A recent article written by Prof. Robert Peckham, an author of the book, Epidemics in Modern China, and a MB Lee Professor in the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), has caught my attention. His article is entitled, Past Pandemics Exposed China’s Weakness - The current one highlights its strength, appeared in Foreign Affairs (3-27-2020). As a director and founder of the multi-disciplinary Center for the Humanities and Medicine (CHM), he oversees a programme of research involving a wide range of disciplines networked to national and international institutions. Also as a professor in the Department of History, his research focuses on histories of infectious disease, epidemics, and global pandemic threats. Prof. Peckham’s article comes as a timely dissertation on an important topic - management of pandemic. However, the article seemed to be tailored for Foreign Affairs’ political agenda, the discussion is miles high in the political cloud than on the ground of pandemic disease management (rather disappointing).
Pandemic management is such an important topic; it deserves serious discussion, especially when the entire world is facing the challenge of COVID-19. Hence, I hope Peckham’s article will stimulate discussion on China’s weakness and strength in pandemic management from the past to present. First, I agree with his point on not politicizing pandemic and his conclusion on government efficiency, but his political arguments on relating weakness in disease management to government structure (China) was based on little concrete evidence. China was very weak in 19th and early 20th century in her governance (diplomacy, defense, industrialization, etc.) due to poor leadership (emperor) and foreign powers’ interference and control, therefore, China’s healthcare was weak as well. Peckham reviewed pandemic history from plague, to HIV/AIDS, to SARS and COVID-19 but he had no factual case discussion for China other than blaming her for lack of political and economic openness. China was shut out of global fair interaction and forced into isolation in most part of that history. As a historian, Peckham's view is too simplistic in painting China being weak and opaque in pandemic management for that period of time.
Professor Peckham first quoted Bruce Aylward, who led the joint mission of WHO with China on fighting COVID-19, in praising China: “probably the most ambitious, and I would say, agile and aggressive disease-containment effort in history.” In contrast, Peckham cited the infamous Wall Street Journal article entitled, “China is the sick man of Asia” which the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made an improper defense of it as free press. Peckham gave a historical origin of “China as a sick man” coming from Chinese patriotic scholars’ outcry of China and Chinese people being sadly bullied by the Western Powers (especially 1890’s). The intellectuals in China during the late 19th and early 20th century used sick man and sick nation to shame themselves and to motivate their fellow countrymen to reform, to revolt and to rebuild China. When the world is now facing the challenge of COVID-19 together, such derogatory article in WSJ is not a display of freedom of speech but a shameful discrimination. Peckham clearly has a purpose of citing the WSJ article. He went on to say that the rapid politicization of the new coronavirus, and particularly of China’s role in containing it, has historical precedents.
Peckham then reviewed the impact of plague, both bubonic and pneumonic types, in China and how they were managed by Chinese ‘authorities’. Extending to China’s Republic Period (1911-1949) and the People’s Republic of China (1949-1970), Professor Peckham made glossary linkage of disease control and China’s political environment. This glossary discussion was unfortunately lack of facts and clear evidence on either the weak disease management or the complex political structure during that period of time. It is a good topic for PhD research but it may be too difficult to find detailed citizen’s healthcare information from that period of China. Hence one can not take Peckham’s remarks seriously, for example, on relating disease management to Mao’s cultural revolution or claiming that “disease had revealed China’s political system for what it was and in need of fundamental reform”. The revolution and political reform was far more motivated by the ‘sick man feeling’ caused by interference and invasion from the foreign powers striping Chinese people’s dignity than from the plague or any other disease.
Peckham’s idea that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) looks at pandemic from a statisticians lens is an important topic worthy discussion but he did not elaborate. His remark that the disease justifies one party rule had no clear arguments. He credited Mao’s ‘barefoot doctor’ and community healthcare program, a vision of from-the-ground-up healthcare, “helped inspire a global shift: in 1978, …. the WHO International Conference on Primary Health Care adopted the Declaration of Alma-Ata, which upheld health as a basic human right and emphasized community-based health care for all”. In China’s open and reform period, healthcare was a number one priority that offered China a strong base for handling HIV/AIDS and SARS pandemic. Peckham hinted that there was a pattern in China’s pandemic management having leaked information, cover-ups, and crackdowns. He cited journalist Susan Jakes' searing exposé in Time magazine, based on a signed statement by a whistle-blower Dr. Jiang, under the headline, “Beijing’s SARS Attack” which “catalyzed a policy U-turn in China”... “The mayor of Beijing and the minister of public health resigned, and the government embarked on a concerted and much-publicized campaign to contain the epidemic.”
China successfully contained SARS. In Peckham’s view, China has learned a good lesson from SARS that is used in the COVID-19 pandemic; XI’s campaign in fighting the Coronavirus is strikingly similar to what was used against SARS. The Chinese government successfully marshaled tens of thousands of health-care workers and military personnel to support Wuhan where the Coronavirus first broke out. Xi described the pandemic as a “total war” taking stringent measures of closing down the 14 million residents city and applying nation-wide testing and quarantine practice. Now, China has contained the pandemic with zero new case occurring; the city Wuhan is now open to visitors and the industries are gradually returning to pre-COVID-19 operations. China has essentially won the COVID-19 pandemic war. Peckham reiterated media's speculation of “the scenario of leaked information, cover-up and crackdown” repeated in COVID-19 pandemic. Personally, I would not give much value to that kind of story. In the very beginning of a disease, before knowing whether or not it is pandemic, the information management is in a gray area between privacy and public concern and between causing panic and reaching only to the right professionals to make critical decisions. In Wuhan’s case, the delay was short and measures were swift, the success of containing the pandemic speaks for itself.
Peckham’s conclusion states that China has shared its expertise with the European Union, (I may add, Trump said he had learned a lot from Xi in their one hour phone discussion) and pledged $20 million to WHO in its fight against the virus, dispatched medical teams and supplies to Iran, Iraq, Italy, UK and Serbia, and promised to help African countries meet the crisis.(China donated ventilators to NY State). Xi has begun to look more like a global leader committed to health for all, while the Western states appear to be improvising with difficulties. Perhaps for the readers of Foreign Affairs, Peckham draws attention of strongman leadership versus incompetency within the democracies in dealing with the pandemic. Although, I agree with Peckham’s implication that an authoritarian government is more efficient in handling the pandemic, but in my opinion, learning from experience is extremely important. China learned well from SARS that helped contain COVID19 pandemic. Now the world should be humble to learn from China to deal with the pandemic.
Ifay Chang. Ph.D., Inventor, Author, TV Game Show Host and Columnist (www.us-chinaforum.org) as well as serving as Trustee, Somers Central School District.