In the past few days, the Chinese government has been taking a bit of a beating in the international press for its response to the Swine Flu outbreak, which has been to quarantine anyone who has recently come from Mexico — regardless of whether or not they’re showing symptoms — and treat foreigners from other countries with suspicion. Twenty Canadian students coming to Changchun to study Mandarin were recently quarantined, prompting further criticism and claims of unfair treatment. The general theme seems to be that these measures are overly aggressive.
Yet six years ago, when the SARS virus was spreading through China, the government’s response was widely criticized as not aggressive enough: it was “evasive and tardy“. Many interpreted this as par for the course from communists, and the lesson the Weekly Standard took away, for example, was: “Democratic, accountable, transparent governments do a lot better at dealing with a health crisis than a Communist one.”
Although the Chinese government is perhaps more resilient than most when it comes to ignoring international ignominy, they certainly didn’t look good, and of course, they also had their citizens to answer to.
When the swine flu stories broke, China was ready. Armed with experience from the SARS epidemic, the government acted swiftly and aggressively, issuing a notice requiring people with flu symptoms who were flying into China from affected areas to report to quarantine authorities. They issued notices on prevention, stocked drugs and researched quick and accurate tests. They even donated aid to help Mexico, despite unsubstantiated reports from that country and others claiming that the origin of the swine flu virus was China.
Of course, when the first actual case of swine flu arrived in Hong Kong (from Mexico, via Shanghai), preventative efforts and quarantines were stepped up. That’s totally understandable, given fears that this could become a ‘new SARS’ and given that people were already blaming China for this epidemic too, somehow. But acting swiftly and aggressively has also brought criticism from abroad by those claiming China is discriminating against Mexicans and foreigners generally.
As of now, it looks like the Canadians will stay quarantined — China Daily says they consented to these measures anyway — and the Mexicans will be sent home via chartered flights, so the government certainly isn’t backing down from their aggressive policies. They must be scratching their heads as to what, exactly, the West wants from them in terms of disease control, though.
Clearly, the response to SARS was slow and not nearly transparent enough. The response to swine flu couldn’t be characterized with either of those words, to be sure, and while it might be overly aggressive, it seems ridiculous that it is being so widely criticized when the alternative approach was also widely criticized in 2003.
For example, let’s take the recently-arrived Canadian Mandarin students as an example. As I see it, the government has several options, which I’ve listed below along with best and worst-case scenarios.
- Ignore the students, let them enter China unhindered.
- Best case: Nothing happens.
- Worst case: They infect Chinese people and the disease begins to spread through the Mainland.
- Test the students as they arrive, then let them into China.
- Best case: Nothing happens.
- Worst case: One or more students was a carrier too early to show symptoms or return a positive test; they infect Chinese people and the disease begins to spread through the Mainland.
- Quarantine the students for a week in a nice hotel.
- Best case: Nothing happens.
- Worst case: The government takes some flak from the international press and some Canadian students learn that TV in China is generally awful.
Given these options, the right choice seems fairly obvious. Furthermore, it’s not that far from the choices many Western countries made during the SARS outbreak. For example, the US gave customs inspectors the power to detain anyone from anywhere if they were showing symptoms, and some people were calling for much, much more. According to this article (their link is broken), the Wall Street Journal and other Western media sources were calling for closing the US border completely to people from China.
Given all this, the current outcry strikes us as a teensy bit hypocritical. One wonders how, exactly, the Chinese government could respond to disease in a way that doesn’t draw criticism from the West, although in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Regardless of what the Western media says, as of now, there are no cases of swine flu in Mainland China. Really, shouldn’t that be the indicator of how good a job the government is doing controlling the spread of disease?
UPDATE: The WSJ has a decent story about the quarantine, and Imagethief has checked in with some humor and a good point: American criticism of the policy seems a bit ridiculous given that the US “was only recently contemplating the building of a border wall specifically designed to keep Mexicans out even before the flu.”
UPDATE 2: The Peking Duck responds to this post:
Okay. I’m all for screening and acting aggressively – if you also act intelligently and rationally. And I’m always in favor of donations for worthy causes. But this is a pretty flawed argument.
The response to SARS by the CCP cannot simply be described as “evasive and tardy,“ although it was each of those things. More importantly, however, is that it was criminal, it was consciously and inexcusably irresponsible, it led to unnecessary deaths and hysteria, it was a shining example of the party holding the idiotic spectacle of its annual rubber-stamp National Party Congress above the health and well being of its citizens. It was a cover-up that so shocked the world that the government is still struggling to recover its tarnished image.
So it’s little surprise that now they would rush to show the world how zealous and diligent they are. But I see this as akin to George W. Bush ignoring documented terrorist threats that were thrust in front of his nose weeks before 19 jihadists brought America to its knees, and then using the occasion to launch an irrational and ineffective war on terror showcasing the torture of anybody rounded up by bounty hunters in Pakistan and Afghanistan and then wasting America’s resources invading a country that had nothing to do with the attack.
Not an exact parallel (the Hu administration is smarter than Bush’s) but the basic point remains: Jumping into action and “doing something” without rhyme or reason does not show aggressive leadership. To me, it’s just the opposite.
My response in the comments there:
For the record, “evasive and tardy” is a direct quote from the source I was talking about, not my own characterization of the events. Hence the quotation marks.
Nor was my point that the Chinese response to the situation has been perfect. My point was mostly that (1) their overzealousness is understandable and (2) that the worst thing I know of that’s happened as a result of it is a little bit of inconvenience for a small group of people. Honestly, so what? Yes, it’s a pain to be kept in a hotel or whatever, and I think those people should be tested and released soon, but its understandable. You said some of those people hadn’t been in Mexico recently but as I understand it (and I may be wrong), all of them had been in North America recently, and since the other two North American countries are the other two biggest sources of infection, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be quarantined, too.
I’m not saying everything they’ve done is OK, but it does bother me there’s a giant media frenzy about this, yet there are much more important things to be talking about. Every other day it seems like I’m translating some story about how the government is harassing and deleting Ai Weiwei’s noble Sichuan Earthquake Victims Project, or rural townspeople are being beaten, kidnapped, and even killed by crooked cops while their superiors stand around watching them die. Yet the story that the international media picks up is about how some Mexicans are locked in a crappy Beijing hotel, and stories about real oppression are lucky to get linked in the China Digital Times or a nod on ESWN.
Perhaps I’ve lost my perspective here, but it seems…off.