The Two Pandemics: How Corruption in China Continues to Cost Human Lives | Dan Mikhaylov
Chiding the Chinese government for mishandling the coronavirus pandemic’s early stages has become comme il faut within Western conservative circles. Commentators, ranging from the rowdy Twitter populists to the more analytical minds, have – in the different forms that befit them – joined forces to diffuse the provocative message of “China lied, people died”. As with practically everything else in politics, there is no smoke without fire: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could have done more to thwart the outbreak and prevent COVID-19 from embarking on its world tour.
However, excoriating Beijing, while in line with the conservative critique of authoritarianism and undeniably mainstream, arguably misses the point. Placing the whole burden on the Chinese state implies that it exists in a vacuum and that its composition and behaviour are completely unaffected by the Chinese society. In turn, this correspondingly dismisses the structural problems within China that have determined its government’s sluggish and inadequate response to the outbreak in Wuhan. Even before the coronavirus was discovered, the nation was suffering from another epidemic – that of corruption.
The Communist authorities have not consistently managed the current epidemiological crisis well. Studies demonstrate that if they had acted faster to inform the population about the existing risks, close down animal markets with subpar hygiene standards, implement temporary restrictions, and conduct en masse testing, cases could have been lowered by 86% and we would have been spared from much of the madness that we had the dubious honour to witness in the last twelve months.
Peng Yi’s experience of the coronavirus is quintessential of these shortcomings. The 39-year-old schoolteacher developed a cough in January 2020, but had close to no access to the treatment he required. Upon reportedly spending eight hours waiting for a CT scan at the hospital and being told to obtain a coronavirus test somewhere, soliciting which back then was akin to looking for a needle in a haystack, Yi ended up paying an extortionate amount of money to be misdiagnosed and denied hospitalisation until the virus had taken its toll and almost no qualified doctor could save him.
Although Beijing’s delayed response and the concomitant shortage of tests and reliable data about how discovered pathogens are transmitted did not help the situation, this cannot explain his tragic demise alone. Corruption, whether connived at by the central government or somehow unknown to it, has played a comparable role in making the coronavirus crisis so tenebrous and hard to contain. Within the first three weeks of January, the Wuhan authorities did not register a single positive case of COVID-19. They could hardly have been oblivious to its existence, considering that they had previously notified the central government that a strange disease had been spreading in the province and received funding to ramp up their identification of, and medical response to, it.
A better explanation would be that a certain proportion of the tests conducted at the time produced falsely negative results, and researchers from both China and abroad have adduced this reasoning. Interestingly, the Wuhan municipal government received those testing kits not from the country’s largest pharmaceutical giants or medical research institutes, but from three Shanghai firms – GeneoDx Biotech, Huirui Biotechnology, and BioGerm Medical Technology – which were little known even within the domestic pharmaceutical industry. According to the Associated Press, they bribed the national Centre for Disease Control and Prevention with more than £110,000 each. Meanwhile, the authorities allegedly worked to curtail other companies’ projects to develop superior testing kits, with China’s National Health Commission (NCH) denying their laboratories access to collected COVID-19 samples and preventing the use of the WHO-designed testing kits at the expense of ordinary citizens.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. In a political system, where the fastest – and arguably the sole – way to prosperity has traditionally been warming up to the ruling elites, first imperial and later socialist, bribery has predictably metamorphosed into something that most people take granted and willingly rehearse. China is a socialist welfare state, where hospitals are incentivised to provide over-treatment to maximise revenue and where a doctor was convicted for accepting almost £13 million in bribes. China is a socialist state, where financial gestures are commonplace: more than one in four Chinese people admitted to having to bribe state officials, employees often treat their bosses with unreasonably expensive gifts, and as mentioned earlier, companies partner with corrupt government officials to deliver substandard testing kits.
For Western conservatives, the unfortunate truth might be that the Chinese state is not this problem’s chief architect. While its conduct on many other issues, ranging from human rights violations to internet freedoms, might appear abhorrent to observers from the United Kingdom, Beijing has undertaken to uproot corruption from society and climbed up the Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index by broadening the scope of the Anti-Unfair Competition Law on Commercial Bribery to include services and items other than money and property and prosecute indirect bribery. In a peculiar bid to depict itself as creative and innovative, the CCP has even pioneered an app to report instances of corruption.
Corruption in China predates Xi Jinping and the entire Communist Party, evolving into two distinct forms over the centuries: hongbao and guanxi. The former denotes a red envelope, containing monetary gifts and found just as frequently at weddings or graduation as when someone visits their local hospital and “thanks” the medical professional in advance for offering them the best treatment. You can even send hongbao via WeChat, China’s largest social network with close to one billion registered users in the country. The latter, however, is much more difficult to translate and comprehend. Guanxi could best be compared to nepotism; it implies an individual taking advantage of their network, for instance to skip the queue for an operation or land a job without going through the application process.
This, exemplified in the phrase “it is not what you know, but whom you know”, is so entrenched in the Chinese society, as it is rooted in conservative Confucian ethics. Confucius’ Five Relationships emphasise how important it is for dignified individuals to know their social standing and behave accordingly, particularly with respect to rulers, fathers, and elders. Although the Cultural Revolution, instigated by the megalomaniac Mao Zedong and his Communist stooges, publicly renounced China’s commitment to Confucian principles, it is unsurprising that a generation that was nurtured side-by-side with guanxi refashioned it, rather than changing its attitude and the attitudes of millions of those with far more loyalty to the Confucian tradition.
Thus, a 2006 investigation into the Shanghai pension fund revealed that its mayor and a senior Chinese Communist Party Politburo official, Chen Liangyu, had divested more than £2.3 billion into purchasing real estate and outsourcing urban infrastructure projects to his friends and associates in the private sector. Only two years later, Beijing’s Vice Mayor, Chen Gang, was convicted for accepting £13.3 million in bribes and embezzling state funding, which was supposed to have supported infrastructure building for the 2008 Olympic Games, to purchase lucrative villas that local developers were all too prepared to construct to build rapport with such a senior CCP official.
When he came to power in 2013, Xi Jinping promised to reduce corruption by dint of launching a campaign against “flies and tigers”. As COVID-19 demonstrates, this effort has largely proven insufficient. Insofar as corruption is concerned, the central government is still a paper tiger; it appears powerful, but is not fit for the purpose, which it has arrogated for itself.
Because of this, China has been left to wrestle against two contagious viruses at once. Unfortunately for its citizens as well as the wider international community that inevitably sympathises with them, both result in deaths. Guanxi and hongbao remain widespread in the Chinese society and arguably influence the Chinese state’s loathsome stance on the value of human life – a stance we have likewise seen in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. A combination of them has resulted in some 300,000 hospitalisations that could have been avoided if Chinese milk producers were not certified by the state for adding melamine to their products and 5,000 pupil deaths in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake that similarly could have been avoided if Chinese construction companies were not let off the hook for ignoring national construction standards. Most importantly, if corruption were not that rife, thousands of COVID-19 deaths worldwide might not have occurred.
Corruption abroad and failure to eradicate it have profound implications for Britain. The human cost, in particular, cannot be ignored, and our policymakers should remember that China is yet to patent a vaccine against its second, more lasting virus – corruption.