Nicholas Kristof: China’s 21st century science hobbled by its 19th century politics

China’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak has imperiled itself and the world because it is a land of 21st-century science and 19th-century politics.

Scholars in China predicted a year ago in an article in the journal Viruses that it was “highly likely” that there would be coronavirus outbreaks, calling it an “urgent issue.” Once the outbreak occurred, other Chinese scientists rapidly identified the virus and sequenced its DNA, posting it on Jan. 10 on a virology website for all to see. That was extraordinarily good and fast work.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party instinctively organized a cover-up, ordering the police to crack down on eight doctors accused of trying to alert others to the risks. National television programs repeatedly denounced the doctors as rumormongers.

One of those eight doctors, Li Wenliang, caught the virus and died — causing public outrage. Some Chinese make the point that if Li had been in charge of China, rather than President Xi Jinping, many lives might have been saved.

“The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance,” a law professor in Beijing, Xu Zhangrun, wrote this month in an online essay that was immediately banned. “The level of popular fury is volcanic, and a people thus enraged may, in the end, also cast aside their fear.”

Xu certainly cast aside his own fear, predicting that he would face new punishments, but adding, “I cannot remain silent.”

He called on his fellow Chinese citizens to demand free speech and free elections and urged: “Rage against injustice; let your lives burn with a flame of decency; break through stultifying darkness and welcome the dawn.”

Xu is now incommunicado, but it is remarkable to see the groundswell of anger online toward the dictatorship. Citizens can’t denounce Xi by name, but they are skilled in evading censors — such as by substituting President Donald Trump’s name for Xi’s.

It’s difficult to know where this goes, but this incongruity between 21st-century science and 19th-century politics is what a Marxist might call a contradiction. This creates long-term challenges that are growing with a swelling middle class (now larger than America’s) that is impatient with the corrupt, thuggish and narcissistic leadership.

Ordinary Chinese see through government propaganda and realize that the mishandling of the coronavirus is only one example of the regime’s ineptitude. Xi’s government also mishandled a swine fever outbreak that began in 2018 and has now killed almost one-quarter of the world’s pigs.

Earlier, China fumbled SARS. And at the beginning of the 2000s, it covered up an AIDS outbreak spread by government-backed blood collection efforts. Vast numbers of impoverished farmers and workers died, for the government response was not to help those infected but to punish doctor whistleblowers. I will never forget a woman then who tried to give me her 4-year-old son because she was dying of AIDS and her husband had already died.

Granted, we Americans must have some humility in critiquing the regime, for it’s a tribute to China’s progress that a baby born in Beijing today has a longer official life expectancy (82 years) than a baby born in Washington, D.C. (78), or New York City (81).

Still, the progress came from China’s technocrats, doctors and scientists, the result in part of opening one new university a week for years. The peak of that technocratic, pragmatic approach came under Prime Minister Zhu Rongji in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

More recently, Xi has tugged China backward, stifling social media and journalism while cultivating something approaching a North Korea-style personality cult around himself. Xi’s propaganda apparatus extols him for personally directing the efforts against the virus and claims that the World Health Organization sent experts to learn from China’s wise handling of the coronavirus.

China’s economic and educational success has created a savvy middle class that feels betrayed when the government spouts nonsense and targets doctors rather than a coronavirus. Doctors on the front line are working almost around the clock with limited supplies, taping up masks, using goggles made of plastic folders, and eating only one meal a day or wearing diapers so as to go to the bathroom less often (for that means removing protective clothing that can’t be replaced).

So far, more than 1,700 medical workers have been infected and at least six have died.

The contrast between heroic doctors and bumbling political leaders could not be more stark.

It’s thus strange to find Trump repeating Xi’s talking points: “I spoke with President Xi,” Trump said, “and they’re working very, very hard, and I think it’s going to all work out fine.”

Xu’s take is harsher, and his essay is reverberating around China through surreptitious copies. “Faced with this virus, the Leader has flailed about,” Xu wrote. “Although everyone looks to The One for the nod of approval, The One himself is clueless.”

“Regardless of how good they are at controlling the internet,” Xu added, “they can’t keep all 1.4 billion mouths in China shut.”

Nicholas D. Kristof

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.