Features Australia

China fails the virus test

Chinese leaders should apologise for the coronavirus

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

Australia’s etiquette diva, June Dally-Watkins, who died last week, most recently made news by setting up the Dally Institute in Guangzhou, China – in her late eighties! – to teach Western social graces to young professionals keen to make a good impression. This followed one of China’s four vice-premiers, Wang Yang, reportedly scolding Chinese tourists for ‘uncivilised behaviour’ overseas.

Miss Dally would undoubtedly have been too polite to say so, but perhaps her skills could have been better used among China’s rulers and elites. The essence of good manners is consideration for others – the golden rule, formulated as ‘do unto others as you would that they do unto you’. While dealing with the deadly Covid-19 virus is a whole different order of significance from selecting which fork to use when, at heart the issue is much the same, good behaviour that respects the rights of other people. And that is China’s problem.

China’s top-down, centralised and authoritarian governance aims at preserving the power of the Chinese Communist party, not at responding to citizens’ needs and wants. The system does not reward whistleblowers or respond to criticism or adverse feedback; indeed, shoot the messenger seems to be the de facto response, as the unfortunate eight Wuhan doctors discovered when they tried to warn the world of the new infection and got slapped down for their courage. One later died of the virus. Problems remain denied and unaddressed, leaders operate in ignorance and Kiss Up, Kick Down becomes embedded as a way of survival in bureaucracies. In the Covid-19 instance the reflexive butt-covering has continued at higher levels of the CCP, with daily releases of fake, undercounted infection statistics and an initial refusal to allow international experts into China, no doubt to cover up the true, appalling situation and avert an international panic, but also delaying research and data critical to an informed and effective scientific response. Even now, as President Xi warns that this is the largest public health emergency ever faced in China and lower level party officials are being axed for their failures, there is no mea culpa, no recognition that Chinese systems and the CCP mindset may need to change. Of course no one is suggesting this is in any way deliberate; the greatest suffering and damage is falling on China’s own, magnificent people, who are victims themselves and cannot be blamed for the failures of their rulers. However, China’s Covid-19 outbreak is a massive failure of global citizenship of the first order.


If this virus were a one-off event, that conclusion couldn’t be drawn. Every-one can be surprised by events and accidents, after all. But recent history reveals numerous viruses emanating from China – the first transmission of bird flu (H5N1) to humans in 1997, and repeated outbreaks thereafter, SARS in 2002-3, and the recent massive outbreak of African swine fever, which has reportedly killed  a quarter of the world’s pig population. There’s a pattern, and hence a problem, which China, the world’s second-biggest economy and nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, is failing to deal with.

This Covid-19 outbreak is now out of control and is rapidly accelerating into a global pandemic, having already killed thousands of Chinese people, infected countless more and required the lockdown of some 760 million people. Internationally Italy, South Korea, Japan and Iran are already badly affected. With Chinese ports at a standstill and Wuhan’s labour force mostly in quarantine, we will see extraordinary and unprecedented disruption to global supply chains cascade through our economies and shop shelves for many months to come.

Had this started in a Western economy, we would have seen massive handwringing, an international appeal for aid and in all probability, an official, abject apology. Apologies are quite the fashion now, even for events that occurred hundreds of years ago. In 2019 alone, the German president asked Poland’s forgiveness for the second world war, Canada apologised for killing thousands of Inuit sled dogs, Belgium apologised for kidnapping and separating thousands of children born to mixed-race couples in Africa and Japan apologised for a period of eugenics-influenced forced sterilisation. On a human level, an apology involves an acceptance of fault or responsibility, which tends to defuse anger and resentment and pave the way for resolution of issues. Denying fault to save face may well be the preferred path in the East, but it comes at a cost. Honesty is so very much more conducive to productive human relationships. As William Blake said so well: ‘I was angry with my friend; I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not; my wrath did grow.’

So far China shows no signs of accepting responsibility for this tragic turn of events, which bids fair to be the first truly catastrophic global event this generation has known. Chinese media have even had the temerity to complain about other nations’ travel bans, tossing around the racism slur, although the lockdown of hundreds of millions within China is exactly the same policy of social distancing.

And there is another issue; China has worked itself so successfully into the global economy at every level, from textiles to medicines to tech devices and much, much more, that Western leaders, including Australia’s, will avoid criticising China for its failures. Finance and business chiefs, universities and education leaders, so quick to criticise any shortcomings by our own governments, are mute and craven in the face of their Chinese overlords, dependent as they are on Chinese student funding or sales of raw materials or whatever aspect of the global supply chain affects them.

At a round of introductions at a formal dinner last week, a Chinese woman introduced herself by giving her name and saying ‘and I don’t have corona-virus’. Everyone laughed. She then told of a couple moving away from her recently at a public location. Chinese people across the planet will be experiencing the same thing, and worse, even as they grapple with tragic and saddening news from China. So China, what about an apology, to your own people and the rest of us?

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