In April 2004, New Zealand, under Prime Minister Helen Clark, became the first Western country to acknowledge China as having a market economy. The hope was that China would liberalise and democratise as it became more and more involved in, and familiar with, the world trading system.
This hope was extinguished with the accession to the Chinese Presidency in March of 2013 of Xi Jinping. Far from liberalising and democratising China, Xi Jinping has taken the country to a whole new level of technology-enabled authoritarian rule.
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Xi's own grip on power has increased to dictatorial levels in that he managed, in March 2018, to get the 10-year maximum presidential term limit contained in the Chinese constitution abolished so that there is now no limit on how long he can rule.
It is against this background of the Chinese people being subjected to a tightening authoritarian dictatorship that the coronavirus outbreak should be looked at.
According to respected New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff, the first infection of the Coronavirus was detected in Wuhan on December 1, 2019. Towards the end of December there was alarm in Wuhan medical circles about the disease but the reaction from the authorities was to suppress information about the outbreak rather than take precautionary measures.
The first doctor to blow the whistle, Dr Li Wenliang, who told a WeChat group about the virus, was disciplined and forced by the police to admit he had done something wrong. He went back to his front-line duties of treating patients with coronavirus, contracted the disease, and has now died at the tragically young age of 34. Eight other doctors who discussed the virus were accused of "rumour-mongering".
China finally reported the virus to the World Health Organisation on December 31, 2019, but kept its own citizens in the dark. The mayor of Wuhan was not authorised to talk about the virus until late January 2020. By the time the Government ordered a lockdown of Wuhan on January 23, five million people had fled. Thus the virus spread to all provinces of China and to many other countries.
The window of opportunity for limiting the spread of the virus was in December 2019 and early January 2020. The blame for precautions not being taken at that stage can squarely be laid on the shoulders of President Xi Jinping. He is the architect of his regime's increased levels of suppression of free speech and authoritarian repression as evidenced by the way the police intimidated Dr Li Wenliang into an admission of wrongdoing when in fact he was doing a job which the Chinese people and indeed the whole world desperately needed him to do.
China has now had severe restrictions imposed on its citizens' ability to enter other nations due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. It is appropriate during this period for the international community to have a discussion about how to deal with the existential threat to all humanity presented by a country without a transparent and accountable health system and without its doctors being free to alert their own people and the rest of the world to medical dangers.
Bland assurances from the Xi Jinping regime that it will improve channels of communication to prevent this happening again should not be accepted. This has already happened again. Who can forget the Sars outbreak?
The key conclusions to be drawn from the coronavirus outbreak are that, in this era of mass air travel and global inter-dependency, China has to accept that there has to be complete transparency and accountability in its health sector. And a necessary component of a transparent and accountable health sector is the free flow of essential information which will in reality mean freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech is not a divisible concept, to be limited, for instance, to the health sector. A country has freedom of speech incorporating the free flow of essential information or it does not.
If the Xi Jinping regime is not prepared to change, the international community will have to adopt permanent measures to protect their citizens from future hazards emanating from China.
• David Stevenson is a freelance writer, based in Wellington.