How China’s ruling story helped kill 2.6 million people, and counting

So far, more than 2,640,000 people around the world have died from COVID-19. Thanks to the vaccines, maybe the death toll won’t climb much higher, and maybe life will soon return to normal. But is there anything China could have done to nip this disaster in the bud?

This week I watched the PBS Frontline episode from February 2, “China’s COVID Secrets,” and I learned that the importance to the Chinese government of its Stability meta-narrative may have played a big factor.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify that as far as I know, we have no basis whatsoever to disparage China’s rulers by implying that they’re indifferent to the pandemic and the toll it’s taken on the world. I don’t know them and I don’t have access to that kind of information about them, but I personally think it’s important – without solid evidence to the contrary – to assume that people (yes, even politicians!) are basically trying to do their best. (And all too often we do have solid evidence to the contrary, but one has to feel sorry for some public figures in this regard.)

I also want to make it clear that a great many Chinese people, especially the scientists and health care professionals, have worked very hard and effectively since the first days of the outbreak, doing what they could to understand the new virus and protect people from it.

Nevertheless…

China has what we consider an “authoritarian” system of government. It’s not “totalitarian” (as it had been for a while in the past) – people can make their own choices about where to live, what careers to pursue, how to spend their money. What they can’t do, without getting themselves in a heap of trouble, is question the government. Contrast that with the United States and other democracies, where it’s our responsibility to speak up if the leaders are getting things wrong. In China, it’s none of your business.

And in China, despite their pledge to be more transparent after their cover up of the 2003 SARS outbreak… that’s just not how things are done.

I’ve gone through the transcript of the Frontline episode, and it’s clear that one thing was at the forefront of official decision-making: the need to keep the public convinced that everything was “under control.”

James Palmer of Foreign Policy explained it like this: “The first instinct of the authorities is always to cover up. One of the key values of the Chinese Communist Party for the last 40-odd years has been stability – the avoidance of what they see as chaos, the dangers of revolution, overthrow. But the party’s also very concerned about the idea that whole populations might freak out and that might result in mass shortages, people being crushed to death trying to flee somewhere. That urge to control, that belief that the public can’t be trusted is also very ingrained.”

Officially, the government wanted people to believe that the virus couldn’t be spread from human-to-human – only people who had visited a certain wild animal market were at risk. Even when hundreds of cases with the unusual symptoms had been identified, the official count was only 41, the number who could be linked to the market. Doctors who said otherwise were reprimanded by police and publicly shamed as “rumormongers” and “Internet users.” (Oooh, Internet users!)

As one Chinese newscast said: “The police will investigate and deal with all illegal acts that fabricate and spread rumors and disrupt social order. Acts like this will not be tolerated.”

Doctors weren’t even allowed to wear masks, because that might “cause panic.” At least six doctors in one Wuhan hospital died. Finally, a Chinese virologist bravely sent the genetic code he’d sequenced to an Australian colleague, who posted it online, and that code made it clear that human-to-human transmission would happen. Even then, more than a week passed before China shared the news with their public and began treating the situation as serious. And of course, treating it as serious from the start could have kept the virus localized in Wuhan until it was extinguished.

wuhan_institute_virology

It’s a very binary expectation – either we have control and stability, or we have chaos and panic. And it’s a scary time to be Chinese. Victor Shih, a China expert at UC San Diego, told Frontline, “The definition of stability keeps getting escalated as the ability of the Chinese government to monitor absolutely everything improves. Even some of the thoughts and speeches of Chinese citizens, they are now seen as signs of instability. Increasingly, even in WeChat, which is a private platform, that kind of so-called deviant speech would be punished with administrative detention or suspension of accounts.”

Yikes.

Stability is one of what I elsewhere called the Twelve Super-Stories – like Progress, Looming Catastrophe, and the other meta-narrative genres, it has its own emotional appeal. With Stability, we feel satisfaction and contentment. It’s a reassuring foundation for whatever else a society might do.

The underside of Stability, though, is its vulnerability. If it’s important for things to stay the same, “under control,” then that people aren’t really prepared for abrupt changes in circumstances. It can be more important to reassert the Stability story than to have the flexibility to respond to whatever’s new.

At other times in history, there have been big blows to Stability. The uproar over Galileo was that medieval Europe wasn’t prepared to give up the Stability storyline with Earth at the center of the universe. Likewise, with Darwin, questioning the belief that humanity had been created to rule the planet was another shock.

In each of those cases, the crisis that disrupted Stability meant a major shift in how we see ourselves – it’s understandable that people could feel threatened and defensive.

galileo_inquisition

The rise of a new, contagious virus was not on that scale. There’s no need to drastically reorient our vision of the cosmos this time. It was just a need for transparency, so that people could make informed decisions and keep themselves and others safe.

Maybe my worldview is hopelessly American here, but isn’t trust a two-way street? The Chinese government doesn’t trust its people. How can they insist the people trust them?

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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