While meeting with a World Health Organization official in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping conceded that the coronavirus epidemic presented "the Chinese people" with a struggle. "The epidemic is a demon, and we cannot let this demon hide," Xi said. Xi added that the Beijing communist government would "release information on the virus in a 'timely' manner."
Read "timely" as "judged politically convenient by a Communist Party dictatorship confronting economic contraction and political resistance from Hong Kong and Taiwan that Beijing fears could spread to mainland China."
Yes, "demon" is a metaphor for a pathogen capable of killing millions. However, it is a demon the dictatorship's repressive policies animate and tolerate in lieu of free communication.
The coronavirus (medical shorthand: 2019-nCoV) began infecting human beings in the city of Wuhan (Hubei province) sometime in December 2019.
Time marches on. As I write this column, medical investigators find evidence that mid-November may be a more accurate date for the devil's eruption.
The WHO has (so far) refrained from calling the epidemic a global emergency. The senior WHO official who met Xi praised the dictatorship's response to the epidemic. But here's the frame for understanding the WHO: The WHO walks a diplomatic precipice when it engages authoritarian regimes. Democracies like the U.S.? No.
Does China respect the UN, which oversees the WHO? Only when it benefits. Proof: The Chinese dictatorship ignored the UN Hague court ruling on the Philippines' claim against Chinese territorial and resource theft. China signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty -- but completely ignored the court's decision.
Beijing does disdain international norms it cannot bend to its own benefit.
2019-nCoV, however, is beyond Xi's dictatorial control. China's dictatorship may awe Free World idiots, but it cannot intimidate a pathogen.
The coronavirus and its potential consequences of mass death expose the dictatorship's brittleness. If you prefer, substitute "incompetence masked by police intimidation and lack of free expression" for "brittleness."
Brutal authoritarian political control exacts overt and covert systemic costs. Western commentators -- The New York Times' Tom Friedman is a particularly smarmy example -- admire authoritarian China's alleged skill at solving major problems that dithering Western democracies cannot. What really dazzles Friedman and his ilk is the regime's one-command-solves-it pose. Information control, especially control of dissent, bolsters this fraud.
Since 1980, China has made extraordinary economic progress, but its government's destructive decisions are telling. The notorious one-child policy produced a demographic devil. What Western admirers touted as a farsighted plan to promote zero population growth killed millions of baby girls, skewed female-male sex ratios and, as of 2010, began creating a worker shortage.
Doctors in China and several Asian countries -- the virus is on the verge of savaging Thailand -- advocate isolating infected patients. The Great Firewall of China isolates the Chinese people from global information access and sharing. Beijing demands its citizens use state-sponsored social media in lieu of global alternatives. Isolation from information sharing hinders angry citizens from criticizing the communist leaders.
But this system isolates Chinese leaders from bad news -- like mass illness -- that caring human beings must share.
China's government penalizes free information access and transmission. The regime's despicable Social Credit Rating system collects data on individuals using cellphones, public video cameras, internet and travel activity, and neighborhood gossip. Security operatives analyze the gobbledygook, looking for -- get ready -- signs of anti-government behavior.
In communist China, an individual or even a respected doctor in a research bureau reporting on contaminated food, much less a possible epidemic outbreak, is conceivably guilty of anti-government behavior. Said brave soul is subject to fines, travel restrictions, public shaming and perhaps prison.
Why? Because the Chinese Communist Party can dismiss the initial warning as illegal criticism of the party.
As the party bigwigs dither, a deadly pathogen kills.