This week’s note is from George Yeo, Brunswick Geopolitical Principal and former Singapore Cabinet member for Health (1994–97), Trade and Industry (1999–2004) and Foreign Affairs (2004–11). This article represents his own personal views.
At 10am on Saturday April 4, which was Qing Ming or China’s All Souls Day, sirens rang across the country for three minutes. The entire country paused to mourn all those who succumbed to COVID-19. It was a moment of national solidarity after a terrifying experience which seared the collective memory. According to official figures, over 3,300 Chinese died out of a total of over 83,000 infected. A few western reports have cast doubt on these numbers much to the indignation of Chinese authorities. Even if there were significantly more infections and deaths, it does not change the overall picture.
China’s leaders took the fateful decision of locking down Wuhan, a city of eleven million people on January 23, two days before Chinese New Year. All modes of public transportation suddenly ceased operating - airport, train station, metro, river ports. By the afternoon, highways leading out of Wuhan were sealed off. Within a few days, the sixteen cities of Hubei Province with a population of almost sixty million people came under quarantine. By confining the main epidemic to Hubei province, China was able to prevent other major outbreaks of the epidemic in the country. For two months, the people of Hubei endured varying degrees of hardship, Wuhan the worst. Help poured in from the rest of the country. Within ten days, two special hospitals were built with a total of 2500 beds. Tens of thousands of healthcare personnel were dispatched from other provinces and the People’s Liberation Army to reinforce a public healthcare system that would otherwise have collapsed from the sudden increase of critically ill patients. The Central Government ensured that every city in Hubei had a major province to lean on for general support. In gratitude, Hubei residents came out to the streets in large numbers to send off these ‘foreign’ contingents when they finally left Wuhan and other cities a few weeks ago.
Imagine if China’s Central Government had dithered. The internal debate must have been ferocious. Wuhan is a major hub in China for air, rail, road and riverine transport. During the war against Japan, Wuhan was Chiang Kai-shek’s temporary HQ after Nanjing fell. Great battles were fought to defend Wuhan while Chiang evacuated his administration to Chongqing which was upstream of the Yangtze River gorges and therefore much less accessible. Perhaps no other city is as well-connected to all of China than Wuhan. It has the biggest student population of any city in China with large numbers from other provinces. During the week-long Chinese New Year holidays, Chinese people go back to their hometowns for family reunions. The annual Spring migration in China is the biggest movement of human beings on earth.
Looking back, if Beijing had not taken this decision to confine Wuhan, the COVID-19 epidemic would have spread to all corners of China within a week. The World Health Organisation described the action as ‘unprecedented’ in the history of public health. There could easily have been fifty Wuhan outbreaks and the Chinese Communist Party would have been shaken to its core. At that time in late January, the nature of COVID-19 was still poorly understood and even today is still not well understood. Chinese authorities made serious mistakes in December and January including the persecution of whistleblowers by local officials. (Key provincial leaders involved in the early coverup have since been removed including the Party Secretaries of Hubei Province and Wuhan City.) But, on the most critical decision, China’s Central Government made the right call. That saved China and bought the world precious weeks which unfortunately were not put to good use despite repeated alarms by the World Health Organisation.
For a few weeks, many people thought in their hearts that COVID-19 was a virus that mostly affected Chinese people and other East Asians, like SARS. That fueled conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus. As the number of infections and deaths rose day by day in China, the reaction of the external world was mixed. Some showed sympathy and extended help. Others sneered. Anti-China and anti-Chinese sentiments infected large parts of the world affecting not only Mainland Chinese but East Asians generally. Beijing took careful note of these different reactions. When the Wall Street Journal described China as ‘the real sick man of Asia’, it caused considerable offense among ordinary Chinese. In contrast, the modest donation of masks by the Vatican was applauded.