The Coronavirus and the Crisis of Responsibility

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


Protest pictures of Li Wenliang

Whilst the truism is that “good leaders pass the credit and take the blame,” China’s leaders do the opposite.


Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders dubiously claim responsibility for China’s economic miracle and “lifting 800 million people out of poverty.”


When it comes to the coronavirus, by contrast, responsibility is avoided like the plague. No one takes responsibility for the delayed response to the spread of the virus. No one takes responsibility for the fact that early alarms raised by medical professionals were ignored, downplayed, or, worse, quashed. No one takes responsibility for the false assertions by Wuhan’s health commission that there were no cases of infection of medical personnel or human-to-human transmission. And certainly no one is taking responsibility for the culture of incompetence, politicization, cowardice, and pathological secrecy the CCP (particularly under Xi Jinping) has encouraged within the Chinese system, which allowed things to get this bad.

When it comes to the coronavirus, responsibility is avoided like the plague.

New York Times reporter Li Yuan paints a damning picture: “Wuhan’s mayor blamed higher-ups. A senior disease control official blamed layers of bureaucracy. A top government expert blamed the public: The people, he said, simply didn’t understand what he told them.” Reporting for the China Media Project from Wuhan, “Da Shiji” wrote how, after it was discovered, the coronavirus was allowed to spread for more than 40 days before any decisive action was taken. She described the provincial and municipal governments as paralyzed by indecision, unable to present an anxious public with any plans for the future after announcing the quarantine of Wuhan. “These cowardly and incompetent governments obviously cannot take on the necessary responsibility of governing,” she concluded. “Most people in the system don’t do things to solve problems,” wrote someone else in a Chinese social media post. “They do things to solve responsibilities.” This avoidance of responsibility is apparent at the very highest levels: President Xi Jinping, who has done so much to concentrate power within his own person, has been conspicuously absent from the public eye, only appearing last week, wearing a mask, at a residential community in Beijing to discuss strategies to combat the virus. He seems to have delegated primary responsibility for handling the crisis to the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, perhaps because the latter has more expertise handling epidemics, though some have suggested another reason is so he can take the blame if the situation worsens. To the extent that blame has been accepted at all, it’s only by an unfortunate few – like Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, though he also shifted blame to the central government in Beijing, saying he couldn’t release information about the virus without its permission.

Instead, China’s leaders seem much more comfortable suppressing news of the crisis. Between January and December, Chinese censors worked to scrub references to the disease from the public sphere. Chinese authorities threatened anyone who engaged in negative coverage or commentary about the outbreak with up to seven years imprisonment. Everyone now knows about Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to raise the alarm about the coronavirus, only to be threatened into silence by the police. He later contracted the virus himself and died from it, to an outpouring of public grief at his fate and fury towards the officials who punished him for doing his duty. Last week, police detained Xu Zhiyong, a prominent legal activist, for accusing Xi of covering up the epidemic. Two days ago, China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters from the country over an unflattering headline about the virus.


This inversion of priorities stems from the CCP’s obsession with optics, something common in terrible bosses the world over, a fixation with looking good rather than doing good. This is why China’s leaders have refused badly needed aid from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. This is why, on 3rd February, Xi Jinping chaired a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee on the coronavirus, where the most powerful men in China agreed to take decisive action…to maintain a tight grip on media and public opinion. This obsession is demonstrated by those at the very top of the system and trickles down to subordinates, manifesting in the behavior we’re seeing now: shifting of the blame, shirking of responsibility, paralysis by decision makers, and lack of checks on and accountability for those on top. “A leader who spreads the blame, wrote Tobias Fredburg, Associate Professor of Management at Chalmers University of Technology, in Harvard Business Review, “who fails to accept that he or she is ultimately the one in charge, increases the insecurity of their people and lessens the likelihood that they’ll take ownership of initiatives.”


The consequences are as calamitous for a country as they are for an organization. He who keeps killing the messenger soon has no more messengers and no more messages, and so lacks adequate information to make good decisions. If blame only accrues to those unfortunate enough to be scapegoated, other culprits (particularly higher-ranking ones) are not held to account, and systemic problems persist rather than being solved, and manifest again, such that China’s response to the coronavirus seems little better than its response to SARS in 2002.

The consequences of shirking responsibility are as calamitous for a country as they are for an organization.

With a reckless US president who’s abandoning America’s global responsibilities (and a Democratic frontrunner, Bernie Sanders, who, as a populist isolationist, isn’t much better in this respect), some countries are looking to China for leadership. But world leadership means taking responsibility (and much of the blame) for almost everything, something America understood pre-Trump. When an oceanic disaster struck another country, it was the US navy that sailed to aid relief operations. When Somali pirates threatened trade routes, when North Korea went nuclear, when Russia invaded its neighbors – that was on it. Recall Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s interventions to prevent genocides in Kosovo and Libya. Recall how both these presidents were haunted by the genocides they didn’t prevent – Clinton by Rwanda, Obama by Syria – that they accepted the blame for failing to intervene in something that had nothing directly to do with their country at all.


This willingness to take responsibility is part of the terrible burden of leadership, something CCP leaders, who can’t even take responsibility for what’s happening within their own country, have no notion of. They may aspire to world leadership, but, as their mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak shows, they wouldn’t know what to do with it even if it was given to them.