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Virus Should not Become China’s 9/11

Feb 19, 2020
  • Cui Lei

    Research Fellow, China Institute of International Studies


As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, the Chinese government is making all-out efforts to contain it and save lives. But local authorities’ failure to issue timely alerts and the panicked response to the epidemic have triggered public anger. Some people believe the coronavirus outbreak may pose a challenge to China’s system similar to the Chernobyl nuclear leak in 1986, which dealt a heavy blow to the Soviet Union before its collapse. It may be more appropriate, however, to compare this to the 9/11 incident 19 years ago.

Similar psychological shock

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were of milestone significance in U.S. history. Even though Americans were no strangers to terrorist attacks, the 9/11 onslaught, which killed more than 3,000 people, was comparable to Pear Harbor — with millions watching the collapse of symbolic U.S. architecture via live broadcast. The shock cast a tremendous shadow across the hearts of the American public. The incident directly triggered the Bush administration’s so-called war on terror, including military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose aftermath is still being felt.

Like the U.S. on 9/11, China is now in a panic. Although it had been struck by different types of influenza in the recent past, even the fear of SARS — despite its rapid movement and high mortality rate — had a more limited impact because it was largely confined to major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. With a longer incubation period, easier transmissibility and some local governments’ slow response at a time of high population mobility — the traditional Spring Festival — the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, is expected to have a wider impact.

In a matter of days, coronavirus infections were confirmed n many places across China and in more than 20 other countries. With the number of cases rising along with confirmed deaths, the public is in a panic and the internet is rife with rumors.

Economic consequences

An epidemic is hard to compare with a terror attack: One is one is natural disaster, the other man-made. Terrorism is more symbolic than substantive, as it mainly seeks to create panic and cause psychological damage. Tragic as they were, the 9/11 attacks caused far less economic damage to the U.S. than the global financial crisis, which saw trillions of dollars of wealth evaporate and resulted in heavy government debt.

Yet the economic impacts of the Covid-19 epidemic far outweigh those of terrorism. Isolation remains the only weapon against a virus of such transmissibility before a vaccine is developed. To control the epidemic as soon as possible, the Chinese government must sacrifice economic growth through factory shutdowns and lockdowns of whole cities and communities.

According to an estimate by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, even if the epidemic is brought under control by the end of March or beginning of April, China’s Q1 growth will drop to 4.5 percent and annual growth will sink to 5.2 or 5.3 percent. According to a survey by Zhu Wuxiang and others at Tsinghua University, if the epidemic persists and the government sustains its current countermeasures, 85 percent of Chinese small and medium-sized firms will see their cash flow dry up in three months — though most economists remain optimistic about the long-term prospects of the Chinese economy.

Lessons from 9/11

Generally speaking, the epidemic’s economic and psychological blows to China have surpassed those of the 9/11 attacks to the U.S. But the Chinese can learn something from what Americans did after 9/11.

First, avoid overreaction. The U.S. overreacted to the 9/11 attacks and expanded targets of its war on terror from such nonstate actors as al Qaida to sovereign states, sinking itself in a mire of wars. U.S. military spending surged from $420 billion in 2000 to nearly $800 billion in 2010 — a hefty economic price in the campaign against terror.

Although the present U.S. strategic contraction is mainly the outcome of debt burdens that arose in the 2008 global financial crisis, post-9/11 strategic expansion should not be underestimated as a contributing factor. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter once said that while his country had spent $3 trillion on the war on terror, China concentrated on developing its economy, so it is only logical that China will surpass the U.S. in some respects.

China must demonstrate poise in the face of the epidemic and be prepared for a protracted process. Considering the universal rules of contagious diseases, the Covid-19 epidemic may linger. It took SARS six months to subside, and other influenzas have never disappeared.

Yet, thanks to the resistance of the human body and the fact that the virus will gradually weaken, the epidemic will ultimately recede. Employing a wartime regime and attempting to end the threat in a single battle is likely to fail, and the overreaction may lead to collateral damage. Besides production suspensions, economic stagnation and cutting into people’s livelihoods, such a course is more likely to cause harm to the rights and interests of ordinary citizens.

For instance, indiscriminate restrictions on population mobility may prevent some severely sick people from getting timely treatment. How to balance the need to sustain normal economic operations with containment of the epidemic poses a severe test of the government’s wisdom and governance capacity.

In addition, improving capacity for rapid response to Covid-19 calls for enhancing interdepartmental and international coordination. In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. not only unified its domestic intelligence institutions and created the post of the national intelligence director, but it also built an international “alliance against terror.” That there has been no large-scale terror attack in the U.S. since 9/11 shows that the moves have succeeded.

Only when information flow is smooth can the sources of the virus and its routes of transmission be accurately identified. China attempted to improve its epidemic direct report regime after the SARS outbreak, judging from authorities’ initial responses; however, there is still a lot to improve. Neglect of professional advice, excessive information control, lack of inter-departmental coordination within governments and international cooperation are also important factors. The Chinese government should make changes in such areas.

Meanwhile, both the government and public need to get rid of the panic. After 9/11, the public’s excessive fear took the place of reason. It was public panic and outrage that pushed the U.S. government onto the track of military response. Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than 60 percent of Americans supported a military response. Similarly, the Chinese public should also refrain from excessive panic. It should try to develop fine hygienic habits and healthy lifestyles, and learn to co-exist with the virus.

The Chinese government is also under great pressure, but it should be particularly prudent in decision-making to avoid making poorly conceived moves. The government should make coolheaded, objective assessments of the epidemic, while paying more attention to people’s livelihoods and economic operations. It should properly cope with possible public discontent and avoid intensifying social conflict, so as to rally nationwide solidarity and tide over the nation at this difficult time.

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