About a week and a half ago on January 23rd the Chinese authorities shut down the city of Wuhan, population 11 million and ground zero for the outbreak of the corona virus. In short order 17 more cities were quarantined. The total number of people affected nearly 60 million. The orders issued by Beijing were significant but late in coming, because the first official case of this virus was confirmed almost two months ago, on the 8th of December 2019. It took that long before China state-controlled news media stopped downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak and started providing the kind of information that can save lives.
By that stage however millions of Chinese citizens had passed through the affected region unaware of the risks involved. The death toll is now in the hundreds, the number infected in the thousands and the corona virus has gone global.
Our starting point is the city of Wuhan. No one can control the timing of a viral outbreak, a potential pandemic but in a country like China they can control or at least try to control what people know about. On January 18th the city of Wuhan China’s seventh-largest city hosted a potluck dinner attended by about 40 thousand families. The participants would not have known that two weeks earlier in Hong Kong the media were already comparing this virus to the SARS outbreak of 2003, not even a warning that it could be moving from human to human. None of that in the local media coverage of the giant dinner in Wuhan. Not even a mention that they could infected of the coronavirus, the fact that all those families may have been at risk and like local news outlets the National media, most of which are controlled by Beijing were focusing on other stories.
Mary Hui (Aljazeera Correspondent) said “We had stories about teaching pain, going to Myanmar, you can go into Yunnan and talking about how strong the Chinese military is and tucked underneath is the story about the corona virus outbreak that is at the forefront of everyone’s attention”.
Katrina Yu (Aljazeera Correspondent) said “This started to become the big story not because of what we heard inside China but because of what we started here from sources outside of China we started to do some reporting going out to Beijing railway station, to try to see what the feeling was, people had no idea what we were talking about and the people who did know about him said to us
“I think the government has in hand”
“I think they know what they’re doing”.
The state is monitoring and censoring what is said about the outbreak on both mainstream and social media. On January 1st police in Wuhan arrested eight people for quote spreading rumors online sending a clear message in the process. It turned out that all eight were medical professionals they were predicting a SARS type outbreak and they weren’t wrong. A few weeks later a Hong Kong based journalist Luwei Rose who made her name covering the SARS story wrote a piece for the Chinese internet giant “10 cents” she focused on the need for transparency at the time of an outbreak the obligation to keep citizens informed. Her story was online for ten hours and then just disappeared.
Luwei Rose Said “My experience is a vivid example of the decensorship in China I was invited by ‘10 cent’ to write their article after they deleted the article I try to count as a man to figure out what happened and they have no idea. There’s no black white written down rules for what kind of information should be allowed or not be allowed.
The initial shortage of official information spawned a contagion of conspiracy theories and rumors on everything from causes to cures. Most of which were spread over WeChat a multi-purpose app with more than a billion users. They included allegations that the virus was created in a biological weapons lab that Bill Gates was somehow involved, that it can be cured by drinking bleach. Misleading messages about how you can prevent being infected by the corona virus, by chewing on broad garlic or taking some kind of saline solution. Censors trying to strike a delicate balance between getting rid of this kind of misinformation but at the same time allowing some kind of public discourse to continue. Social media messages rumors saying you know their local medical system were overwhelmed. Hospitals run out of supplies by the hunt the city and the province they would say ok we’re in good shape we are under control.
It is a very delicate balance to strike for any government, on one hand you don’t want to frighten citizens right on, the other hand you never know if they tell them to choose what would happen.
By January 20th the number of confirmed cases had climbed to 200 plus. Airports in several countries were screening passengers coming out of China and President Xi Jinping finally broke his silence. The state-run media got the message and then confirmed the increasingly obvious the corona virus was moving from human to human and like an overloaded Dam that finally breaks by the Chinese Google exploded with the kind of information that Beijing had tried to contain. Once Beijing gave that statement it’s as if the whole country started to mobilize, things started to happen, people started to express information about what to do to keep safe.
There was more information on where this virus came from but within one week the government went from saying this is preventable and controllable, don’t panic, to the city of Wuhan being in lockdown. I think that if the information had been more forthcoming at the beginning there had been more public awareness a few days earlier, much could have been done at that stage to prevent this from spreading further.
It is not just a media crisis, it’s a bio political crisis. Their national authorities want to make sure their population stay healthy and another concern I think is international right and we don’t want to be exporting viruses right and we want to be viewed as a responsible international players. But I do expect there will be that huge wave of reflection criticism and then looking for accountability.
In 2003 Beijing suppress coverage of the SARS outbreak for even longer than it did this time, nearly six months. Back then the Chinese media played a large part in pressuring the government to come clean. But it was a different time China still new to capitalism, was experimenting with other reforms, gradually giving journalists more freedom from censorship. But those days are gone the regional newspapers that provided some of the best SARS related journalism have since had their wings clipped along with most Chinese news outlets and while Beijing has spent less time in denial mode than it did in 2003.
While it’s been quicker to call this story what it is a potential pandemic. It wasn’t a journalism at least not in China that got it there. We see two large trends that have occurred since 2003 in terms of information. People have a lot more access and information than back in 2003. But at the same time the state has become much more restrictive and repressive. It’s really crackdown on civil society groups, on media, on activists, on intellectuals and for that reason the low and I think we’re going to see much less questioning from these groups. No one not even China can control the timing of a viral outbreak and nothing exposes the weaknesses of such a media system like a story that comes out of the blue. It happened in 2003 and history has repeated itself. If nothing changes we’ll probably see the denials the delays the withholding of information and censorship all repeated with the next coronavirus, when China once again will be counting the cost of control in lives lost.