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How the Public Health Crisis Undercuts Beijing’s Global Ambitions

December 11, 2020

Yanzhong Huang, Professor at Seton University and Senior Fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations
Eliot Cohen, Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS
Andrew Mertha, Vice Dean for Faculty Affairs and Director of the China Studies Program at Johns Hopkins SAIS
The school welcomed Yanzhong Huang for a conversation on the impact of China’s public health crises. The discussion opened with Yanzhong recalling his time as a student at Johns Hopkins SAIS’ Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC), and how that led him to establish life-long friendships with Americans. He then shared insights from his book “Toxic Politics: China's Environmental Health Crisis and its Challenge to the Chinese State” and the effect of COVID-19 on public health infrastructure.
Mertha offered insights on how the conversation on China has shifted from its Belt and Road Initiative to the COVID-19 crisis. Yanzhong responded by noting how BRI is actually helping China offset its pollution by moving its most pollutant industries into other countries.
During the conversation, the participants weighed in on the level of hiding that may have taken place within China during the early days of COVID-19. Mertha noted how it was not Wuhan, but the areas around the Three Gorges Dam which had the highest case growth. Yanzhong, elaborated on these points by noting that while significant funding had been designated toward disease capacity building, low levels were actually spent in Wuhan, which is why medical officials were quickly overwhelmed in the city and the province.
As for the location of the outbreak, leaked documents that Yanzhong had reviewed had shown that the Chinese were not sure where and when the disease actually began, calling attention to the problem of information withholding throughout the chain of command. Yanzhong stated that it was the provincial officials who were shielding Beijing from the reality on the ground, and most likely for hiding the truth.
Ultimately, Yanzhong noted that the lockdown helped mitigate the virus and provide further legitimacy for the Chinese government.