There is authoritative and compelling evidence — including a study from the University of Southampton — that if interventions in China had been conducted three weeks earlier, transmission of COVID-19 could have been reduced by 95 percent.
For 40 days, President Xi Jinping’s CPC concealed, destroyed, falsified, and fabricated information about the rampant spread of COVID-19 through its state-sanctioned massive surveillance and suppression of data; its misrepresentation of information; its silencing and criminalizing of its dissent; and its disappearance of its whistleblowers.
In late December 2019, Dr. Ai Fen, director of the Emergency Department at the Central Hospital of Wuhan — “The Whistle-Giver” — disseminated information about COVID-19 to several doctors, one of whom was Dr. Li Wenliang, and eight of whom were later arrested. Dr. Ai has recently disappeared.
Dr. Ai also detailed efforts to silence her in a story titled, “The one who supplied the whistle,” published in China’s People (Renwu) magazine in March. The article has since been removed.
On January 1, 2020, Dr. Li Wenliang — the “hero” and “awakener” — was reprimanded for spreading rumors, and was summoned to sign a statement accusing him of making false statements that disturbed the public order. Seven other people were arrested on similar charges. Their fate is still unknown.
On January 4, 2020, Dr. Ho Pak Leung — president of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Infection — indicated that it was highly probable that COVID-19 spread from human-to-human, and urged the implementation of a strict monitoring system.
For weeks, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission declared that preliminary investigations did not show any clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.
On January 14, 2020, the WHO reaffirmed China’s statement, and on January 22, 2020, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised the CPC’s handling of the outbreak, commending China’s Minister of Health for his cooperation, and President Xi and Premier Li for their invaluable leadership and intervention.
On January 23, 2020, Chinese authorities announced their first steps to quarantine Wuhan. By then, it was too late. Millions of people had already visited Wuhan and left during the Chinese New Year, and a significant number of Chinese citizens had traveled overseas as asymptomatic carriers.
On February 23, 2020, Ren Zhiqiang — former real estate tycoon and longstanding critic of the CPC — wrote in an essay that he “saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown stripped naked who insisted he continue being emperor.” He spoke of a “crisis of governance” and the strict limits on free speech, which had magnified the COVID-19 epidemic. He has also gone missing, and it has recently been reported that the CPC has opened an investigation against him.
The world would have been more prepared and able to combat COVID-19 had it not been for President Xi’s authoritarian regime’s widespread and systematic pattern of sanitizing the massive domestic repression of its people.
Forty days of silence and suppression cost Italy — the epicenter of Europe’s COVID-19 pandemic — a death toll of 12%, more than double that of China’s, followed by Spain with a fatality rate of 9%. As we write, the United States — whose presidential leadership has been wanting — has become the pandemic’s new epicenter, and there is heightened concern about what could become of developing countries like India, and South Africa’s immunosuppressed population of over 10 million.
While global infections continue to surge relentlessly upwards, China — ironically — is now considered safer than the majority of countries. The South Korean model — where it pioneered drive-through COVID-19 testing centers collecting swabs from over 15,000 people a day, and quarantining the infected immediately thereafter — is one of the only precedents and case studies to date, along with China, that significantly reduced the number of infected people and fatalities.
Attention should also be drawn to the CPC’s massive surveillance and suppression of data juxtaposed with its misrepresentation of information. China’s big data collection — approximately 200 million CCTV cameras — not only precipitated the highest tech epidemic control ever attempted by the CPC, but also underpinned the salience of its repression.
The CPC’s infodemic — in addition to its intense spinning of solidarity on social media and its framing of a “people’s war against the virus” — was both a deceitful and farcical illusion of a coming together in China. The extent of the CPC’s self-promotion and its portrayal of President Xi as a hero ready to save the world — while making Western democracies look grossly incompetent — is as shameful as it is duplicitous.
In a word, President Xi’s government has exacerbated the world’s COVID-19 health and systemic crises, which has paved the way for one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history.
The world is watching. People in China no longer stand alone. Many are no longer fearful. They have already started publishing firsthand accounts of the CPC’s orchestrated cover-ups and monumental failures, revealing the rotten core of Chinese governance.
In defending the struggle for democracy and human rights in China, the international community must stand in solidarity with the people of China in seeking to unmask the CPC’s criminality, corruption, and impunity.
The community of democracies must undertake the necessary legal initiatives — be they international tort actions as authorized by treaty law, or the utilization of international bodies, like the International Court of Justice — to underpin the courage and commitment of China’s human rights defenders. This is what justice and accountability is all about.
Irwin Cotler is the Chair of the Raoul Centre for Human Rights, Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.
Judith Abitan is the Executive Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, and a Human Rights Advocate.