Covid-19: a story of cover-up? | The Background

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

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Covid-19: a story of cover-up?

Abhishek Chakraborty

“Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.” Confucius. 

Pandemic is not new to us

Pandemics are nothing new to humanity, it has happened many times in history at a much deadlier scale compared to Covid-19. The death toll, this time, sounds dreadful but it is miniscule compared to what humanity had faced during the Black Death (Bubonic Plague in 1347-1351 AD). Back then it was largely believed that pandemics were an act of God. In his book Epidemics and Pandemics: Their Impact on Human History, Prof JN Hays mentioned the widespread breaking of pottery in medieval Syria to clear the air. This hardly is the case this time. But our awareness of the virus and the pandemic has never been prudent; the genome of the virus was decoded within a few weeks of its inception. Consequently, the death toll in proportion to the number of people affected is notably less. Still people are scared, as the same technological advancements have enabled us to become exceedingly confident about our capacity to tackle calamities. Unlike our ancestors who simply accepted the death toll as an inevitable divine wrath, we choose to enquire as to how a viral disease turns into a pandemic.

History of Cover-up or Cover-up of history?

In a ‘Hit and Run’ case, hit may be a result of an accident but never the run, it is a choice. In the same way, the origin of the novel coronavirus may be an accident, but not the ‘cover up’ that led to the pandemic. Reports showing the harassment faced by the whistleblowers in China are in the public domain. China failed to release the genome of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information. This delay in sharing of the genetic map hindered the detection of its spread to other countries, as well as stalled the worldwide initiative towards tests, drugs and vaccines. Inadequate patient data also made it extremely challenging to determine the speed with which this virus spreads – all these factors are considered to be crucial for pandemic management. WHO experts were not even allowed to visit China and investigate the epidemic until the total confirmed cases in the country had crossed the 40,000 mark in the second week of February. It is not yet clear, if the local authorities tried to hide it by themselves or simply followed Beijing’s direction. In either case, it is the Chinese system of governance that is seen to be concealing facts resulting in exceptionally costly delay.  A study by the University of Southampton entitled ‘Effect of non-pharmaceutical interventions for containing the COVID-19 outbreak in China’, financed by the Horizon 2020 programme, showed that if the country had reacted one, two or three weeks earlier, the number of cases could have been 66%, 86% or 95% less, which would have considerably reduced the spread of the virus and the number of victims.  Such cover ups are nothing new to China that has a history of cover ups may it be the Tibetan Massacre, Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square Protests, Atrocities at Xinjiang, SARS or COVID-19. A Chinese query for ‘Tiananmen Incident’ on Baidu produces Tiananmen protests on 5th April 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution but there is no mention of 1989, additional searches on ‘Tiananmen 1989’ provide link to the parade commemorating the 40th anniversary of PRC.  The facts never see the light of the day. This regime has an authoritative mindset that oppresses its own people – the Uighurs, the intellectuals, the Protesters in Hong Kong and is extremely belligerent towards its neighbours and the countries that cast doubt towards its geopolitical ambitions. Such an approach creates antibodies all across the globe. Yet China continues to move ahead with this strategy both within and outside. So the question arises – why China continues to behave the way it does, even when they find it to be counterproductive!

China re-imagining the ‘lost’ dream?

Contrary to the predictions of American political scientist Francis Fukuyama in THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN, history had not ended with the fall of the Soviet bloc. From its opening up to the world during Deng Xiaoping’s Boluan Fanzheng period and economic liberalisation, China tried to make its mark at the world stage. From 1978 until 2013, unprecedented growth occurred; economy grew by 9.5% annually making China a major player in the global scheme of things. By 2010 China surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy after the US.  Therefore, Fukuyama’s comment “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…. That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government could not stand the test of time. In fact, China not only survived but also prospered enormously, yet it is neither a Western, nor a Liberal Democracy. There is a prevalent hypothesis that depicts, with modernisation countries tend to liberalise and westernise. But this notion tends to ignore the fact that along with market forces and technology; history and culture play their part in the course of a nation’s modernization. Each country modernises in a distinct trajectory. China is the oldest continuous civilization in existence today with one of the oldest written languages and the source of major contributions and inventions of the world. It considers itself as the Middle kingdom – an ethnocentric belief that one’s own country is “center” of the world for its historical and cultural uniqueness. Zheng He, the navigator during the Ming Dynasty, went on seven naval expeditions (1405-33) and reached the coast of Africa. A turning point that came in the fifteenth century, to which Chinese historiography obstinately returns: the era of the conquering empire, before China turned in on itself and left the field open to the western powers. President Xi Jinping is steadfast in achieving that Zhongguo meng “Chinese Dream” that corresponds with the associated idea of a collective hope for restoring China’s lost national greatness.

An insight into President Jinping 

 “The Cultural Revolution taught my generation that you had to act like a wolf to survive … The winner takes it all. If you beat someone, you are a hero, and if you are rich, you are right”. –  Huang Nubo (a former Red Guard turned businessman and poet)

Achieving this ‘lost glory’ has a critical significance for President Xi Jinping, ‘The Chairman of Everything’ [7], the leader for whom China amended its Constitution to remove term limits on its Presidency. Xi is not just the President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC); he is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), as well as the Supreme Commander of the People’s Liberation Army. Born in 1953, Xi belongs to the generation of educated youths who were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). There, they were re-educated amongst the peasants, and were called as the Red Guards or Mao’s ‘little generals’. China observer Bougon points out that, no Chinese leader since Mao has been so powerful. Even before his personal coup, the way he dealt with 2010 Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo, terminally ill with cancer showed the extent of his determination to bring dissenting intellectuals into line. After coming to power, Xi visibly moved away from Deng’s ‘Hide your strengths bide your time’ policy, and did not hesitate in showing his might to the world community. Actually, China could never shed its ideological skin after Mao’s death; the heroic martyr narrative is treasured by the present regime. President Xi is particularly loyal to it, and rarely misses an opportunity to revive characters from great Revolutionary myths or the legacy of the Chinese experience “century of humiliation” (1840s-1940s) of occupation and invasion. These are now all-purpose gripes in CPC’s justification of aggressive economic and military manoeuvres. To quote Wilson Smith, the protagonist in the novel 1984 by George Orwell said “who controls the past, controls the future; one who controls the present controls the past”. Control of the past is fundamental to achieve the CONTINUAL DELIVERY OF PROSPERITY – CPC’s primary basis of legitimacy. Xi Jinping promised that in 2021, the hundredth anniversary of the CPC, China will have overtaken its rivals thanks to the emergence of a xiǎokāngshèhuì (Confucian moderately prosperous society). It is kind of a social contract between the regime and the people in which people are allowed to get rich and spend money the way they want at the cost of their political freedom. This makes the Belt and Road Initiative so very crucial for Xi’s own legitimacy within the party, because BRI opens up i) investment opportunities for Chinese banks, ii) market for capital goods produced out of its factories, iii) opportunities to achieve balanced growth for west China. Internally, the country can be divided into two parts by a line called the 15-inch isohyet.

15-inch isohyet. Via- @simongerman600 

The eastern part receives more than 15 inches of rainfall each year. The western side receives less. About 94 percent of China’s population live in east and south of this line the region known as Han China (the ethnic Han population consists of almost 92% of China’s population) — the Chinese heartland. The east is way ahead in overall prosperity in comparison to the west. Hence, with the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) China wishes to connect its landlocked west to the Gwadar port, in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan and iv) a greater strategic presence across the globe. President Xi is very much aware of the fact that majority of the Chinese population have never experienced an economic downturn in their lifetime that China is witnessing for last few years and things may get worse for its export-led economy in the relatively de-globalised post-covid world. China analysts have long suggested that the nation must move from investment-led growth to consumption-led growth as a way to avoid the so-called middle-income trap. Conditions are worse than in 1989 because there is political repression as always but now the economy too is suffering. With the amount of power that the ‘Chairman of Everything’ has in his possession, it becomes very complicated for him to blame someone else for the mess.

A line in an old Chinese poem says “Honey melons hang on bitter vines; sweet dates grow on thistles and thorns.”

Nothing is perfect in this world. Things hardly become ideal for its merit or obsolete for its defects. So it is vital to analyse every aspect of an arising conflict to explore its facets in entirety.  Viewing the situation through a western prism alone may not fetch much result. Chinese people and the society do not react the way the west does. Majority still follows a Confucian ethos where the STATE is an extension of the family. What the others may find as an intrusion to private life, for the Chinese it may be guidance by the Patriarch of the family- take the example of ‘one child policy’. Hence, any attack to the state or to the leader tends to unite the people. It is also to be remembered in a non-democratic state ‘Telling the top guy the bad news’ is not an easy job – that might have caused the delay. China on the other hand has its work cut out both internally and outside, it has a serious image issue, the world more or less do not trust China, Covid-19 made it worse. Having only a handful of friends worldwide with the likes of Pakistan and DPR Korea with their respective track records cannot be good news for Beijing. Internally, the resentment against the ruling class is on the rise, since the Communist Party launched a campaign against historical nihilism – basically, against anything critical of the Party’s legacy, its past leaders or its leadership, people’s voice is further choked. Such a socio-political scenario of cover-up, repression, state-controlled media, wolf-warrior diplomacy, hyper nationalism along with mounting economic challenges make grounds fertile for many more future pandemics like the COVID-19 which is a plausible outcome of the cover-up than the virus itself.




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