ANDREW ADONIS on his experience of an earlier accident-turned-scandal in China and its echoes in the coronavirus crisis.
This is China’s Chernobyl: the moment a local health crisis became a global pandemic and the secretive, brutal dictatorship which allowed it to happen became the world’s most serious problem state.
The Covid-19 outbreak last December in the now infamous Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, where a human was apparently infected with a virus from an animal, was first hushed up. The selfless doctor who raised the alarm, Li Wenliang, was persecuted by the communist authorities for ‘making untrue comments’ and ‘severely disturbing social order’.
He later died of the disease, while its extent was still being minimised by Xi Jinping’s regime even as news seeped out and the World Health Organisation was notified.
Downplaying the scale of the outbreak delayed effective international action, allowing the virus to be exported by plane and ship to the four corners of the world. The spread appears to have been notably helped by Iran, severely affected early on, whose dictatorship also suppressed its extent for fear of destabilising the regime.
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Four months later, more than 100,000 are dead and two million infected worldwide.
As most of the world approaches its second month of a lockdown more total and devastating than any seen in history outside war zones with actual fighting taking place, we still have no idea how much worse it will get before a vaccine is available.
The global implications are even more serious than Chernobyl. Xi’s dictatorship is on the rise and not in decline, as with Gorbachev’s regime when the catastrophe occurred on April 26, 1986, at the No.4 nuclear reactor. While glasnost and perestroika were defenestrating Stalin’s crumbling Soviet empire, the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 re-asserted the control of the Chinese Community Party over the world’s most populous nation.
Thirty years later, Beijing has a new Mao in the calm, methodical, ruthless Xi. After abolishing the 10-year presidential term limits in China’s post-Mao constitution, Xi appears now to be emperor for life.
We were warned. To an eerie degree – the nature of the respiratory disease as well as the dictatorship and deceit in the Chinese state – Covid-19 is a re-run of the SARS pandemic of 2002-04. Except it is far worse, with a death toll already more than a hundred times larger.
For me, this is the replaying of another recent Chinese accident-turned-scandal, namely the world’s worst high-speed rail crash which took place when two trains collided near Wenzhou on July 23, 2011, causing around 40 deaths and 200 serious injuries. It was barely months after I had visited China as transport secretary to observe, with naïve awe and wonder, the amazingly rapid development of the world’s largest and apparently most sophisticated high-speed rail network.
After the Wenzhou tragedy the now familiar pattern took place. Communist party officials first denied that the crash had even taken place. The damaged carriages were quickly buried and it was only after months of escalating public anger that admissions started to be made by the regime.
Even then the crash was ludicrously blamed on a lightning strike until, over many months, the real story eked out of corruption, design defects and abysmal management.
The transport minister responsible, who I met in Beijing on my visit, was ultimately sentenced to death and is still in jail. I have a vivid memory of him, after numerous genial toasts in maotai at the end of a dinner extending beyond midnight, saying to me with a beatific smile: ‘Lord Adonis, we will build your HS2 railway for half the cost of the Germans, and I can promise you that because we have their technology.’
I thanked him profusely but said I had some hurdles to overcome, called a general election and parliament, before HS2 could proceed. He was bemused as I explained how British elections worked.
The root of the problem with China is its one-party state and dictatorship. Until these are ended, there can be no real safety and security in our relations with Beijing, just as there will be precious little freedom for most of the Chinese people. But there is a difference. Whereas Tiananmen Square was a crime against a nation, coronavirus will probably rank as a crime against humanity.