For leaders, information does not want to be free - in US or China

(Note: update at February 13 - Hubei has changed the manner of identifying virus infections, and the new system overnight adds about 15,000 people to the total.  The number of deaths is also changed, but obviously the government will not go back and change death certificates from the last month.  I have no access to the statistics, only reports from Chinese of illnesses and deaths, but an increase in the total of cases seems necessary.  There were just too many stories, too close to home.  The new count coincides with the change of the Wuhan and Hubei CCP leaders.  Politically, it will now be possible to identify the crisis with the former leaders, and the end of the crisis with changes made by Mr. Xi.  This is the China wechat meme of the moment.)

We should not waste the coronavirus crisis.

Whether or not it turns into a full-fledged pandemic, surprises and lessons already have emerged that demand attention and need to be learned by Chinese -- also by America and the rest of the world.

There is no chance that lessons will be learned in China. The lessons are mostly anathema to CCP.  But the crucial lessons are there for us, too -- lessons that we must not ignore, lessons about openness to experienced advice and telling the truth. This post is mostly about China, but one can see the parallels in American politics now.

Our own recent political processes have nascent signs of copying CCP.  I comment on the China model below.  See how well it matches some political developments in the US. 

CCP leaders know the lessons.  I taught scores of them – vice mayors, organization department leaders, political liaisons, policemen urban planners and judges in Chicago, over a span of seven years.  Many are long term friends.  I know firsthand that many CCP members, midlevels and above, are smart, committed, and generous people.  They can rightfully claim an elite status based on merit. But they are caught in a system that does not value telling the truth until the leader announces it.  We are seeing that despicable system in American politics as well.  No one on the GOP side dare counter the leader. 

The operating governance model in China works for all the people - up to the point at which the values of openness threaten CCP.  We see this now in the US political system as well.  The GOP can entertain truth, until it becomes politically unpleasant. Then, the system can’t help but close in around leaders.   

That system of smart committed people in government in China is frustrated by political correctness at every level.  There is no truth, there is no openness until the senior leader announces it. For effective response in crisis, openness must permeate the government and the society, so that no one need fear retribution for speaking the truth.  We see how lack of openness failed the people in China, as it failed the people in New Orleans at Katrina or the people of Puerto Rico at Hurricane Maria.  You remember “heckuva job, Brownie.”

It is easy to trash government response in crisis.  Crises are by definition long tail events.  But the political side of government cannot hold itself out as the only purveyor of information, the only purveyor of truth or experience, particularly in a crisis.  It needs the local knowledge, local voices, local actors from within government and from outside.  The coronavirus teaches us that.  China cannot learn the lesson for political reasons.  In America, we must learn it, for, as the Washington Post tells us, democracy dies in darkness.

There are surprises coming from this crisis  - on the negative side, there is the failure of CCP under the most powerful leader since Mao to have operable crisis management plans and an effective response early enough to dull or halt the spread of the virus.  So much for meritocracy at senior levels.

On the positive side, there is the willingness of Chinese to volunteer to help. Contrary to political doctrine (and somewhat to Chinese culture), the people showed signs of learning how to depend on each other, and not the government.  And distinct from other crises, like Sichuan earthquakes, this time volunteers have their own health and lives at risk.

The lessons stem from observations -

  • A stark view of the isolation of Chinese leaders from the rest of the population by virtue of wealth and benefits.
  • Clear evidence of the perils of closing access to alternative voices - voices in the hospitals, in the local health agencies, in government agencies, in the society 
  • Clear evidence of the perils of hierarchical and rigid management in a modern society. From Confucius, heaven hears as the people hear, sees as the people see.  Heaven hears all the voices. The political side of government needs to hear them too. 


The China model

On isolation – a CCP mantra is that they Party members serve the people.  But Hubei and Wuhan citizens looking at the performances – that is the word – of the governor and mayor learned that these leaders had little sense of the severity of the nascent crisis.  They seemed as isolated from the crisis as they were from having to eat the same food as commoners or drink the same alcohol.  A people’s leader doesn’t have to read from a speech when bemoaning the deaths and exhorting people to take heart.  At the very top, Xi Jinping was absent from public view from January 28 to February 5.  He appeared on the 5th, disappeared again, and then made a public announcement about legal controls to silence dissent or public voice during the epidemic.  The silence is not Trumpian, though the uncaring certainly is. China Law Blog has a good summary of Mr. Xi's plans.

On meritocracy - Those who have promoted CCP as a model of political meritocracy should be chastened.  The US could stand a little more meritocracy in its leadership, but Isaiah Berlin was right in his essay On Political Judgment. Good political judgment is a skill - it is practical wisdom.  Vetting is important, prior experience is important, but good judgment comes from exercising it, not suppressing it. Vetting in an authoritarian system prepares one only for authoritarian values. On the home front, real estate is an authoritarian model business. The developer is far more powerful than the buyers or renters, and meritocracy never enters the picture. 

As it turns out, the political system in China spawned the Chinese Red Cross, widely thought to be corrupt.  The Red Cross is the government preferred vehicle for donations of money and supplies, but it was woefully unprepared for the crisis.  Volunteers in Wuhan tried to help distribute masks, gowns, gloves and supplies, but they soon left, discouraged at incompetence. 

A crisis, and crisis planning, demands good local information. Without crisis planning, we get the result in Hubei, modeling the old adage – authority without responsibility is tyranny; responsibility without authority is chaos.

There is disaster planning in China; there is extensive training for officials at all levels.  But the learning is blocked by the necessities of hierarchy and power maintenance.  A political response is considered far more important than effective disaster response.  Within organizations, within departments, effort is then put into not learning: preventing learning, suppressing it, corrupting it or breaking up the organizations themselves. The training can then become pointless, a version of "just do it." 

A good Chinese example is an article published just recently in the Chinese journal Management World, titled Crisis Management in the Internet Era (original in Chinese; reprinted in English at China Journal Review).  The article tells us that crises are usually predictable and the best way to prepare is to identify potential threats in advance. Ok.  That is valuable information. This was written by State Councilor Xu Xianping. 

In the US, the current version of this lack of meritocracy in crisis management is to simply deny that a crisis is possible, or to simply defund agencies. A good American example - Trump recently defunded the Global Health Security program, which provided funding to some of the world’s poorest countries to assist in health crisis research and planning.  Heckuva job, Donnie. 

It is in no particular leader’s interest to act until their own leader has acted, and that trail goes from a district health official all the way to Beijing.  The mayor of Wuhan said as much the other day – he has some information, but he can only report to his leaders.  He did not have the freedom to release what he knew.  At the same time, no one with authority wants to take responsibility.  The doctors and nurses and researchers are willing to be responsible, but they have no authority.  And no one can speak out of turn, for fear of real punishment.

On hierarchical management in a modern world – The Wuhan Center for Disease Control isolated the virus in December.  But per requirements, it could only report to its Beijing leaders.  At least a month was wasted in fumbling and denial and punishing communication, and by then the virus was well established.  When Beijing informed the World Health Organization of the new virus on December 31, it was still keeping Chinese in the dark about existence. We will see how many of the five million people who left Wuhan before it was closed down on January 23 at the beginning of Spring Festival will become ill. Alexis deTocqueville , Frederick Hayek and James Scott told us about the importance of local knowledge and local information and warned about the dangers of high management attempting to implement grand plans.  In a strict hierarchy, top leaders are truly masked from exposure to information.  Fear of the leader accomplishes the same task - looking at you, US Senate Republicans and their enablers.

On political priorities – Part of the delay in reporting to the public was the desire to not interfere with Spring Festival –a reasonable initial take. But leaders also did not want to muddy the political waters with the provincial People’s Congress meeting and the planned two meetings in Beijing in March. Now, the ham-handed approach to late remedial action – closing all movement in and out, banning private vehicles on the streets, restricting household movements to one a day – means that now people are running out of food, out of medicines for all illnesses, out of emotional reserves.  I have friends who are frightened, depressed, and feel there is nowhere to turn.  It is the realization of Camus’ The Plague.

In a hierarchical system, even simple logistics problems can become political problems.  At least a thousand doctors and nurses from other provinces, come for emergency aid to Hubei hospitals, were stuck at the Wuhan airport for three or four hours without food and without transportation.  The management decision to provide buses and food had to come from the newly organized crisis management team, formed in Hubei and in each city.  The management team would consist of political leaders, for sure, and perhaps a few other officials.  But all would defer to a direction from the party leader, and if the party leader did not express an opinion, underlings might be afraid to make a decision.   In the US, we see that the independent voices in federal agencies – it is particularly obvious at the State Department and EPA – are fleeing, to leave unqualified and political replacements in charge. 

On information management -  Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the first doctors to try to warn others of the coronoavirus outbreak, and who was punished for doing so, has died.  There is widespread outrage at his martyrdom in a just cause.  His wife, now about 8 months pregnant, is also sick, along with his parents.  At first, the Chinese media deleted all stories about his death.  CCP could learn the importance of whistle-blowers even for an authoritarian government. In one of his last statements, Dr. Li noted that there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.  His evidence is submitted to a candid world. 

Now no one knows how many people are only a little bit sick, and are sent home or never got to the hospital.  No one knows how many of those a “little bit sick” will develop the virus, or whether they just have a cold. No one knows whether sequestering those who are a “little bit sick” in large exhibition halls, several hundred to a room, will make some sicker or not.  No one knows how many deaths are not recorded.  There is no such data, and no system in place to collect it.  But recent phone conversations between a crematory director and an inspection group (sent to check on supplies and processes) provide one datum – about 35% of their cremations come from hospitals right now.  About 65% are coming directly from residential compounds.  No one knows how many of those from residences are virus related. But in normal times, one would expect very few deaths at home.  The same crematory director said that on average, they would deal with about 30 cremations a day.  On a recent day, they had about 120 bodies that had to be cremated that day, presumably due to viral infection.  There are eight crematories in Wuhan.  And the number of official deaths don't match such cremation statistics.  

On training and expertise – CCP does continuous training for officials, both technical and political.  This is a bit of a deficiency in American government, compared with that in other countries.  But the training in China cannot obviate differences in provincial education quality and local political priorities.  At least some of the difficulties in Hubei and Wuhan could be attributed to lesser quality of both leaders and officials, compared with those in more sophisticated places like Zhejiang, Jiangsu, or Shanghai. The Wuhan mayor does not have an academic university degree, only a Party School degree.  Education is not everything, but Party schools do differ, as much as a University of Michigan differs from a local junior college. In the US, only a third of the Trump cabinet and high official appointees have had public sector experience.  Most seem chosen for their conservative political views and their obvious wealth, and most certainly not because of their education or wisdom.  

The CCP mantra is a good one – serve the people.  Serving the people requires that all voices be heard.  In a rigid hierarchy with heavy censorship and punishment of those who speak out, the truth dies.  “No one should comment unless they know all the facts” – this meme has permeated Chinese culture for decades.  Since no one can ever know all the facts on any topic, this serves as a warning for people to say nothing.  “Trust the leader” has long been a political premise in China.  We have this in the US now, for people unwilling to ask questions. 

CCP could learn the peril of trying to control information in a modern world.  The Party has always been flexible, and adaptable – this is a strength.  But it runs into a conceptual wall with free flow of information.  A communist regime needs to have the Truth about everything.  Years ago, when I asked Party members about the source of truth, they told me what I already knew – the Party has the truth.  But that is a dilapidated concept hindering success in a modernizing state.  Suppression of information is a good part of what has led to the worldwide panic about the coronavirus. The flu in America kills tens of thousands each year; but we don’t panic about flu. No one trusts the Chinese government – not Chinese, not foreign governments, not foreign people. When there is no trust, and information is in great demand, the market supplies rumor and anxiety and hoarding. 

On volunteering - To volunteer is dangerous in an authoritarian state, but when lives are at risk, Chinese will plunge in.  The difference with volunteers in the Sichuan earthquakes, the Wenzhou train disaster, and other recent events is that now volunteers have their own health and lives at risk.

One wants to encourage Chinese volunteers – “The People. United. Will Never Be Defeated.”  But that is probably a bit too socialist, a bit too revolutionary for a Communist party to tolerate.  And the volunteers were never united, could not organize, and certainly would not maintain solidarity, except silently.  Mr. Xi may have to intensify strangling people’s access to information, and Chinese who complain bitterly about it will nevertheless concede.  The US Senate has conceded also, albeit without complaining much. 


Lessons from the China model

There is no chance that lessons will be learned in China. There is no chance that the crisis will destroy Mr. Xi.  If he needs to crack down harder on dissent, well, that option is always available.  Keven Rudd said more or less the same thing in a recent Project Syndicate piece.

The crisis is by far the biggest challenge for Mr. Xi in his term.  His response has been puzzling – he wants to be in charge, but does not want the responsibility, which is being passed off to the provinces and cities.  Mr. Xi will continue to lay low for the next few months, as his response has been underwhelming and citizen anger is palpable all over China.   This crisis is not Hong Kong, or Xinjiang, or Tibet.  It is not blacks or Puerto Ricans or immigrants who can be written off.  Hubei is real Chinese people, and all Chinese know that.

Over the next few months, watch for further efforts to strangle social media and expressions of outrage at the unfeeling manner in which the government is “serving the people.”  While some more expression is being permitted right now, in response to people’s outrage across China, this will end and the mask of disinformation will return. I don’t see how greater social media freedom could be permitted, but if it were to happen, it would begin with local censors, at the permission of some leader, choosing to not delete some wechat posts.  The hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech# posted response to the death of Dr. Li lasted for five hours before it was deleted Friday morning the 7th. It had more than two million views and 5,500 related posts by that time.  If a future similarly poignant post were to last for 12 hours, or 24, that would be significant.

It is not clear what will happen to the mayor and governor and Party leaders in Wuhan and Hubei.  If they were to be sacrificed, it should have happened by now.  They must all be Xi appointees by now, after seven years of Xi in power, and he may not want to simply dump them.  That might worry other Xi appointees, particularly as we approach the putative change in leadership in 2022.  The international brand of China and CCP is certainly damaged in this crisis, and world leaders, perhaps even business leaders, will be less willing to show obeisance to Xi.  The image of China as having a meritocratic and superior form of governance is certainly destroyed. The Chinese government response in this crisis will hasten the exit of foreign businesses and foreigners from China that began with the trade fiasco.  Warren Buffet reminded us that it is only when the tide goes out that we see who is swimming naked.  Chinese political governance is showing itself every bit as incompetent as the American political response to Hurricane Maria or gun violence or education failure.

The lessons are there for us, too.  Chinese students are taught from early on that positive attitude is the way to end all written schoolwork – something on the order of, “if we all work hard, tomorrow will be better.”  It is a trite formulaic ending to school papers.  What is not valued in working hard is learning to tell the truth.   Such training is unnecessary, since government will always provide the truth when it is needed.

There are two masked lessons for Americans to heed - masked because they are hidden at first glance in media and journalism.  First is that government does contain experienced, thoughtful, smart people who are committed to doing good.  To ignore them, to sideline them, is to put us all on Plato’s ship of fools. We seem committed to that path in the US now. 

Second, government always needs a counterbalancing voice, whether the Church or real political opposition or civil society or free journalism or social media or experienced and wise people in government agencies.  That alternative voice can be the voice of truth and the spur to action. Otherwise, we are all at greater risk of the unforeseen virus.  Remember the last sentence of Camus’ The Plague – paraphrasing – “the plague bacillus never dies out completely … even in happy times, it waits beneath our notice, until it decides to rouse its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

Viruses thrive when there is only one voice of authority that sees self-preservation as more important than serving the people.  That is the lesson for America and the world from the coronavirus.