China’s Global Times government newspaper disparaged “our local and national negligence” in a column Thursday regarding the secrecy applied to key facts about the growing coronavirus epidemic in the country, but focused all its ire on officials in Wuhan, the city at the center of the viral outbreak.
The newspaper was clear to applaud Beijing’s Communist Party leaders for “smoothly” stepping in over a month after the first known cases of the previously unknown virus infecting people in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, and blame local officials exclusively for “loopholes” in the handling of the outbreak. The newspaper also suggested a complete overhaul of major city governance in another article Thursday, potentially a prelude to a local official purge meant to sate the outrage of Chinese citizens over the Party lying about how contagious they knew the virus to be.
A study published Friday in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the novel coronavirus, which causes flu-like symptoms and pneumonia, had been spreading in Wuhan since mid-December and that evidence of extensive health worker contamination existed in early January, weeks before the Chinese Communist Party revealed the existence of the virus to the world.
The Chinese government privately alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to the existence of an unidentified new virus on December 31 but did not issue a public statement confirming its existence or share the virus’s genome sequence with global medical authorities until January 20. Wuhan police detained and threatened eight people during this period who posted notes on social media about the existence of the virus, which police dismissed as “rumors.”
Chinese officials at the national level have since praised the eight and condemned Wuhan police for silencing them.
As of Friday morning, health authorities have documented 9,818 cases of the new coronavirus worldwide, most in China. Of those, 213 cases have ended in death, all of them in China. The United States, France, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, among other nations, have documented cases, most of individuals traveling in from Wuhan.
The Global Times responded on Thursday to growing outrage within China by admitting that the government had masked the true extent of the outbreak but blaming local officials, not those directly under dictator Xi Jinping.
“This happened all of a sudden. Many people feel it is unbelievable in light of the concealment of major epidemic areas until recently. Setting aside the incalculable nature of the virus, the epidemic also exposes the loopholes in our work,” the newspaper posited.
“We have paid for our local and national negligence of the initial outbreak,” the Global Times conceded, without offering any of the facts implicating the national government and instead focusing on early missteps blamed on Wuhan. The newspaper applauded the steps taken once Beijing was publicly involved in decision-making: “The lockdown of Wuhan and the national activation of the top-level public health emergency response mechanisms have been carried out smoothly.”
The column ultimately concluded that, despite significant evidence that the Communist Party failed to protect the Chinese people at all levels of governance, “the most important thing is not to calculate responsibilities.”
“The majority of the Chinese people believe China can withstand this crisis and that the government can undertake various measures to ensure public safety. Anxieties did not lead to collective fear and Chinese society remains orderly,” the newspaper claimed, without showing any polling evidence that indicates this is a sound conclusion.
The Global Times further redirected public outrage with the government mishandling the viral outbreak in another column that called the coronavirus “a major test of the country’s capability to govern large cities.” The article blamed the “superiority” of top-level government investment in infrastructure for the crisis, contending that the ease with which cities have grown and residents can travel within and across them eased the spread of the virus.
“China’s urbanization and infrastructure development is obvious to the world. Due to such superiority regarding the Chinese system, China’s cities have been growing at a breathtaking pace and have become closely linked with each other,” the column suggested, asking, “Is the country’s governance capable of keeping up with the high level of development? Can our disease control mechanisms cope with the huge challenges imposed? These questions are thought-provoking.”
The Global Times also blamed the “overall quality of residents” in Wuhan for the struggle China has faced in properly containing the virus – essentially blaming those who contracted the virus for being of low “quality.”
These columns were published shortly after the news surfaced of the first known local official dismissal. Tang Zhihung, the head of the health commission in Huanggang – a city of about 5 million in the greater Wuhan area – was fired after being unable to tell reporters during an interview with government television basic facts about government virus response, like the current face mask or medical materials supply. Huanggang, like Wuhan, is currently on lockdown, forbidding most entry and exit to and from the city, and has documented more cases of coronavirus than any other city but Wuhan.
Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, has also faced pushback from the Global Times after a press conference Sunday in which he told Communist Party television that he agreed the secrecy surrounding the virus was a problem but blamed Beijing officials for it.
“On one hand, we did not reveal [information] in time; on the other, we did not use effective information to improve our work to a satisfactory level,” Zhou said. “Regarding the untimely disclosure, [I] hope everyone can understand. [Coronavirus] is a contagious disease. Contagious diseases have relevant law and information needs to be disclosed according to law.”
Zhou also offered to resign, however, in an attempt to clarify he was not excusing his own behavior in failing to notify health officials of developing viral information.
The Global Times called the press conference a “disaster” and Zhou’s leadership during the crisis “regrettable,” rare condemnation of a Communist Party official.