A sunshine of truth in China’s health scare

Compared with its reaction in past outbreaks of disease, Beijing shows a new willingness to adopt transparency as a rule for governance – and for social stability.

Health officials in Malaysia's international airport check arriving passengers for health conditions.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization will weigh whether to declare a global health emergency over the rapid spread of a virus that originated in China. Compared with a similar outbreak in 2002-03, known as the SARS epidemic, this time WHO has far more information from China’s tight-lipped rulers to make its decision.

The reason? Beijing is slowly learning that transparency in governance can create a stable and safe society, not threaten it.

International health experts give cautious praise for China’s quick response to this latest outbreak, which began in early December in the central city of Wuhan. In China, too, an official commentary explains why transparency on health scares is so important:

“Only by making information public can [we] reduce fear,” it said. “People don’t live in a vacuum and [we] will only provide a breeding ground for rumors to grow if we keep them in the dark and strip them of their right to [know] the truth.”

During the SARS epidemic, authorities hid the victims and denied the spread of the virus for months. Nearly 800 people died in a number of countries while the international scare slowed Asia’s economy. The loss of trust in China’s ruling Communist Party led it to rethink the secrecy that pervades official information, a result of the party’s own fears for its survival.

That struggle for openness continues. Under the personality cult that has developed around President Xi Jinping since 2012, China lacks the normal tools of democracy to hold the party accountable. Changes in governance are often forced on it by the rest of the world, such as in improving the accuracy of financial data or the independence of patent-court judges.

As China becomes even more reliant on the judgment of other nations – such as in its infrastructure investments – its leaders will realize transparency in governance is its own form of power. During a health crisis, openness acts like sunshine, offering reassurance and allowing swifter solutions.

The elements of democracy are not a luxury. They also help cure what ails society.

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