Another reason to think Xi did not know is that he would have every incentive to act quickly given China’s experience with SARS, during which he was already a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Both SARS and the Wuhan virus (which causes the disease now dubbed COVID-19) are zoonotic coronaviruses, with similar origins and pandemic potential. SARS was contained, though barely, and not before significant economic costs following a failed cover-up. Such an experience should have made it clear that cover-ups are futile when it comes to pandemics, because viruses don’t respect borders. (The Soviet Union learned that radiation doesn’t either, when Sweden alerted the world to the Chernobyl accident.)
It’s hard to imagine that a leader of Xi’s experience would be so lax as to let the disease spread freely for almost two months, only to turn around and shut the whole country down practically overnight.
In many ways, his hand was forced by his own system. Under the conditions of massive surveillance and censorship that have grown under Xi, the central government likely had little to no signals besides official reports to detect, such as online public conversations about the mystery pneumonia. In contrast, during the SARS epidemic, some of the earliest signs were online conversations and rumors in China about a flu outbreak. These were picked up by the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, who alerted the World Health Organization, who then started pressuring China to come clean, which finally triggered successful containment efforts.
If people are too afraid to talk, and if punishing people for “rumors” becomes the norm, a doctor punished for spreading news of a disease in one province becomes just another day, rather than an indication of impending crisis. Later, under criticism, Xi would say he gave instructions for fighting the virus as early as January 7, implying that he knew about it all along. But how could he admit the alternative? This is his system.
Contrary to common belief, the killer digital app for authoritarianism isn’t listening in on people through increased surveillance, but listening to them as they express their honest opinions, especially complaints. An Orwellian surveillance-based system would be overwhelming and repressive, as it is now in China, but it would also be similar to losing sensation in parts of one’s body due to nerve injuries. Without the pain to warn the brain, the hand stays on the hot stove, unaware of the damage to the flesh until it’s too late.
During the Ming dynasty, Emperor Zhu Di found out that some petitions to the emperor had not made it to him, because officials were blocking them. He was alarmed and ordered such blocks removed. “Stability depends on superior and inferior communicating; there is none when they do not. From ancient times, many a state has fallen because a ruler did not know the affairs of the people,” he said. Xi would have done well to take note.