The Wuhan Files: China's Mishandling and Obfuscation in the Early Stages of the Pandemic

The COVID pandemic didn’t need to happen. Since the beginning, the Chinese government has outright rejected accusations of having deliberately concealed information related to the growth of the virus, decrying their critics as being dishonest obfuscators on the international stage. 

In a stunning new report from CNN, however, official documents circulated within the party prove that China critically mishandled the early stages of the outbreak, as shown through findings leaked from Hubei’s Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Published under the name “The Wuhan Files”, the 117-page file marked as “internal document, please keep confidential” reveals the government suppressed evidence of rising cases and left virus hotspots undisclosed, as verified by six experts from the CDC. 

The document presents us with a timeline from October 2019 to April 2020, revealing what CNN journalist Nick Paton Walsh described as an “inflexible health care system constrained by top-down bureaucracy and rigid procedures” that were simply “ill-equipped to deal with the emerging crisis.” On February 10th, for example, the Chinese authorities reported 2,478 new confirmed cases of COVID-19,  raising the total global number to more than 40,000, with fewer than 400 cases occurring outside of mainland China. And yet the official documents obtained by CNN show that this was “only part of the picture” as local health authorities in the province of Hubei — the first area where coronavirus was detected — listed a total of 5,918 new cases of coronavirus, more than double the officially reported cases to the public. 

China Covid Figures misreported

At the time, this larger figure was never fully revealed, allowing government officials to attempt to downplay the severity of the outbreak. The documents show the clear contrast between the public and private positions of the Chinese government, who offered the world more optimistic data than what they actually had access to. This repression was especially true in March, back when The New York Times cited multiple Chinese sources who said that the government was conducting “organized police raids” in an effort to squash “rumors” about COVID-19. These sources stated that citizens were “dragged off for hours of interrogation, forced to sign loyalty pledges, and recant remarks deemed politically unacceptable, even if those words were made in the relative privacy of a group chat”. 

The Times reporting specifically highlighted the tale of Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan medical expert who was featured in a satirical essay on Chinese censorship. Dr. Wenliang and the essay’s author, Dr. Li Yuchen were subjected to the same treatment of interrogations, loyalty pledges, and coercion for “spreading rumors” about the spread of some “mysterious virus,” which we now know to be the very real Coronavirus. After the government’s attempt to silence him Dr. Li soon passed away from exposure to the virus, during his effort to prevent its spread. 

“Dr. Li said that a healthy society shouldn’t have only one voice,” Yuchen wrote. “I think the best way to mourn him is to continue to be a citizen.” In the eyes of the party, however, a false choice is presented, where being a citizen conflicts with being truthful, cautious, and anything other than a lackey for political chess. Ironically, the government’s methods of appearing tough on the disease are the very same methods that propelled the disease’s spread in the first place: “using the internet police to muffle the most outspoken.” 

In an interview with the Chinese magazine “Renwu” (or “People”), Dr. Ai Fen of the Wuhan Central Hospital revealed that she was also being reprimanded for her role in trying to prevent the outbreak, recognizing the symptoms in patients as early as December of last year. 

“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand. I would have fucking talked about it to whoever, where ever I could,” she explained, noting messages and images of the virus were never to be sent. “We watched more and more patients come in as the radius of the spread of infection became larger. I knew there must be human to human transmission.” The article has since been removed due to government pressure, citing that it was “spreading rumors” and “harming stability,” according to The Guardian.

In the early days of the pandemic, China gave the appearance of systematic strength against the spread of COVID, impressing the World Health Organization (WHO) in their report on containment efforts where  they described their tactics as “bold approaches” which have “changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic.” However, the leaked Wuhan documents show that at the very time the WHO was extolling the virtues of the Chinese government’s response, local health officials were limited to “flawed testing and reporting mechanisms” which took an average of 23 days to reach confirmed diagnoses and often resulted in false-negatives. Experts told CNN these were unnecessary faults due to the government’s “underfunding, understaffing, poor morale and flawed bureaucratic models,” which has, of course, been denied by the Chinese government. 

“While making an all-out effort to contain the virus, China has also acted with a keen sense of responsibility to humanity, its people, posterity, and the international community,” a spokesperson for China’s State Council said in a White Paper. “It has provided information on Covid-19 in a thoroughly professional and efficient way. It has released authoritative and detailed information as early as possible on a regular basis, thus effectively responding to public concern and building public consensus.” 

In light of the recently leaked information, CNN reached out to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Health Commission, and Hubei’s Health Commission, which oversees the provincial CDC, though received no response.

Nevertheless, it’s clear the current rebuttal is to appeal to Hanlon’s razor: attributing China’s response to incompetence rather than malice, even if the substance may appear otherwise. 

“It was clear they did make mistakes — and not just mistakes that happen when you’re dealing with a novel virus — also bureaucratic and politically-motivated errors in how they handled it,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “These had global consequences. You can never guarantee 100% transparency. It’s not just about any intentional cover-up, you are also constrained with [sic] by technology and other issues with a novel virus. But even if they had been 100% transparent, that would not stop the Trump administration downplaying the seriousness of it. It would probably not have stopped this developing into a pandemic.”

But is this true? The documents clearly show another health crisis was emerging within China’s borders, particularly in the Hubei region which was dealing with a novel virus in addition to a significant “influenza outbreak,” as noted by officials within the files. It elaborates that examples of these December “epidemics” didn’t only exist in Wuhan, and were actually “greatest in the neighboring cities of Yichang and Xianning,” establishing to any reasonable politician that China should have taken steps to prevent the global spread of an emerging health crisis. 

China Hubei Covid Map

How did the Chinese government respond to such revelations? They subjected their earliest whistleblowers to authoritarian silencing tactics, refused to fully cooperate with the WHO in the handover of crucial information about the new virus, and wasted crucial time not informing other world governments. Thanks to these files — which only emerged once the WHO also began pressuring China to comply with an investigation into the origins of the virus  — we are beginning to understand the full picture of what went on during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to CNN, the files were presented by a whistleblower who requested anonymity, working within the Chinese healthcare system and describing themselves as a “patriot motivated to expose a truth that had been censored, and honor colleagues who had also spoken out.” The report admits they couldn’t get an answer on how these documents were obtained or why specific papers were selected for public consumption. Nevertheless, the documents were verified by six independent experts who examined the veracity of their content, one of whom has close ties to the Chinese government and admitted they were privy to such confidential research earlier this year.  

The report only strengthens the global speculation over China deliberately suppressing evidence related to the coronavirus outbreak. Although the exact origins of the virus remain unconfirmed, the knowledge of it existing within the critical moment of prevention is overwhelmingly evident. As it stands, the Chinese government has to be held to account for its role in perpetrating one of the worst international disasters since the H1N1 influenza pandemic from 1918, which should come with a price of social, political, and economic consequences. 

If not for the strength of whistleblowers, people like Miles Zhang  — a Chinese businessman from the Wuhan region saved by Dr. Li’s early warnings — would not exist to tell their tales. “I really stood out,” he recalled to the Times, noting his early wearing of goggles, masks, and gloves to isolate himself from the contagion, arousing enough suspicion from the police that he, too, was interrogated by the government. “I used to think the censorship was a technical problem that could be overcome,” Mr. Zhang said. “But this time was like a smack to the head. This is state terrorism.” 

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