In a recent post, a commenter linked to an article discussing Niall Ferguson’s allegation that flights out of Wuhan had continued into February (which contradicts claims in the post.) Then the same commenter did more research and presented evidence that Ferguson was incorrect. The second link is to an article by Daniel Bell:
Ferguson continues to support his allegation even after I pointed out that the evidence he provided does not support it. That’s worrisome. Conspiracy theorizing of this sort deflects attention from what actually went wrong. And it fuels the demonization of the Chinese political system at the same time we need collaboration between China and the rest of the world to deal with an urgent global pandemic.
I checked Ferguson’s blog, and he has now acknowledged that Bell was probably correct:
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.
Ferguson obviously doesn’t think much of someone that relies on Chinese sources, but in this case Bell was correct. I often get accused of relying on Chinese sources. In fact, I do not trust either Chinese or Western sources. I view all data points as part of a mosaic. Thus when thinking about Chinese economic growth, I don’t just use the GDP figures provided by the Chinese government, I consider the changes I see with my own eyes on my frequent trips to China over the past 26 years. I also look at data from Western companies on growth in their sales in the China market, everything from VW cars to Starbucks coffee. I look at satellite data on traffic congestion in Beijing. Commodity imports. It’s all part of a complex picture that must be evaluated in a non-biased fashion.
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].
Obviously, I don’t believe this was a blunder of far reaching proportions, as I explained in this previous post. But even if I’m wrong there’s a more subtle problem here. While Ferguson doesn’t explicitly say the Chinese government is mostly to blame for this blunder, it’s likely to be the takeaway for many readers. But obviously the governments in the US and Europe are equally at fault. Flights between any two countries require the permission of both governments. And it’s not as if the whole world didn’t know about the threat of coronavirus on January 23, indeed on that very day I was in Queenstown, New Zealand going from one drug store to another looking for masks, and they were all sold out. With the possible exception of Sean Hannity viewers, almost everyone understood the problem by January 23rd.
So it’s fine to criticize the Chinese government for not closing down flights (if you think that would have helped), but not if you don’t believe western governments are equally culpable. It’s fine to criticize the Chinese government for underreporting the actual severity of the epidemic, but not if you don’t criticize western governments (except Belgium) for doing the same. It’s fine to criticize the Chinese government for lying about the epidemic, but not if you don’t criticize the US government for lying about the epidemic. The one area where China’s clearly been worse is in censorship, with legal action taken against Wuhan doctors who spoke out on the issue. In America, we merely threaten to fire doctors who honestly report on the failings of our health care system, or we fire administrators who base policy decisions on science, and who refuse to favor research on a drug merely because of political connections.
This post is certainly not a defense of the Chinese government, which deserves harsh criticism. Nor is it aimed at Ferguson, who elsewhere has criticized the response of the US government. Nonetheless, the way the post is written would lead many readers to assume that China’s errors and crimes are something special. Unfortunately, they are not.
The West needs to look in the mirror. The last thing the world needs now is a new cold war between China and the West. Ferguson has written eloquently on WWI, and knows the consequences of nationalism:
Was the Great War Necessary?