China´s Chernobyl Moment
By Mariano A. Caucino
China´s attitude towards COVID-19 is the focus of international concern due to the pandemic global development. The Communist regime is blamed for its reckless stance in hiding the disease or having delayed reporting the virus to the Word Health Organization (WHO).
President Xi Jinping warned the public on January 20 -the seventh day- but by then, more than 3,000 people had been infected during almost a week of public silence, according to internal documents obtained by the Associated Press (AP) news agency. In the six days after top Chinese officials secretly determined they were probably facing a pandemic from the new coronavirus, the city of Wuhan hosted a mass banquet for tens of thousands of people and millions began their annual trip home for the Lunar New Year celebrations.
In the absence of rule of law, checks and balances and the lack of a free press might would have made the Politburo fall into a sort of Chernobyl moment.
In April 26, 1986 an explosion in the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, fifty kilometers out of Kiev, in the then Socialist Republic of Ukraine, derivated in a huge catastophe all around the area. Some hours later, Finland detected an inmense radiactive cloud covering important parts of Ukrainian, Belorrusian and Russian territory and threatening to expand towards Western Europe. Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway reported unusually high levels of radioactivity. Compounding the catastrophe was the lack of transparency from the Soviet Union.
For some days, Moscow remained silence. No one recognized the facts. The Soviet leaderes rejected knowledge concerning the tragedy and assured that just a minor accident had taken place. Only two deaths were admitted and denied any possibility of radioactivity risks. In the first 36 hours since the accident occured, the Soviet government issued two brief statements cointaining just 250 words combined. In the fourth day after the explosion, the Izvestia -the goverment´s daily- recognized the accident. In the days that followed, the authorities refused to inform the actual scope of the drama and dismissed to lay off the Workers Day celebration (May 1) and the Victory Day Parade conmemorating the Red Army thriumph over Nazi Germany in 1945 (May 9). Soviet Citizens, however, were able to get true information through Voice of America, Radio Free Europe or by means of the effective undergroung channel of rumors that no dictatorship can avoid. Nevertheless, the Kremlin´s spokeperson reiterated that he payed no attention to hearsays driven from “anti-soviet hysteria”. On May 4, US President Ronald Reagan demanded from Tokyo, where he was attending a G7 summit, that the Soviet Union “owe the world an explanation” and that “a nuclear accident that results in contamintating a numer of states is not a simple internal affair”. At last, the Party´s daily, Pravda, acknowledged on May 9 that some Soviet reporters were conceding that some Kievans wer concerned about the accident. Five days later, party chief Mikhail Gorbachev went on nationwide television to speak about the situation. The emaciated face of the leader revealed how severely Soviet´s prestige had been undeniable damaged. Eighteen days had passed since the accident.
Chernobyl´s catastrophe had dramatic consequences to the Soviet Union. It put black on white to what extent Stalin´s Empire was a superpower, but a Third World superpower. The tragedy disclosed the material weakness hidden behind the Kremlin´s heavy walls. The socialist system was based on lies that no one believed in -neither citizens non hierarchy-, extended cinism, cronysm and a totalitarian ideology that pretended to legitimize the nomenklatura´s privileges and abuse of power. Gorbachev admitted years later that the explosion was a turning point that allowed him to accelerate his modernization programme –Perestroika (reform) and Glasnost (openness).
Some three years earlier, an almost forgotten episode had anticipated Soviet behaviour towards tragedy. On September 1, 1983, the Politburo tried to hide the shoot down of Korea Airlines flight 007 Boeing 747 scheduled from New York to Seoul with a fuel stop in Anchorage. 269 persons were killed in the air when air-to-air Soviet missiles destroyed the aircraft when due to a navigational mistake the airliner deviated from its original route and flew over the Kamchatka peninsula in Soviet territory. The Soviet missile defense system radars mistakenly confused KAL 007 with a US reconnaissance plane. This serious incidente deteriorated relations between Washington in Moscow. US Congressman Larry McDonald (D-Georgia) was among the passengers. The Soviets authorities delayed almost five days in recognizing the facts and later explained that they ignored it was a commercial flight. These lied infuriated the Reagan Administration. The Presindent called it “a crime against humanity”. Some months earlier, in his speech before the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando he had described the Soviet Union as a “Evil Empire”. Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet representative to the Washington during almost 25 years admitted in his Memoirs that the regime waited till September 6 to recognize the facts and that by that time “the permanent interests of the Soviet Union were already severely damaged”.
While this lines are written, the Chinese authorities admitted that COVID-19 deaths in Wuhan had reached a total number of 3.689, a much higher number than the 1.290 that were informed to the moment. US President Donald Trump accused China of hiding the facts. Britain, France and other western nations raised their concerns.
From Chernobyl to Wuhan, the dramatic costs of lack of transparency, hiding of information and the absence of a free press seem to repeat.
But there is a aggravating circumstance. Today facts develop in a much different stage than those of the mid-1980s. The West is not facing a declining power as the Soviet Union in 1986. Thanks to pro-market reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping after Mao´s death, China developed through an oustanding economic growth in the last four decades. Due to capitalism, China rised dizzily and become the second largest economy in the world. Some even argue it has already surpassed the United States.
But the facts derivated from the COVID-19 world pandemic are causing a severe blow to China´s soft power. The pandemic, originated in China, will reverberate in thousands of deaths and a deep recession all around the globe.
Maybe there is one lesson we can take from this misfortune. Nothing can be taken for granted and civilization requieres a continous learning. Western culture is based on a number of principles among which are human dignity, individual rights, separation of powers and the existence of a genuine free press. But the West is not alone in this world. To preserve a world order based on peace and security, it is imperative to defend Western civilization both in words and facts.
Mariano Caucino is an expert in International Relations and served as Argentine Ambassador to Israel and Costa Rica.