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.

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Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

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Listen: In a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer, Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert assesses the current state of the climate crisis and answers a simple question: how screwed are we? And as the climate continues to warm at a record pace, she unpacks some of the more extreme climate solutions that some increasingly desperate nations are starting to consider. Such measures may sound like stuff of science fiction (see: injecting sulfur particles into the atmosphere or shooting millions of tiny orbital mirrors into outer space) as times become more desperate, their appeal is growing. Can we fix the planet the same way we broke it?

China is making its neighbors nervous these days. Chinese fighter jets are screaming into Taiwan's airspace. Hundreds of armed Chinese "fishing boats" are plying the disputed waters of the South China Sea. And Beijing is slashing imports from some trading partners because of disputes over political issues.

To push back against this increasingly aggressive behavior, regional powers Japan, India, and Australia, together with the US, are boosting cooperation via a 17-year-old grouping called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply "The Quad." But how effectively can these four countries really work together to counter China? Eurasia Group's Peter Mumford discusses the Quad's future.

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Want to tackle climate change? If so you'll have to reach out to China, which is currently responsible for over a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions. Beijing will certainly take your call, as climate is a huge priority for President Xi Jinping.

Xi has promised that China will go "net zero" — meaning its carbon emissions will be offset by equal amounts of either natural or tech-driven carbon capture — by 2060. Is a decade later than most of the top 10 polluting countries fast enough for the rest of the world? It is for the Chinese, who want to help but have their own ideas about how.

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When will it be safe for the world's children to be vaccinated against COVID-19? The World Health Organization's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, says that vaccines are being tested in children down to the age of six or even lower, and promises that data on children will be shared as soon as it's available. She also notes that there are not enough studies on transmission in schools, and the WHO has advised governments to prioritize schools "over other things like shopping malls or cinema halls or pubs." Dr. Swaminathan spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 9. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Over the past half century, climate change has had an immense impact on the farmers who produce the food we eat. A new study by Cornell University shows that global warming has knocked 21 percent off of global agriculture productivity growth since 1965, equivalent to seven years of normal growth if humans had not polluted the planet. But not all countries have been affected in the same say. Farmers in warmer parts of the world have been hit hard as conditions grow more arid, but sub-polar regions in Canada or Siberia are now actually better for agriculture because they are not as cold as they used to be. Here we take a look at how climate has affected farming productivity growth around the world.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

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Can "the Quad" constrain China?

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