GZERO Media logo

China and the politics of panic

China and the politics of panic

A potentially deadly new coronavirus that can be transmitted from one person to another is now spreading across China. Chinese state media say it has infected about 440 people and killed nine, but the number of undetected or unreported cases is certain to be much higher. Complicating containment efforts, millions of people are on the move across the country this week to celebrate the Chinese New Year with family and friends.


This isn't just China's problem. Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States have all reported infections among people who've recently arrived from China. Authorities in Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States are screening air passengers from the Chinese city of Wuhan, which is believed to be the original source of the virus. Some fear a repeat of the 2003 outbreak of SARS, which originated in China and killed nearly 800 people in several countries.

Politics lies at the heart of this story. Reports in coming days will focus, for obvious reasons, on the public health and market implications of this story. But the virus itself and the public fear it provokes also reveal a political problem: Containing public health threats depends on the fast, efficient flow of accurate information within countries and across borders. In China, as in all authoritarian countries, that's a problem. Particularly when authorities fear public panic.

In 2003, for example, China hid the true scale of the SARS threat. State officials have admitted that mistakes were made during the SARS outbreak and pledged to be much more transparent in future. But even if they keep that promise, will China's people and foreign governments believe them?

In an authoritarian system like China's, local authorities know that access to state resources and personal promotion depend on both loyalty to their bosses and the quality of their performance. They have an incentive to promote good news and hide bad news, and there is no free press to hold them accountable. In Beijing, central state officials are trying to get in front of this problem. They've warned local officials that those who conceal information on this virus will be "nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity." But there is already ample anecdotal evidence from China that the numbers of patients infected in the current outbreak are being undercounted.

Bottom line: Much has changed since 2003. China now has many more capable doctors and well-run hospitals. China's leaders have much more reason to protect the country's international reputation. But there's also much more travel within China and more Chinese tourists visiting other countries. And the incentives for local-level secrecy and a lack of public accountability remain. As the new virus spreads, it's a problem for the whole world.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

More Show less

Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis:

Should businesses be pessimistic or optimistic about 2021?

It's easy to be gloomy about the year ahead when faced with the realities of a cold, bleak winter in much of the world. Add to that lockdowns across Europe, surging case numbers and hospitalizations, and dreadful events in the Capitol in the US to name a few reasons for pessimism. But I think there is a case for optimism when it comes to this year. After all, it's true to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and my conversations with business leaders suggest there are reasons to be positive by 2021.

More Show less

Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets EU representatives next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

More Show less
The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's Newsletter: Signal