But that’s not what you’ll see on reports released by the state media. In a report by CGTN, a nationally owned news outfit, Chinese president Xi Jinping, together with other key members of the Communist Party of China, said that the country’s economic recovery is “accelerating.” Speaking at a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, Xi urged governments at all levels in China to focus on economic and social development – in particular, promoting work resumption and stabilizing employment.
A full report from Xinhua, the country’s official state-run press agency, highlights the “positive trend” on preventing and controlling the epidemic, with other areas “rapidly recovering,” even as Hubei province – and its capital city Wuhan – continue to be on lockdown. (Related: Quarantine isn’t enough: Wuhan coronavirus R0 is so high that even the most draconian lockdown measures can’t contain it.)
However, according to an article published in The Guardian, it’s all smoke and mirrors.
In his thought piece, author Ma Jian slammed Beijing’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic, saying that this is the latest in a pattern of official coverups and corruption, similar to what it has done in previous years.
During the Munich Security Conference in Germany last weekend, World Health Organization chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China’s efforts in managing the outbreak.
“It’s impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take,” Tedros added. “What I can tell you is what encourages us and what concerns us. We are encouraged that the steps China has taken to contain the outbreak at its source appear to have bought the world time, even though those steps have come at greater cost to China itself. But it’s slowing the spread to the rest of the world.”
But back home, Xi and his group are hard at work punishing what they deem to be dissenters. The most famous of these cases is that of the late Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who was one of the first to alert people about the virus. On December 30, 2019, Li messaged his medical school alumni group about a potential “SARS-like” virus spreading in the city. At the time, officials of the city were already downplaying the severity of the disease.
Li’s message ended up going viral, and local health officials and the police came after him for spreading “rumors” online. As the lid blew on the epidemic, Li unfortunately caught the virus himself – and succumbing to it on February 7, 2020. Even then, authorities tried to control the narrative, with Wuhan Central Hospital and Chinese state media outlets releasing a series of conflicting statements regarding his death.
Incidentally, Ma pointed out what was happening in Beijing at the same time: “[On] 31 December 2019, Xi heralded triumphantly a new year of ‘milestone significance in [realizing] the first centenary goal!’ Naturally, he didn’t mention the mysterious pneumonia reported that day by health authorities in Wuhan, Hubei province. Although the World Health Organization had been notified, the Chinese people were largely kept in the dark.”
Just last week, Xu Zhiyong – a legal expert and civil rights activist – was arrested by Chinese authorities for criticizing the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. In his speech, Xu said that the Chinese president already knew the dangers of the virus by January, well before it was announced to the public.
Since acknowledging the outbreak on January 20, 2020 – nearly a month after Li’s warning – the government has placed Wuhan, as well as the province of Hubei, under lockdown. The measure, which many people refer to as “draconian,” was also meant to control what the world sees. Reports of the government shutting down the internet connection in Wuhan have circulated, particularly in areas where there are known COVID-19 cases.
These measures were similar to those used in the Xinjiang region to quell international criticism of its handling of the Uighur ethnic group.
“As early as 2009, the Chinese government cut off the Internet in the whole Xinjiang region, [and confined it] to a local area network for 312 days,” explained Beijing observer Gu He. “It uses this method to control people’s speech.”
There’s hope, even in the midst of this calamity. Following Li's death, a public outpouring of grief and anger forced the government to backtrack, and hail the doctor a “hero.” In various regions, netizens have set up a crowdsourced information and fact-checking portal, which allows them to share updates and debunk false claims.
Speaking to the New York Times in one of his final interviews, he stressed that Xi’s dream of a utopian “harmonious” society – by suppressing truth and information – to be the main issue plaguing the nation.
“A healthy society cannot have just one voice.”