Why officials are striving to 'keep China engaged' amid coronavirus crisis

·5 min read

The global response to China’s escalating coronavirus crisis has been noteworthy for the way in which several officials appear willing to tread carefully with Beijing.

Since the outbreak first surfaced last month, international leaders have offered mostly praise for China’s response — despite evidence that suggests the world’s second largest economy may have dragged its heels when the virus first surfaced.

Official reaction from world organizations contrasts with a New York Times report over the weekend, which detailed multiple occasions in which leaders “put secrecy and order” ahead of public safety. After the mysterious disease first reared its head in December, the NYT story showed officials moved to avoid sowing fear and embarrassment at a politically-sensitive time.

It’s similar to how China responded to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2002, the outbreak that many analysts have compared to the current crisis.

Nevertheless, the World Health Organization has been treating China with kid gloves, even suggesting the country has set a new precedent on how to handle such an outbreak. When it declared a public health emergency on Thursday, the WHO was careful to suggest it wasn’t a reflection of the country’s efforts — but concern for countries with weaker health systems.

According to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, there would have many more cases worldwide had it not been for the government’s response. “The Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak, despite the severe social and economic impact,” he said last week.

The organization has also been careful never to identify Taiwan by name — a nod to the “One China” policy that has sparked the ire of Taiwan’s leadership.

It underscores how world governments appear to be prioritizing closer ties with an economic giant — which just months ago ensnared professional basketball in a controversy over Hong Kong’s protest movement — that still wields considerable power.

Almost all major international organizations “are trying to maintain good terms with China, WHO in particular because there is a concern about keeping China fully engaged,” said Jaques DeLisle, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at University of Pennsylvania.

Yet DeLisle characterized the WHO’s assessment of China’s response as “probably...rosier than has been warranted.”

SARS as prologue

How the coronavirus stacks up against other deadly viral diseases.
How the coronavirus stacks up against other deadly viral diseases.

To date, almost all cases remain in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, while there have been few deaths outside of China.

Yet as the coronavirus death toll inches toward 600 with over 28,000 infected, it raises questions about whether Beijing could have moved more aggressively before the disease worsened.

Although the WHO has not formally recommended a travel ban, quarantines and restrictions have been imposed by multiple governments, businesses have curtailed operations, and major airlines have halted flights into one of the world’s busiest travel hubs.

Playing in the background is China’s questionable history of handling viral outbreaks especially the SARS contagion more than a decade ago. In a research note last week, DBRS-Morningstar said China’s response “has been quite unlike the official response” of 2002-2003.

“Having courted blame then for a slow response and secrecy, the central government has been taking unprecedented steps to contain the outbreak, with the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – the country's top political body, headed by President Xi Jinping – taking direct control of operations,” the firm noted.

However, the NYT story — which spoke to dozens of Wuhan residents, doctors and officials — suggests that old habits might be hard for China to break, as the report highlighted a series of decisions that delayed a quick, unified response.

Several Chinese experts defended the government’s response, and said Beijing did learn the lessons of the SARS outbreak. One problem, they say, is that the local government in Hubei province delayed its reporting of the outbreak.

“We need to distinguish between the early phase and the later phase, and we need to distinguish between the central government and the local government,” said Yu Xie, director of Princeton University’s Center on Contemporary China.

He argued that the problem lies in China’s government structure, which provides incentives for the local government to hide potentially embarrassing issues that would result in criticism of the government.

“When they begin to emerge, local government officials have an interest in covering things up in part because they don’t want to be embarrassed by local problems, and their political careers might be jeopardized if things get reported,” Yu said.

Calling it a “structural problem,” the academic added that “the true conflict is between local and central government,” rather than a China vs. the West dynamic.

Meanwhile, the growing number of travel restrictions worldwide show how governments have doubts about Beijing’s transparency and cooperation.

Curtailed movement into the world’s second largest economy — which is crimping supply chains, trade flows and business ties — may take a considerable toll on an already slowing China.

Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at The Brookings Institution, said it will definitely affect the country in the first quarter, but the effects could be short lived.

“If it only happened for one quarter, China has the capacity to make it up later on,” Li said.

Anjalee Khemlani is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @AnjKhem

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