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.

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