February 13, 2020

POTEMKIN MEDICINE: What China’s empty new coronavirus hospitals say about its secretive system.

The gulf between the vision of vast new hospitals created and thrown into action within days and the more complicated reality on the ground is a reminder of one of the main challenges for Beijing as it struggles to contain the coronavirus: its own secretive, authoritarian system of government and its vast censorship and propaganda apparatus.

Communist party apparatus well honed to crush dissent also muffles legitimate warnings. A propaganda system designed to support the party and state cannot be relied on for accurate information. That is a problem not just for families left bereft by the coronavirus and businesses destroyed by the sudden shutdown, but for a world trying to assess Beijing’s success in controlling and containing the disease.

“China’s centralised system and lack of freedom of press definitely delay a necessary aggressive early response when it was still possible to contain epidemics at the local level,” said Ho-fung Hung, a professor in political economy at Johns Hopkins University in the US.

For many Western businesses, theft of trade secrets and other intellectual property just seemed like a cost of gaining access to a billion or so Chinese consumers. But this is something else entirely.

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