Sir Harold Evans (1928-2020)

As Simon Schama observed on hearing the sad news of Harry Evans’s death, Harry was that rare combination of great and good. The English phrase “the great and the good” is ironical, implying that the great (in the sense of the socially or politically powerful) are rarely good. Harry Evans was never one of the great and good in that sense. He was simply a great editor and a good man.

By birth and by temperament he was an outsider, a foreign body in the metropolitan and still partly hereditary British Establishment. Born in Manchester, the son of train driver, Harry began his career as a boy reporter at the age of 16. His early years are vividly described in his memoir, My Paper Chase. His career coincided with the rise, apogee and fall of the national newspaper as the most potent force in British political life. When he started out, the press was still to a striking extent regionally structured, as it had been in the 19th century. The Manchester Evening News, like the Manchester Guardian, was a northern paper, like the Northern Echo, of which he became the editor in 1961. But when Harry moved to London to edit the Sunday Times in 1967, the press became Fleet Street: centered in London and capable of making and breaking ministers and even governments.

It was newspapers that determined what merited front-page coverage, and what was merely a “small earthquake in Chile.” Without press campaigns such as Harry’s at the Sunday Times, would the thousands of fetal abnormalities caused by the drug thalidomide have become so notorious, and would the drug companies have been held accountable? Would we ever have found out the full extent of the treachery of the Cambridge spies?

I am too young to have written for Harry. By the time I got to Fleet Street in the mid 1980s, he had lost his fight with Rupert Murdoch and had left for New York with Tina. But “the Harry Evans Sunday Times” long remained the epitome of a golden age of British journalism, spoken of with a rare reverence in the insalubrious watering holes of Wapping and Docklands—to the great annoyance of Harry’s successors, who strove to match his scoops.

So it was in New York that I got to know Harry and Tina. Late to the party as usual, I first met them in the early 2000s, post-Talk, pre-Daily Beast. I suppose I had expected them to be the ultimate power couple, as that was how they were generally billed. Certainly, the book parties they hosted had stellar guest lists. And yet, to my surprise and delight, the couple seemed to regard their power, and that of their guests, as droll to the point of absurdity.

I think this was perhaps Harry’s greatest gift to Tina: even when editing Henry Kissinger’s memoirs—no minor undertaking—Harry retained his Mancunian sense that the corridors of power were partly floored with banana skins. I always imagined the two of them hooting with laughter after Manhattan society had said its goodbyes. Tina’s recently published diaries from the 1980s confirmed that, unlike true power couples, they had a real private life and love. They were in fact happiest alone together in with Georgie and Izzy at their Long Island retreat.  

Most people can’t write. Those who can have generally learned by doing a lot of reading and then being ripped to shreds by good editors. Until Harry’s Do I Make Myself Clear? there was no worthwhile guide on how to write. Newspapers, as my grandfather never tired of telling me, are tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping. (He was an earlier vintage of the same grape that produced Harry.) Even the biggest page one splashes are ephemeral. But the best of Harry’s books will endure, even after we who knew and loved him have gone the same way as the fish and chip wrappings.

Harry Evans was both good and great—in that order. One of the many things I learned from him was that if you ever had to choose between the two—between your ambition and your integrity—you should always go with good.

So goodbye, Harry. I’ll bet there’s a great swimming pool up there where you are now.

Six Questions for Xi Jinping: Another update

It is now seven weeks since I published an opinion column in the London Sunday Times with the headline, “Let’s Zoom Xi Jinping. He has questions to answer about coronavirus” (April 5, 2020). In it, I posed six questions that I suggested should be put to the Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. On April 21, in response to widespread interest in this article, I updated the article on my blog with new information that had subsequently come to light. It is time for another update.

The most controversial question I asked in my original article was Question 3:

Third, after it became clear that there was a full-blown epidemic spreading from Wuhan to the rest of Hubei province, why did you cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China — on January 23 — but not from Hubei to the rest of the world?

January is always a peak month for travel from China to Europe and America because of the lunar new year holiday. As far as I can tell from the available records, however, regular direct flights from Wuhan continued to run to London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco throughout January and in some cases into February. You have lost no time in restricting international travel into China now that Covid-19 has gone global; your approach was conspicuously different when you were exporting it to us.

The Canadian-born political scientist Daniel Bell, who is dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University and a professor at Tsinghua University, first privately and then publicly challenged this part of my article, claiming that I was “suggest[ing] the Chinese government deliberately allowed, if not encouraged, the spread of the virus to five cities in Western countries after it tried to control it in China.” He went so far as to accuse me of “worrisome … conspiracy theorizing.” This was strange to me, as my article quite clearly left open the possibility that, like the original appearance of the virus, the continuation of travel from Wuhan was the result of incompetence, not malevolence. The lesson of Chernobyl is that Communist regimes are capable of gross incompetence and then seek to cover up their blunders. Similar pathologies can be found in the bureaucracies of democracies, of course, but political and  press freedoms make cover-ups much harder.

My original article was based on data I had obtained from Flightstats, which did indeed appear to show that regular direct flights from Wuhan had continued to run to London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco throughout January and in some cases into February.  Based on recorded runway arrival times, China Southern flight 8419 landed at John F.  Kennedy airport on January 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 15, 17, 19, and 22. China Southern flight 659 landed at San Francisco airport on January 2, 4, 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 21, and February 1. There were also direct flights in the same period from Wuhan to London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle, as well as to Moscow Sheremetyevo.

It is true that no flights landed at New York after January 22. But Flightstats showed a flight from Wuhan to San Francisco landing in California at 10:03 on the morning of February 1. And, again according to Flightstat, flights from Wuhan landed at Moscow on January 26, 29, 31, February 2, and February 5.

Professor Bell insisted that “no regular commercial flights left Wuhan for cities in other countries after the Wuhan lockdown was implemented on January 23rd.” But what was his source? Why, “a Chinese language application called Umetrip … provided by CAACNEWS … the website for the Civil Aviation Administration of China [CAAC].” I suggested to him that it might be better if he found corroboration from a Western source—as he himself acknowledged, he had been “naïve about Chinese politics in the past”—but he did not seem to think that was necessary.

I therefore sought clarification from a U.S. company, Flightspin. As I reported on April 21, they looked into the question of flights from Wuhan and concluded that it was unlikely that any flights had gone from Wuhan to Western cities after January 23. The Flightstats data I had used had omitted the fact that the flight recorded as having landed in San Francisco after January 23 had not departed from Wuhan. It appeared that China Southern decided to operate the same flights, with the same flight numbers, but from Guangzhou, not Wuhan.

I used the word “appears” very deliberately, as I did not regard this as conclusive. The flight paths that the website Flightaware showed for the flights in question don’t actually make it clear where they originated from. (See for example this on January 22 versus this on January 24.) “However,” I wrote, “it looks as if the flightpaths in question started farther south, so the Guangzhou explanation is probably true. (I say ‘probably’ because the January 24 flightpath certainly looks different from this one, an actual Guangzhou to Moscow flight on April 19.)” Strange things were happening in the skies at that time. According to one source, Shandong Airlines flight SC9002 took off from Wuhan on February 2 with no destination at all.


Shandong Airlines flight SC9002 took off from Wuhan on February 2 with no known destination (FlightRadar24)

Since then, Daniel Bell and other apologists for the Chinese government, notably George Koo, have claimed victory and heaped further insults on me. Koo accused me of publishing “Nazi-style propaganda.” Professor Bell gave a revealing interview to the Beijing-controlled Global Times, in which he made clear the extent of his alignment with the Chinese Communist Party. He now accused me of “twist[ing] the facts” and claimed that he had forced me “to recognize that there was no evidence to support the allegation that China allowed flights out of Wuhan to the rest of the world after they were cut off to the rest of China”—which he most certainly had not. Professor Bell has a sanctimonious side, it turns out: “I felt bad because I knew it would poison my relation[ship] with Ferguson,” he told the Global Times. “But sometimes truth matters more than harmony.”

Well, yes, it does. Since this last exchange, new evidence has come to light—and it does not corroborate the Chinese official data Bell was so quick to accept. First, a friend passed on a message that “the [Wuhan] airport was not fully closed down until a week later,” i.e. after the lockdown imposed in January 23. Then the same friend sent me an article by a British journalist, Will Bedingfield. “On January 24,” Bedingfield wrote, “the day after the quarantine, only seven flights came out of Wuhan and only 39 came in. By January 25, only 13 came out and 11 in.”

I contacted Bedingfield’s source, Ian Petchenik, at FlightRadar24. He confirmed that flights did indeed leave Wuhan for foreign destinations on January 24 and 25. He sent me the table below:

I asked him: “How confident are you that these flights really did leave from Wuhan? Is there any way of checking that?”

He replied: “I’ve examined each departure path and I can confirm all except one of the flights departed from Wuhan. Unfortunately a lack of ADS-B coverage for MU2999 [to Beijing] makes it impossible to determine with certainty from which airport the flight departed.” The image below, which Mr Petchenik sent me, shows the confirmed departures.



Flight paths of planes leaving Wuhan, January 24-25, 2020 (FlightRadar24)

He also drew my attention to his company’s departure data for the 25 busiest Chinese airports recorded for Tuesday of each week since the beginning of the year. Here are the numbers for Wuhan:

I found further evidence of continuing flights from Wuhan from a different source, the EcoHealth Alliance’s website FLIRT.

Now the question became a different one. Clearly, pace Professor Bell, flights did leave Wuhan for foreign destinations after January 23. But was anyone, aside from the pilots who flew them, on board? Ian Petchenik thought not, and that was good enough for the “fact checkers” at FactCheck.org. But when I pressed Mr Petchenik, he admitted that he was guessing. To be certain, he told me in an email, “You would need to inquire with the operating airlines directly.”

This is how real fact-checking is done. My research assistant and I have spent the last three weeks trying to ascertain who was on board the flights that left Wuhan. It has not been easy.

You might assume it would be quite simple to find out how many people were on board a particular flight. All commercial flights must use International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) document 4444 in order to document the number of people on board each flight, amongst other things.  Flight plans in China are generally filed by the aircraft’s pilot and left at the point of departure in order to be filed with the CAAC, which is supposed to share this information with the ICAO.

We therefore approached the ICAO, but on May 11 we were informed that the information we sought was “not currently available.” Perhaps this should not have surprised us. The ICAO’s Secretary General Fang Lui is a Chinese citizen who is a graduate of Wuhan University and former Director of the CAAC. (Remarkably, the ICAO is one of four UN agencies currently headed by a Chinese citizen, the others being the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Telecommunication Union and the UN Industrial Development Organization. But for American opposition, China would have added a fifth earlier this year: the World Intellectual Property Organization.)

Flight manifests differ from flight plans in that they provide not only the number of people on board, but also identifying information, such as the passengers’ names, passport numbers, and contact information. However, flight manifests are strictly guarded by both airlines and agencies such as the CAAC in order to protect each passenger’s identity. So there was no way to obtain those documents.

We therefore had to cast our net rather more widely, trying to find out if the flights had been catered; their weight and balance information; their fuel consumption. We contacted airlines, government officials in destination countries, as well as local airports, catering companies and tourist companies. For this we required help from local researchers. We also delved into social media data, though it is far from easy to search as widely as we would have liked without application programming interface (API) key access. For example, we came across a post by Scottish man living in Cambodia, stating that a friend who ran a boating company had been approached by Chinese passengers from one of these flights. But we were unable to confirm this. 

The most reliable evidence came from Vietnam. We were told that the flights in question— VietJet Air VJ8375 to Da Nang and VJ5379 to Cam—were planes that had been chartered by tourist companies to return Chinese tourists to Wuhan. The Vietnamese authorities were insistent that no passengers had flown back on the return trips from Wuhan. Flight VJ8374 was one of these “ferry” flights, which flew from Da Nang to Wuhan on January 24. The return flight that same day was VJ8375. VJ’s partners in Vietnam, Middle Airports Services Company (MASCO) provided 100 hot meals. These were intended to cover both legs of the journey, as VJ preferred not to rely on Chinese catering. Typically, VJ assumed that only between 60 and 70% of passengers would accept the offer of a hot meal. Though a VJ official would not confirm how many passengers were on the return flight from Wuhan, they did confirm that seven crew members were on board, i.e. two pilots plus five cabin attendants. However, two sources told us that there was one additional passenger: a South Korean passenger passport-holder with a Chinese name. The same flight, VJ8375, departed Wuhan for Da Nang on January 27 but this time carried only the seven crew members. Similarly, we were able to confirm that VJ5379 departed Wuhan for Cam on January 26 with only seven crew members on board.


The arrivals board at Cam airport on the night of January 26-27, 2020, showing Flight VJ5739 from Wuhan as on time

On January 27, another flight—VJ 5379—was authorized to carry a group of 30 Vietnamese passengers (mostly students stuck in Wuhan) from Wuhan airport to Cam. This was another “ferry” approved by the Vietnamese government. However, it is not included in the list here of special repatriation flights that repatriated 8,597 citizens from Wuhan between June 29 and February 27. That is because the passengers were unable to get to the airport to board the flight on January 27. They ended up flying home on February 10.

Sources in Indonesia also told us that no passengers had been carried on the Lion Air flight JT2618.

I would welcome more evidence, needless to say. Frustratingly, it proved impossible to get definitive answers from sources in Cambodia and the Philippines. Nevertheless, pending further intelligence, I publish this to clear the matter up so far as possible. First, Daniel Bell, George Koo and those who repeated or retweeted their attacks on me were wrong to claim, in Bell’s words, that “flights out of Wuhan to the rest of the world stopped around mid-day on the 23rd, the same day China stopped flights from Wuhan to the rest of China.” At least six flights did leave Wuhan for foreign destinations after the supposed quarantine of January 23.

On the other hand, the fact that only crew members appear to have been aboard these flights—albeit with one known exception, the mysterious South Korean passport-holder—confirms that the authorities did prevent Chinese citizens from flying from Wuhan to foreign destinations after January 23.

I have delved deeply into this matter mainly to illustrate how difficult it is to find out exactly what happened in Wuhan in January. My original article asked the Chinese leader a question. “After it became clear that there was a full-blown epidemic spreading from Wuhan to the rest of Hubei province, why did you cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China — on January 23 — but not from Hubei to the rest of the world? … As far as I can tell from the available records, however, regular direct flights from Wuhan continued to run to London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco throughout January and in some cases into February.” I wrote those words in good faith. There was no clear indication from the records to which I had access at that time that the China Southern flight 659, which landed at San Francisco airport on February 1, did not in fact depart from Wuhan.

When Daniel Bell accused me of “worrisome … conspiracy theorizing,”, he did so with a confidence that was unwarranted. He—and others who pick such fights—should learn some humility. Journalism is harder than it looks. There are deadlines to meet. And government agencies do not always tell the truth. One wonders if the Chinese government will ever give a full and frank account of what happened in Wuhan in December and January. I doubt it.

In any case, as I have said before, whether or not flights departed Wuhan after January 23 is not the critical issue when it comes to attributing responsibility for the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The earliest known Wuhan case of COVID-19 had atypical pneumonia-like symptoms on December 1. The local health authorities spent the next four weeks not merely ignoring the evidence of human-to-human transmission but actively trying to suppress it.  By January 2, according to The Lancet, at least 41 people in Wuhan had been identified as having the new coronavirus, of whom six later died. By January 22, there were 131 confirmed cases but clearly a great many more unconfirmed ones.

Around 7 million people left Wuhan in January, for domestic and foreign destinations, before travel was restricted (New York Times; see also Sanche at al. (2020)). That is how COVID-19 spread so rapidly to the rest of the world—and it was happening long before January 23, because the Chinese authorities waited until that late date to place their cordon sanitaire around Hubei. They took even longer to limit travel from other Chinese airports. So much for “the benefits of a centralized political hierarchy in China,” the “model” which Daniel Bell believes should be inspiring other countries.

I have never suggested that the Chinese government deliberately set out to spread a novel coronavirus around the world, any more than the Soviet government deliberately set out to spread radioactive iodine-131 and caesium-137 across their own territory and into northern Europe in 1986. The available evidence, in each case, points to the combination of blunder and cover-up so characteristic of one-party, authoritarian states.

The world economy has been brought to its knees and (so far) 340,000 people have died prematurely because of this disaster.  One might argue—indeed I have argued, repeatedly—that some Western governments, including that of United States, mishandled their response to the pandemic. But that does not diminish the Chinese government’s original sin in letting the virus loose. The world is owed some honest answers as to why and how that happened. It really should not be up to me to dig them up. And it certainly should not be the role of a Western scholar such as Professor Bell to help the Chinese Communist Party keep them buried.

Six Questions for Xi Jinping: An update

Nearly two weeks ago, I published my usual column in the London Sunday Times with the headline, “Let’s Zoom Xi Jinping. He has questions to answer about coronavirus” (April 5, 2020).

 

In it, I posed six questions that I suggested should be put to the Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. In response to widespread interest in this article, I thought I should update the article with new information that has since come to light. I should stress that the Chinese government itself has not answered any of my questions. However, some of the new information is derived partly from official Chinese sources. Wherever possible, I have sought corroboration from other sources, too. 

 

Let’s begin with question 1:

First, what exactly was going in Wuhan that led to the initial emergence of Sars-CoV-2? If the virus originated from a bat at one of the disgusting “wet” markets (where wildlife intended for human consumption is sold alongside chicken and beef) that your regime inexplicably has not shut down, that is bad enough. But if it originated because of sloppy practices at the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, that is worse. It is insanity for research on potentially lethal zoonoses such as coronaviruses to be going on in the heart of a vast metropolis like Wuhan.

 

Update 1: it seems increasingly likely, though not yet certain, that the virus originated at one of the two research institutes in Wuhan where scientists study zoonoses. As the Washington Post reported on April 14, “The Chinese government’s original story—that the virus emerged from a seafood market in Wuhan—is shaky.” Back in January 2018, according to the Post, U.S. Embassy officials visited a Chinese research facility in the city of Wuhan several times “and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats: 

The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable … warn[ed] that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.

“The new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” stated the Jan. 19, 2018, cable.

The U.S. visitors met with Shi Zhengli, the head of the research project, who had been publishing studies related to bat coronaviruses for many years. In November 2017, just before the U.S. officials’ visit, Shi’s team had published research showing that horseshoe bats they had collected from a cave in Yunnan province were very likely from the same bat population that spawned the SARS coronavirus in 2003. [But] even in 2015, other scientists questioned whether Shi’s team was taking unnecessary risks.

 

Similar concerns have been raised about the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab.

 

Now to my question 2:

Second, how big a role did the central government play in the cover-up after it became clear in Wuhan that there was human-to-human transmission? We now know there were 104 cases of the new disease, including 15 deaths, between December 12 and the end of that month. Why was the official Chinese line on December 31 that there was “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission? And why did that official line not change until January 20?

 

Update 2: It is still not clear when exactly the central government knew there was a serious problem in Wuhan. All I have been able to establish is that on December 31 the National Health Commission dispatched a national team of experts to Wuhan to investigate the situation there. That was thirty days after the first known case had symptoms. Is it possible that the central government was still unaware of the true situation in Wuhan nature in late December? Yes. Chinese local and bureaucrats have a long and tragic history of covering up their own mistakes and manipulating data that moves up the chain, as my colleague Frank Dikötter has brilliantly shown. But we don’t know. So that question remains unanswered.

 

Question 3:

Third, after it became clear that there was a full-blown epidemic spreading from Wuhan to the rest of Hubei province, why did you cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China — on January 23 — but not from Hubei to the rest of the world?

 

January is always a peak month for travel from China to Europe and America because of the lunar new year holiday. As far as I can tell from the available records, however, regular direct flights from Wuhan continued to run to London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco throughout January and in some cases into February. You have lost no time in restricting international travel into China now that Covid-19 has gone global; your approach was conspicuously different when you were exporting it to us.

 

Update 3: Data from sensors tracking actual flight paths would seem to indicate that no flights left from Wuhan itself to other countries in the world after January 23. However, we now know that by that time thousands of infected citizens had already left Wuhan for other parts of China, so a ban on all flights out of China would have been needed to prevent the epidemic becoming a global pandemic. More importantly, while the government banned group travel and tourism within China on January 24, it continued to allow individual and group travel to all other parts of the world through the Lunar New Year holiday.

 

The American political scientist Daniel Bell has today publicly challenged this part of my article, claiming that I was “suggest[ing] the Chinese government deliberately allowed, if not encouraged, the spread of the virus to five cities in Western countries after it tried to control it in China.” He goes so far as to accuse me of “worrisome … conspiracy theorizing,” an outrageous and defamatory accusation.

 

When Professor Bell first wrote to me on this subject, on April 11, I replied to him, firstly, that I would not have written the relevant paragraphs if I had not done my research and, secondly, that I was not hinting at any kind of plot but was merely asking a series of perfectly legitimate questions about the Chinese government’s handling of the crisis. (I also have no shortage of questions about how the U.S. government handled it, as a regular reader of my weekly column would be aware.)

 

Data I had obtained from Flightstats on March 13 did indeed appear to show, as I wrote, that “regular direct flights from Wuhan continued to run to London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco throughout January and in some cases into February.”  Based on recorded runway arrival times, China Southern flight 8419 landed at John F.  Kennedy airport on January 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 15, 17, 19, and 22. China Southern flight 659 landed at San Francisco airport on January 2, 4, 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 21, and February 1. In other words, a total of 20 flights went directly from Wuhan to U.S. airports in that period. (A recent report in the New York Times, published on April 4, arrived at the same number of flights for January.) There were also direct flights in the same period from Wuhan to London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle, as well as to Moscow Sheremetyevo. 

 

It is true that no flights landed at New York after January 22. But Flightstats showed a flight from Wuhan to San Francisco landing in California at 10:03 on the morning of February 1. And, again according to Flightstat, flights from Wuhan landed at Moscow on January 26, 29, 31, February 2, and February 5.

 

Professor Bell insisted that “no regular commercial flights left Wuhan for cities in other countries after the Wuhan lockdown was implemented on January 23rd.” But what was his source? Why, “a Chinese language application called Umetrip … provided by CAACNEWS … the website for the Civil Aviation Administration of China.” I suggested to him that it might be better if he found corroboration from a Western source—as he himself acknowledges, he has been “naïve about Chinese politics in the past”—but he did not seem to think that was necessary. 

 

I therefore sought clarification from a U.S. company, Flightspin. They looked into the question of flights from Wuhan and concluded that it was very unlikely indeed that any flights had gone from Wuhan to Western cities after January 23. The Flightstats data I had used had omitted the fact that the flights recorded as having landed in San Francisco and Moscow after January 23 had in fact not departed from Wuhan. It appears that China Southern decided to operate the same flights, with the same flight numbers, but without making their usual stop in Wuhan. 

 

I should stress the word “appears.” The flight paths that the website Flightaware shows for the flights in question don’t actually make it clear where they originated from. (See for example this on January 22 versus this on January 24.) However, it looks as if the flightpaths in question started farther south, so the Guangzhou explanation is probably true. (I say “probably” because the January 24 flightpath certainly looks different from this one, an actual Guangzhou to Moscow flight on April 19.)

 

I attempted to check the official Russian data on the flights into Sheremyetvo, but it appears that Russia took all official flight data offline after a Russian government plane was caught shipping cocaine to Argentina in 2016.

 

Even if, as seems on balance likely, no flights left Wuhan for domestic or foreign destinations after January 23, the fact remains that—as a New York Times investigation showed—so many people had already left Wuhan before that date that only a ban on all flights from China to the rest of the world would have been effective in checking the spread of the virus. 

 

By January 2, according to The Lancet, at least 41 people in Wuhan had been identified as having the new coronavirus, of whom six later died. By January 22, there were 131 confirmed cases. Around 7 million people left Wuhan in January, for domestic and foreign destinations, before travel was restricted (New York Times; see also Sanche at al. (2020)). That is how COVID-19 spread so rapidly to the rest of the world. And it was happening long before January 23, because the Chinese authorities, for whatever reason, waited until that late date to place their cordon sanitaire around Hubei.

 

It is worth adding that the Chinese government did, in one respect at least, prioritize domestic over international measures. As Nikkei pointed out on March 19: 

The Chinese government locked down Wuhan on Jan. 23, halting all public transportation going in and out of the city. The following day an order was issued suspending group travel within China. But in a blunder that would have far reaching consequences, China did not issue an order suspending group travel to foreign countries until three days later, on Jan. 27 [my emphasis].

In retrospect, it was a painful mistake. This is what happened in those critical three days:

The weeklong Lunar New Year string of holidays began on Jan. 24, with the outbound traffic peak lasting through Jan. 27.

The Chinese government let the massive exodus of group travelers continue despite the public health crisis. No explanation has been given.

Furthermore, while suspending group travel, China did nothing to limit individuals traveling overseas.

Groups account for less than half of all Chinese tourists heading abroad.

 Chinese travelers journeyed to Japan, South Korea, Italy, Spain, France, the U.K., Australia, North America and South America, one planeload after another.

 

Question 4:

Fourth, what possessed your foreign ministry spokesman to start peddling an obviously false conspiracy theory on social media and why has he not been fired? Even your ambassador to America disowned this fake news. We’ll watch with interest to see which of these diplomats gets your backing.

 

Update 4: Lijian Zhao is still in his job as spokesman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has not been visibly reprimanded. He has changed his Twitter profile background, but that’s about it.

 

Question 5:

Fifth, where exactly are the tycoon Ren Zhiqiang and Wuhan doctor Ai Fen, to name just two of the Chinese citizens who seem to have vanished since they expressed criticism of your government’s handling of Covid-19?

 

Update 5: The South China Morning Post reported on April 7 that Ren Zhiqiang is “being investigated for alleged “serious violations of law and discipline,” according to a statement by the Commission for Discipline Inspection. I have no further news about Ai Fen.

 

I should add that they are by no means the only people to have suffered at the hands of the Chinese authorities for speaking their minds. I could also have mentioned Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua. They are still missing, according to the most recent reports. (Oddly, Daniel Bell seemed not so interested in this question.) Meanwhile, more than a dozen leading pro-democracy activists and former lawmakers in Hong Kong were arrested on Saturday, including the lawyers Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, the media tycoon Jimmy Lai and the former opposition legislators Albert Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan and Leung Kwok-hung.

 

Finally, question 6:

Finally, how many of your people has this disease really killed?

 

Update 6: Amazingly, there has been an update from the Chinese government on this question. As the BBC reported, “The Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated last year, has raised its official Covid-19 death toll by 50%, adding 1,290 fatalities. … In a statement released on Friday, officials in Wuhan said the revised figures were the result of new data received from multiple sources, including records kept by funeral homes and prisons.” The BBC could not resist expressing skepticism that the “increase of almost exactly 50%” was “a bit too neat.” 

 

Quite so. Somehow or other, a virus that originated in China, the spread of which was covered up by the Chinese authorities for at least a month, has killed 38 times fewer people per million than the same disease in the United States. 

 

As I wrote two weeks ago, China has a problem. It is not The Three-Body Problem, that wonderful work of science fiction in which a Chinese scientist invites aliens to invade Earth, only for another Chinese scientist to save humanity. China’s problem is the “One Party Problem.” And as long as a fifth of humanity is subject to the will of an unaccountable, corrupt and power-hungry organization with a long history of crimes against its own people, the rest of humanity will not be safe.

 

Daniel Bell concludes his attack on me with a pious wish for “collaboration between China and the rest of the world to deal with an urgent global pandemic.” That would indeed be welcome. It would have been even more welcome in December and January, when tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved if the Chinese authorities had come clean about the novel coronavirus in Wuhan. 

 

In his most recent book, The China Model, Bell has sought to make the case for China’s system of governance. “The assumption that oppressive authoritarian rule is the key political characteristic of the China model,” he writes, is “misleading.” We should not, he goes on, “label China a ‘bad’ authoritarian regime similar in its nature to, say, dictatorships in North Korea and the Middle East,” because in reality the China model combines “democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top.” This, he says, “is both a reality and an ideal.” “Each plank of the China model,” he argues, is “morally desirable.” Moreover, “the different planks of the model can be selectively adopted” by other countries. Indeed, “China can assist other countries seeking to build up meritocratic rule.” Bell even goes so far as to claim that the Chinese Communist Party is “neither Communist nor a party,” but rather a “pluralistic organization composed of meritocratically selected members of different groups and classes [that] aims to represent the whole country. A more accurate name might be the Chinese Meritocratic Union … [or] the Union of Democratic Meritocrats.”

 

Professor Bell has the poor judgment to portray me as a conspiracy theorist. It is not only his recent scholarship, but also his apparent lack of interest in the five other questions I posed in my article, that makes me wonder what the correct term for him might be. 

 

 

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

Calling it Right: Excerpts from Niall Ferguson’s Pre-Crisis Journalism

REASONS TO WORRY (NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE)
“According to calculations published by Barron's in February, over the next two years the monthly payments on about $600 billion of mortgages taken out by borrowers in the so-called subprime market (those with checkered or nonexistent credit histories) will increase by as much as 50 percent. This is because many A.R.M.'s have two-year teaser periods to entice borrowers. After that, the meaning of ‘adjustable’ suddenly becomes (in this case, painfully) apparent. The dinosaurs, we conjecture, succumbed to global climate change. The American beast — call it debtlodocus — faces a comparable economic challenge. The global economic climate seems to be changing. We hear no more talk of deflation; we hear a lot about rising rates. For America's giant, dinosaurlike economy — with its small, wealthy head; its big, fat middle; and its long low-income tail — there is a tried-and-tested response to a change in the weather. Dollar depreciation and inflation have saved the debtlodocus before. The assumption seems to be that they will do the trick again. Yet this time may be different. For sinking like a velociraptor's fangs into the tail of the debtlodocus are interest-rate hikes that may outpace and check any increase in inflation. And no one knows when and how violently the leviathan may react to this slowly discernible pain.”
June 11, 2006
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/11/magazine/11national.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0

THE “BANKIES” AND THE “HEDGIES” GO TO WAR - BUT WHICH IS RIGHT? (SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)
“Growing U.S. household debt has been the single biggest driver of global growth in the past five years. When Americans do finally stop borrowing and start saving, the effects could be bigger than the bankies anticipate. (Fact: 29 per cent of borrowers who took out mortgages in the U.S. last year have no equity in their homes or owe more than their house is worth.) My guess is that belts are already being tightened. Certainly, consumer confidence has fallen to levels we’ve seen only twice in the past ten years.
“‘Magnitude in affairs is a valid defence for certain irregularities’: I often think of Melmotte’s motto when I walk through the West End, where the hedgies hang out. The way we live now is, of course, different in many ways from the way Trollope’s contemporaries lived. (They didn’t have Big Brother or the World Cup.) But certain things remain the same. ‘All the world knew that just at the present moment money was very “tight” in the City,’ is Melmotte’s reply when his creditors press him for payment. Thanks to the bankies and their inflation targets, money is tight again today, and getting tighter. How long before the first big hedgie is pushed over the edge? Or will the bankies blink first?”
June 16, 2006
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3625793/The-bankies-and-the-hedgies-go-to-war-but-which-is-right.html

THE WORLD ISN’T FLAT: POLITICAL RISK AND GLOBAL LIQUIDITY (MORGAN STANLEY)
Is this global moral hazard?
•Fed stands ready to pump liquidity if any asset prices fall too fast
•Asian CBs stand ready to absorb vast quantities of dollars as reserves
•Risks?
–Reigniting inflation
–Encouraging speculative behavior: everyone is too big to fail
Rest of developed world likely to follow Japan into deflationary, low growth pattern.
November 10, 2006

FRIEDMAN IS DEAD, MONETARISM IS DEAD, BUT WHAT ABOUT INFLATION? (SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)
“… monetary expansion in our time does not translate into significantly higher prices in shopping malls. We don't expect it to. Rather, it translates into significantly higher prices for capital assets, particularly real estate and equities. The people who find it easiest to borrow money these days are hedge funds and private equity firms. Through leveraged buy outs, the latter can easily acquire companies and, by improving their cashflow, boost their valuations. These guys then buy houses in Chelsea with the millions they make.”
November 19, 2006
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3634398/Friedman-is-dead-monetarism-is-dead-but-what-about-inflation.html

WHEN A BLACK SWAN LANDS ON LAKE LIQUIDITY (DROBNY ASSOCIATES)
“… It is perfectly possible to imagine a liquidity crisis too big for the monetary authorities to handle alone. As in 1914, governments would need to step in. … Federal bail-outs for the likes of Goldman Sachs may seem unimaginable to us now.  But financial history reminds us that ten-sigma events do happen. And, when they do, liquidity can ebb much more quickly than it previously flowed.”
January 2007
https://www.dropbox.com/s/zw1df3211mp38r4/When%20a%20Black%20Swan%20Lands%20for%20Drobny%2C%20Jan.%202007.pdf?dl=0

THE NEXT MELTDOWN (TIME)
“The best explanation for the good times is liquidity. Thanks to global integration and financial innovation, higher short-term interest rates have not translated into monetary tightening. On the contrary, the world economy has been swimming in credit of every conceivable kind. Money-supply figures for the U.S. understate the phenomenon because billions of dollars flow abroad every month to finance the American trade deficit. The world's central banks control about $5 trillion of reserves. This in turn has raised monetary growth rates. The total value of commercial-bank assets worldwide is close to $56 trillion, and bank loans are only one of the many forms credit now takes.
“The key question is whether something could happen in 2007 to drain away this liquidity. For most investors and policymakers, the nightmare scenario remains that of the post-1929 Depression, when a stock-market crash was followed by a spectacular wave of bank failures and a massive monetary meltdown. However, by blaming the Hungry Thirties on blunders by the Federal Reserve, we reassure ourselves that history couldn't repeat itself. Today's central bankers are smarter. But history provides an example of another liquidity crisis that went far beyond what central banks could cope with. …
“A stock-market shutdown in 2007? History warns us not to rule it out.”
January 5, 2007
http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1574140,00.html

CHIMERICAL? THINK AGAIN (WALL STREET JOURNAL)
“East Chimericans generate massive trade surpluses which they immediately lend back to West Chimerica. By channeling all these surpluses through government hands into government paper, East Chimerica depresses the key long-term interest rate in West Chimerica. And thanks to artificially low interest rates, financial and real assets in West Chimerica and its satellites are booming.”
February 5, 2007
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB117063838651997830.html

MAYBE OWNING A HOME IS NOT FOR EVERYONE (SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)
“Maybe, just maybe, not everyone is cut out to be a property owner. Maybe, just maybe, we should not be bribing and cajoling people at the margin into taking out mortgages and buying houses. And maybe, just maybe, a day of reckoning is approaching, when the costs of this policy will have to be borne not just by a minority of over-burdened households, but by everyone. … the problems in the subprime mortgage market are not confined to the borrowers alone. On the contrary, the current explosion of defaults and foreclosures threatens to set off a chain reaction extending right through the global financial system. It's not just that big banks have allowed their subsidiaries to make bad loans, though you can see some big names (among them Deutsche Bank) in the Memphis foreclosure notices. Much more serious is the way that subprime mortgage defaults can now have an impact on seemingly unconnected financial markets. The key is the way that subprime mortgage-backed bonds have been used as the underlying collateral for fancy instruments called Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDOs), which are divided into various slices or "tranches", with different credit qualities.  This is financial alchemy: using subprime mortgages to produce a top tranche of triple-A-rated securities is the equivalent of turning lead into gold.
July 15, 2007
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3641299/Maybe-owning-a-home-is-not-for-everyone.html

THIS CRISIS WILL NOT DISAPPEAR OVERNIGHT (SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)
“… the really big crises in history unfolded over months and years, not mere days. In these protracted sequences of events, there were many gloomy nights, but also many false dawns. Because hope springs eternal, people tended to attach more importance to the latter than the former, mistaking them for real dawns and blinding themselves to the underlying downward drift. I think we are in one of these protracted crises now. … The combination of tighter borrowing conditions, job losses in finance and housing, and a growing mood of pessimism among consumers could prove to be a more toxic cocktail than many investors still want to believe. … Volatility is back with a vengeance, with the market up one day and down the next. But the swing downwards will be bigger still if people start to believe that a US recession is around the corner. Nor will the pain be confined to North America. Despite all hopeful talk about the economic ‘decoupling’ of Asia from the United States, the coming year and a half may yet expose the Orient's continued reliance on exports to the Occidental consumer. If Uncle Sam has to tighten his belt, the whole world will have to breathe in.”
September 2, 2007
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3642391/This-crisis-will-not-disappear-overnight.html

BANKING CRISIS: DON’T BLAME THE CENTRAL BANKS (SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)
“The central banks are no more to be blamed for this crisis than the fire brigade is to be blamed for a blazing house. In each case, they are struggling to perform their proper role as lenders of last resort – as defined over a century ago by Walter Bagehot in his classic Lombard Street. But they are doubly constrained: first by the increasingly complicated legislation that governs their actions and, secondly, by the vast scale and complexity of global capital markets.”
September 23, 2007
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3642888/Banking-crisis-Dont-blame-the-central-banks.html

MEMO TO MARKET DINOSAURS (FT)
“The big question for our time is: are we on the brink of a ‘great dying’ - one of those mass extinctions of species that have occurred periodically in the history of life on earth, such as the Cretaceous-Tertiary crisis that killed off the dinosaurs? It is a scenario that many biologists have reason to fear, as man-made climate change wreaks havoc with natural habitats around the globe. A great dying is also a scenario that financial analysts should worry about, as another man-made disaster - the subprime mortgage crisis - works its way through the global financial system.”
December 14, 2007
https://www.ft.com/content/e23f8260-a9af-11dc-aa8b-0000779fd2ac

HOW A LOCAL SQUALL MIGHT BECOME A GLOBAL TEMPEST (FT)
“… What began as a US crisis is fast becoming a world crisis. Small wonder only a handful of global equity markets are in positive territory relative to August 2007, while more than half have declined by between 10 and 40 per cent. The US slowdown will also affect many emerging markets more reliant on exports than China. At the same time, the global slowdown is about to kick away the last prop keeping the US recession at bay. No, this is not the Great Depression 2.0; the Fed and the Treasury are seeing to that. But, as in the 1930s, the critical phase is not the US phase. It is when the crisis goes global that the term ‘credit crunch’ will no longer suffice.”
August 7, 2008
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2056a192-649e-11dd-af61-0000779fd18c.html#axzz2hpKZXOER

A LONG SHADOW (FT)
“Cheap money and deficit finance were the techniques recommended by Keynes and others in the 1930s as solutions to the problem of the Depression. They were used and abused in the 1960s and 1970s when there was no depression, with ultimately disastrous inflationary results. But can these techniques work now? So far, what they have achieved is what might be called a Great Repression. They have in effect repressed, but not cured, a depression. The question is whether, as some psychological theories would suggest, repression is a sustainable strategy or whether, at some point, the patient will come out of denial, break down and admit the terrible truth.”
September 22, 2008
https://www.ft.com/content/aeb88d8a-8800-11dd-b114-0000779fd18c

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