Will Coronavirus be China’s Chernobyl moment? | Jake Scott

“What is the cost of lies?” So opines Valery Legasov in the opening (and closing) moment’s of HBO’s recent series Chernboyl. Throughout that show, we are made to see exactly what that cost is on a political scale: life. And not just for those now, but those who will come after; the background radiation in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is still far beyond habitable levels, thirty-four years after the disaster. Continually faced with the spiralling disaster, Soviet officials refused to acknowledge the severity of the situation until it was too late: anyone who has seen the show knows famously the scene in which Anatoly Dyatlov screams “you didn’t see graphite, because it’s not there!” at an orderly who had been to the roof of Reactor Four, and seen graphite; or the moment when an aged orderly instructs the Pripyat officials to “cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation”; or, horrendously, the inability to accept the scale of the disaster and allow schoolchildren to continue playing in their parks near the reactor, whilst the radiation had already been detected in Germany.

Now, I am fully aware this is a dramatisation of the real events – but what it did get right was the bureaucratic nightmare of Soviet life. The symptomatic problem throughout this disastrous episode in human history is the desire to put the official truth, the “political correctness” ahead of the reality of the situation. The underlying logic of this is simple – the international world could not be allowed to know the actual facts as they occurred daily, because to admit them would be to admit a fundamental failure of the Soviet project. The actual lives of those who experienced the disaster didn’t matter. As is always the way with communist projects, the individual becomes subsumed by the political project of establishing a utopia, no matter how many of those individuals are lost along the way. The malodorous ideology infects every level of the administrative apparatus of state, enforced ruthlessly by the party structure, and all for the “good” of the poor people who are not yet “politically conscious” enough to know this is for their “own good”.

This all sounds eerily familiar.

As the coronavirus burns across the globe, slowly the truth leaks through the cracks of the China monolith: when the virus first began to spread, the Chinese government suppressed whistle-blower Dr. Li Wenliang (who sadly died of Coronavirus in February) because to allow the world to know of such a deadly disease appearing in Chinese borders would undermine the validity of the ongoing communist project; undesirable developments were hid from the apparatchiks in Beijing, unless the wrath of ideology was to fall on their heads; as the numbers of reported cases in Hubei province began to miraculously fall last month, it was revealed that local doctors were intentionally covering up the true number of infections; and now, as the world begins to question China’s numbers, the “official death toll” has been revised up by as much as 50%, still amid a Chinese refusal to admit to a cover up.

China cannot be trusted, that much is obvious. But the fortunate thing is, history is doomed to repeat itself. When the Chernobyl disaster wrought its havoc on the ailing Soviet Union, the West (and indeed, much of Russia) was kept in the dark, allowed to continue under the presumption that it still posed a viable political alternative to Western capitalist liberal democracy. Thus, when the United States increased pressure on the Soviet state through the escalation of Cold War military spending and build-up, especially in the infamous Star Wars programme, all it did was exacerbate the underlying tensions in the Soviet project that the Chernobyl disaster had revealed.

Chernobyl had, in many ways, showed the problem of a disconnect between official truth and real facts. Increased calls for transparency and openness (a desire of which had marked Gorbachev’s premiership, in his stated perestroika and glasnost doctrines), and an inability to deliver on the Soviet officials’ side, led to widespread disillusion with the state and an increase in suspicion, and eventually mistrust, of the communist project.

The structure of China’s administrative functions is remarkably different from the Soviets’, but there are similarities. For one thing, as with both totalitarian projects in the early twentieth century, the government has made incredible use of technology in the dissemination of its ideology, and this will always be the great obstacle to political revolution. The ability of the Chinese propaganda machine to regulate the spread of (mis)information within and beyond its own borders is facilitated by the existence of social media, video games, and international, supposedly neutral organisations like the World Health Organisation. But the cracks are showing.

I think we will soon see the cost of lies.


Photo by Dmitro Syvyi on Flickr.

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