China Power | Politics | East Asia

Wuhan Coronavirus and the Tacitus Trap

The outbreak revealed long-standing deficiencies inside China’s local administrations, which may pose a threat to the credibility of local governments across the PRC.

By Fu Yu for
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Wuhan Coronavirus and the Tacitus Trap

In this Jan. 28, 2020, file photo, a worker wearing a face mask sprays disinfectant along a path in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province.

Credit: AP Photo/Arek Rataj, File

As of January 29, with the reporting of the first case in Tibet, the Wuhan coronavirus has arrived in every one of China’s provinces, municipalities, and special administrative regions. The number confirmed cased soared to 7,783 on January 30, a dramatic increase from 4,500 on January 28. This outbreak not only causes risks to thousands of people’s safety and wellbeing, but also raises public distrust toward local governments, indicating a risk of falling into the “Tacitus Trap.”

People’s distrust in the Wuhan government is based on a series of facts. The first cases of the mysterious coronavirus lung illness were reported in Wuhan as early as December 8. The distribution of cases indicated a tight relationship between the virus and a seafood market in Wuhan, but the market was not closed until January 1, 2020, after its illegal sale of wild animals was reported by more than one media outlet. After the local health commission confirmed that 27 citizens had been infected by the virus on December 31, the Wuhan government kept silent from January 6 to 17, during which time Wuhan held its 14th People’s Congress meeting and 13th committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference were held. Wuhan refused to issue any warnings until the famed “SARS fighter” pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan revealed to the public that the novel coronavirus had indications of person-to-person transmission on January 20. During the long period in between, Wuhan’s government was overly optimistic; the city held a potluck banquet to celebrate the looming New Year holiday, with more than 40,000 families attending, and issued 200,000 free travel tickets to the public, seeking to boost the tourism industry.

The overly reluctant administrative response cased a disaster for Wuhan people, and led to a tragedy nationwide. The situation got worse when some suspected cases rushed to other regions outside Wuhan during the Chinese New Year, right before the city was “closed.” From January 20 on, all Chinese people have been focusing on the situation in Wuhan.

The credibility of the Wuhan government has been depleted. Severe criticism toward the city government, especially toward the mayor, Zhou Xianwang, flows like a flood on the social media networks WeChat and Weibo. People have questioned why Zhou was appointed as the mayor of a megacity with a population of more than 11 million based on his resume. A prestigious reporter, Zhang Ouya, wrote that “those currently in the role have no capability of leadership” and called for changing the leadership of Wuhan immediately. Even more disappointing to the public is that, while the Wuhan government earned a failing grade for controlling the early spread of new virus, it was excellent at suppressing public opinion. Wuhan quickly arrested eight citizens for spreading “misinformation” about the new virus and rudely interrupted journalists’ interviews with local hospitals. When Zhou held a meeting to talk about current situation of the virus, the masses did not pay much attention to the progress made by the city government. Instead the public became even angrier and more disappointed at Zhou when he confirmed that 5 million people had left Wuhan, partly because of the flawed policy of closing the city. When the mayor said he is willing to resign as long as it helps control the spread of virus, people refused to accept his offer and showed no sympathy.

The Wuhan government has indeed lost the public’s trust. But on a broader scale, the Wuhan coronavirus revealed the long-standing inefficiencies, lack of transparency, and lazy politics inside China’s local administrations, which may pose a threat to the credibility of local governments across the PRC.

If we recall SARS, a serious form of pneumonia that plagued Chinese people in 2003, we may find some striking coincidences. The first case in both incidents appeared around December; both local governments involved (Guangzhou and Wuhan) concealed information on the epidemic for a long while; both governments falsely claimed the viruses were not infectious or claimed there was no human-to-human transmission; both government held large gatherings with tens of thousands people involved during the critical early transmission period; both incidents concerned the illegal sale of live wildlife, but both local governments had turned a blind eye to that illegal trade.

The central government has stressed the most critical lesson taken from SARS was “the significance of transparency.” But now Wuhan has repeated the tragedy of 2003. The Wuhan coronavirus demonstrates that not every regional administration learned a lesson — Hubei province, at least, learned nothing from SARS. What needs to be asked here is whether other local government learned anything more. Will it take yet more tragedies to teach them to work well?

The “Tacitus Trap” describes a situation where the government slips into a credibility crisis, so that neither good nor bad policies can please the governed. The term is emphasized by both the PRC government and Chinese scholarship. President Xi Jinping has frequently stressed the need to avoid the Tacitus Trap, and he regards losing credibility as a prelude to losing “the ruling foundation” and “the ruling status” of the Communist Party. Currently, the Wuhan government is a living example of how disastrous an administrative omission can be, both before and after the outbreak. Faced with such a crisis, the PRC has held Wuhan up as a “negative example,” calling for clues from the public to explain the failed control and rapid spread of the virus.

The battle with coronavirus is ongoing. Let us hope that every local government will avoid repeating what Wuhan did in the future.

Fu Yu is a Ph.D. student in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Macau, and an Assistant Research Fellow at Intellisia Institute, Guangzhou, China.