature and even irresponsible.
If the contamination is discovered to be limited to one small batch which can be identified and recalled before use, the problem is solved. If the evidence is that many or an unknown number of batches may have been contaminated and locations are unknown, the problem and the danger to the public clearly become greater. An additional concern is the nature of the contamination and the degree of danger it presents to the public health, whether the effects of ingesting a contaminated medication would be minor or potentially lethal.
If the facts indicate that the contamination could have major negative consequences to the public and that the scope is unknown or not easily determinable, meaning the contamination cannot be easily contained, then an immediate public announcement is warranted, and indeed mandatory. However, none of this happens in a vacuum. National health authorities must first be advised and their opinion and guidance sought as to the content and timing of the public announcement as well as instructions on appropriate methods of solution.
The decisions of timing and content of a public announcement are made by the management of both the company and the national health authority. Rank and file staff of either group are not involved in this process since they haven’t the knowledge or experience. Typically, executives of both groups will decide on content and appoint a spokesperson to convey the necessary information to the public, done in a manner to inform but not alarm or panic the public.
But what happens if someone short-circuits this process? What if a low-level staff member at the pharmaceutical company learns of a possible contamination, assumes incorrectly the contamination involves HIV or the Bubonic Plague, and posts messages on social media to this effect?
This is precisely what happened in China with the new coronavirus. Li Wenliang, a low-level physician at a hospital in Wuhan, learned at the end of that initial two weeks that some patients had been hospitalised with a coronavirus infection, impetuously presumed that virus to be SARS, then posted announcements on Chinese social media that SARS had returned to China with people in Wuhan already hospitalised. No one in China has forgotten SARS, these messages sparking alarm and panic, especially since they were forwarded in volume to many other recipients.
Li was picked up and questioned by the police, reprimanded, and released after an hour. This was when the Western media began their circus. According to CNN,
“Li was accused of rumor-mongering by the Wuhan police. He was one of several medics targeted by police for trying to blow the whistle on the deadly virus in the early weeks of the outbreak.” Further, “Li was called to a local police station and reprimanded for “spreading rumors online” and “severely disrupting social order” over the message he sent in the chat group. Li had to sign a statement – which CNN has seen a photograph of – acknowledging his “misdemeanor” and promising not to commit further “unlawful acts”.”
The above statements are essentially correct though tilted, but are misleading without context. First, it is a crime in China to fabricate and spread rumors that disrupt the social order, a portion of Chinese culture that Westerners either cannot understand or refuse to accept.
Li stated “I only wanted to remind my university classmates to be careful”, but when his startling messages went viral, he then admitted, “When I saw them circulating online, I realised that it was out of my control and I would probably be punished.” Hardly a surprise. If Li’s concern were for a few friends he would have called them or sent private messages. Li is not a child, and he was fully aware of the virility of online posts as well as the protocols for dealing with potential epidemics. To have posted his claims openly on social media could obtain only one possible result – in fact the result it did obtain, which was to alarm and panic countless thousands of citizens.
Li was not reprimanded for “telling the truth” or for being a “whistleblower”, as CNN, CBS and the BBC tell us. Rather, he was reprimanded for reckless public behavior and for presuming authority he did not possess. No one appointed him the spokesman for either the national health authorities or the hospital. Li had no authority to make such premature public announcements, and he would know very well the result of a WeChat post with such content.
From the same CNN article, Li wrote, “I was wondering why (the government’s) official notices were still saying there was no human-to-human transmission, and there were no healthcare workers infected.” The medical authorities released that information as soon as it was verified and public notification became necessary, but Li appears determined to denigrate them with backhanded insinuations of lying to the public. At first I felt some sympathy for this man but I must say that after investigating all the available facts, including his apparently eager and repeated accessibility to CNN, I find myself tempted to conclude Li had had prior contact with someone outside the medical circle. His entire case has developed an aroma of Liu Xiaobo, a gullible Western puppet useful for sowing mild unrest and providing the Western media with ammunition for trashing his own country.
CBS News, in an article by someone named ‘Tucker Reals’, is equally as dishonest, claiming Li “was threatened by his government” when he “tried to raise the alarm about the new coronavirus”, again totally misrepresenting the facts. If Li’s intention were to “raise an alarm”, there were multiple official channels within which to do that. WeChat is not the first choice, neither for a medical emergency nor for a typhoon. (2)
In terms of social media disclosure, there was a second group of eight people, not medical practitioners but merely civilians, who also made similar posts on WeChat, but whose purpose was more clearly a reflection of concern for public well-being. These people were also questioned by the police, but released, and were later praised for their actions. In fact, in a big surprise, the Chinese Supreme Court made a public statement on this case, stating that these individuals did not fabricate a false story but presented largely factual news (though they mis-identified the virus). The Court statement defended their actions, specifically stating they should not be reprimanded. The Western media either ignore this event or conflate the two events to twist the context, since it firmly contradicts the narrative of the Chinese government censoring and silencing those who tell the truth.
CNN tells us, “From the start, the Chinese authorities wanted to control information about the outbreak, silencing any voices that differed with their narrative — regardless of whether they were telling the truth.” That is a twisted and very dirty statement, maligning China with no justification whatever. Of course the Chinese authorities wanted to control information about this outbreak, to prevent precisely the situation that arose with Li. CNN’s reporters on this, Yong Xiong and Nectar Gan, are dishonest in the extreme in stating that the authorities’ purpose was to silence “voices that differed”. In fact, their purpose was to silence voices that were incorrect and speaking without authority. This would not be different in any nation. The suggestion by Xiong and Gan that the Chinese health authorities were lying and suppressing others who told the truth, is sufficiently slanderous to justify a defamation lawsuit against CNN and both reporters. And deportation. (1)
Wuhan’s mayor Zhou Xianwang admitted his government did not immediately disclose information on the coronavirus. As he stated in an interview with CCTV,
“under Chinese law on infectious diseases, the local government first needs to report the outbreak to national health authorities, and then get approval from the State Council before making an announcement. For the late disclosure, I hope everyone can understand that this is an infectious disease, and relevant information has special channels to be disclosed in accordance with law.” There is nothing sinister here.
There is another aspect to the Western reporting of events in China, relating specifically to the use of Chinese social media. I won’t dwell on the details here but it is well-documented that various American government agencies, most particularly the CIA and NED have created thousands of accounts on Weibo and WeChat, purporting to belong to native Chinese resident in China but which are mostly managed out of Langley, Virginia, and which they use in attempts to promote disaffection in China. This so-called “sock puppet” software permits one single individual to create and manage as many as 1,000 of these individual accounts at one time, with such realism of detail as to appear to be physically on the scene at any event.
There is thus a problem in knowing which posts on Chinese social media are legitimate and which are by Americans seeking to cause unrest in China. It was primarily for this reason the Chinese government initiated a requirement for personal ID for maintenance of these accounts.
One post claimed, “Dr Li Wenliang is a hero”, and pretended to express concern that the government’s “criticism of his honesty” would frighten all Chinese health professionals. The post continued, “In the future, doctors will be more afraid to issue early warnings when they find signs of infectious diseases.” This post is almost certainly false, since the Chinese understand their system very well, and no Chinese would be likely to express this sentiment. And, if doctors are more afraid to issue uninformed and incorrect ‘early warnings’ on the social media instead of through proper channels, well and good.
According to CNN, “On Li’s Weibo, tens of thousands have left comments thanking him for speaking out and wishing him a speedy discovery.” Dr Li, you’re a good doctor with conscience. I hope you stay safe and sound,” read one of the top-rated comments.” “If Wuhan had paid attention to [his warning] back then and taken active preventive measures,” wrote another Weibo user, “where we stand now a month later could be a completely different picture.” Comments like these are at variance with the facts and are almost certainly fake, originating outside China.
In fact, the Chinese have been overwhelmingly supportive of their government’s handling of this medical crisis, but it seems the Americans will never miss an opportunity to denigrate China nor to stir unrest and instability wherever an opportunity appears to present itself.
Li has since been diagnosed with the new coronavirus, CNN claiming “His diagnosis has sparked outrage across China, where a backlash is growing against state censorship around the illness and an initial delay in warning the public about the deadly virus.” But in fact his diagnosis sparked nothing in China, except perhaps sympathy, and there is no evidence of any nature to suggest a backlash against “growing against state censorship around the illness”, which censorship does not in fact exist, all evidence being very much to the contrary. Statements such as these, presented entirely without support, are merely Xiong and Gan trashing their own people to please their handlers at CNN.
Lastly, it would seem appropriate to recall the many instances where the US government and health authorities committed their own crimes against disclosure and timeliness, in many cases taking months to reveal information or to formulate a plan of action, and in some cases never acting. We shouldn’t forget too soon that Vioxx was killing perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans over ten years while all were afraid to blow the whistle, nor should we forget that hundreds of millions of Americans have been injected with monkey viruses from contaminated vaccines, but that the whistle was never blown. In the US, many people die every year from contaminated vaccinations, most of which were unnecessary in any case, but those attempting to ‘blow the whistle’ are threatened, harassed, and ridiculed. A mere listing of the significant instances of American failure to act, to disclose pertinent information, even to simply tell the truth, would be much too long to be included here.
I would suggest that Americans and their media concern themselves primarily with American problems. Since they’ve demonstrated little ability to discover viable solutions for their own Pandora’s Box of critical issues, perhaps they should refrain from either scolding or pretending to advise the rest of the world on items which are much smaller. It is unfortunate that the Western media have so little independence, their reporters little or no real-world experience on issues they discuss, view China in particular through blinding ideological lenses, display a strong tendency to extremism on every foreign issue, and are inevitably working to satisfy a hidden political agenda. Nothing here to justify even a mild thought of trust.
Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. His writing has been translated into more than 20 languages and is available on more than 100 foreign-language websites around the world. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image is from EPA/STRINGER CHINA OUT