Though China’s initial delay in reporting cases of the new virus may suggest a cover-up, experts see something more worrying: weaknesses at the heart of the Chinese political system.
China’s rigid bureaucracy discourages local officials from raising bad news with central bosses, and it silos officials off from one another, making it harder to manage, or even see, a crisis in the making.
“That’s why you never really hear about problems emerging on a local scale in China,” said John Yasuda, who studies China’s approach to health crises at Indiana University. “By the time that we hear about it, and that the problem reaches the central government, it’s because it’s become a huge problem.”
Those systemic flaws appear to have played a role in the pace at which officials responded to the outbreak, and the country’s inability to address the health risks from its so-called wet markets, which are stuffed with livestock living and dead, domesticated and wild.
China is now mobilizing a nationwide response involving hundreds of personnel, one of the system’s strengths. But the country’s political weaknesses can have serious consequences for the world. Disease and pollution don’t respect borders, so a unified national policy is typically needed to prevent or stop them.
For any health or environmental regulation to work, Mr. Yasuda said, “you want it to be standardized, you want it to be transparent, you want it to be accountable.”
Reporting was contributed by Elaine Yu, Russell Goldman, Alexandra Stevenson, Tiffany May, Steven Lee Myers, Vivian Wang, Chris Buckley, Raymond Zhong, Denise Grady, Roni Caryn Rabin, Sheri Fink and Katie Robertson. Zoe Mou, Albee Zhang, Amber Wang, Yiwei Wang and Claire Fu contributed research.China’s Mysterious Coronavirus