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CNN Special Reports

Coronavirus: CNN's Fareed Zakaria Investigates "China's Deadly Secret". Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired May 25, 2020 - 23:00   ET




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The following is a CNN Special Report.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: China's revolutionary leader Chairman Mao Zedong. Long ago issued a famous call to arms, a single spark, he said, can start a prairie fire. Mao could not have imagined a fire like this.

KRISTE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Mysterious new cluster of pneumonia cases.


ZAKARIA: The moment when a worldwide catastrophe was born.


ZAKARIA: What did the Chinese hide?

MCNEIL: The government of Wuhan was saying shut up. Be quiet about this.

EVAN OSNOS, THE NEW YORKER: The virus was silently moving through the population.

ZAKARIA: The men who hid the truth.

OSNOS: They made it much worse for the Chinese people. They contributed to a pandemic that swept the globe.

ZAKARIA: One man who told the truth.


ZAKARIA: Whistles for a whistle-blower. Rage from a devastated people.

OSNOS: Outpouring of grief.

ZAKARIA: China's furious battle to stop the killer COVID.

MCNEIL: They used brutal measures. No question about it.

ZAKARIA: A country and a leader desperate to hold off to newfound global stature.

OSNOS: The greatest threat to their control since the Tiananmen Square uprising.

ZAKARIA: Words of praise --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I spoke with President Xi and they're working very, very hard.

ZAKARIA: -- turned to darker rhetoric.

TRUMP: You should ask China. China was very secretive, very, very secretive.

ZAKARIA: As the battle that began in China becomes a world war.

MCNEIL: Holy (bleep), this is going pandemic.

ZAKARIA (on camera): Good evening. I'm Fareed Zakaria. Once upon a time there was just one person, a single patient in Wuhan, China with a fever and a cough. How did we go from that first case to a global catastrophe? Could the virus have been stopped or slowed down?

What happened in the earliest days when doctors and local officials knew they were at war with a brand-new virus, untreatable, contiguous, deadly? This is the story of China and COVID-19. What did the Chinese government know and when did they know it?

(Voice-over) The story begins on a beautiful night last fall. The biggest celebration in China's history. The 70th anniversary of the people's Republic of China. A spectacular eruption of joy and pride and victory. For a country that had risen from third-world deprivation to dazzling first-world power in just a few decades.

OSNOS: 70 years ago China was desperately poor. It had a very low standard of living. The life expectancy was among the poorest countries in the world. Today here you are in Beijing at a moment when you are rivaling the United States for power and economic splendor.

ZAKARIA: At the center of it all President Xi Jinping, a leader with new, extraordinary powers.

OSNOS: In China today people call Xi Jinping, the chairman of everything. He and in charge of the military. He's in charge of the party. He's in charge of the state. He runs all of the most important institutions that oversee the judiciary, the press, public life, private life.

China hasn't had a leader with this much authority since Chairman Mao was alive in the 1970s.

[23:05:04] ZAKARIA: Xi rules the most contradictory land on earth. A proudly communist country exploding with hypercapitalism under a secretive authoritarian regime. In just a few weeks all of those forces would come together in a perfect storm when an unseen enemy invaded Wuhan, China.

It is mid-December when sick people begin streaming into hospitals with a mysterious illness.

MCNEIL: You don't know what your patients have. All they know is that they suddenly had a bunch of pneumonia patients and it seemed to be quite dangerous, these patients were very sick.

ZAKARIA: Wuhan is home to 11 million people, about the size of New York City and Los Angeles together. It is a gleaming modern city with dozens of shiny skyscrapers, eight-lane highways. Like much of China, the new and old are all mixed together in a tug-of-war between explosive growth and age-old customs.

Like wet markets. Some are dangerously unsanitary. With wild animals slaughtered on site. Such markets can be ideal breeding grounds for animal-to-human transmission of a virus, and some who had the mystery illness had been to that same Wuhan wet market.

On December 30th with case numbers growing, doctors at Wuhan central hospital begin to raise alarms.

MCNEIL: So these doctors started talking to each other, 27 cases of a strange pneumonia in Wuhan, China. Wow.

ZAKARIA: One of them, Dr. Li Wenliang tells a small group of doctors on social media.

OSNOS: He sent it out as an advisory to other doctors to say, hey, be on the lookout for this. Something is happening. And he asked them not to circulate the news, but of course it got out.

ZAKARIA: With rumors swirling, health officials decide to go public. December 31st, China tells the World Heath Organization about the illness. Officials claim it is not spreading.

OSNOS: The virus was silently moving through the population while the political leadership was continuing on business as usual.

ZAKARIA: The next day eight doctors are detained and interrogated for spreading rumors about the disease.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Chinese officials have arrested several people for spreading fake news online.

ZAKARIA: Then an order from the Wuhan Health Commission. Doctors cannot report new cases without approval from high-level officials.

MCNEIL: The government of Wuhan was saying shut up. You know, keep quiet about this.

OSNOS: Baked into the essence of Chinese politics is the sense that you don't air dirty laundry.

ZAKARIA: January 9th --


ZAKARIA: -- scientists have identified the illness as a new coronavirus, still, they say, it does not appear to be transmissible. This as family members of patients are falling ill.

OSNOS: Over the course of the next couple of weeks while this information was being suppressed, the virus continued to grow.

ZAKARIA: All of this is happening during the season of celebration around Chinese New Year. It is a time when hundreds of millions of people travel. It's also a time when the communist party holds important meetings and events.

OSNOS: In Wuhan they held a banquet for thousands of people, all together eating dinner in one place. It was a political pageant, and the local political leaders were determined not to disrupt the political calendar.

MCNEIL: A potluck dinner for 40,000 people to get that dinner into the Guinness book of world records.

ZAKARIA: That's right, with a virus racing through the city, local officials are trying to break a record for the largest-ever potluck dinner.

MCNEIL: Which turned into a giant super spreader event and increased the epidemic enormously. Disaster.

ZAKARIA: During this time, early to mid-January, Wuhan hospitals are filling with COVID patients, yet city health authorities report no new cases for weeks.

(On camera) Sort of shut it down at that time?

HUANG: Shut it down. There is strong incentive to keep the information away from the public.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Yanzhong Huang is a global health expert who was in contact with the Chinese CDC during the crisis.

HUANG: Evidence suggesting human-to-human transmission indeed occurring made the situation even worse.

ZAKARIA: Meanwhile, the virus becomes international news.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A mysterious pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, China.


ZAKARIA: With limited information CNN files its first report. STOUT: They've ruled out SARS. They've ruled out MERS but they don't know what it is. And one health experts that we talked to here at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says it's likely a brand-new viral pneumonia.

ZAKARIA: As the story spreads around the world Beijing gets worried. A team of Chinese CDC investigators is dispatched to Wuhan. And the team leader gets sick.

HUANG: The leader of that investigation team himself was infected. He said, had I known how serious this was, I would be more careful.

ZAKARIA: What happens next may be the most when a worldwide pandemic is born. First, a major development, the virus appears in another country.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thailand has reported the first case of the Wuhan coronavirus found outside of China.

ZAKARIA: Then a critical meeting. Top medical officials in Beijing and Wuhan hold a teleconference.

HUANG: By that time already the local governments knew their health care workers being infected.

ZAKARIA: The Associated Press obtained documents revealing that during that teleconference officials acknowledged that the virus could become a pandemic. The highest level emergency response was issued but only inside the government. It would be six more days, January 20th, before President Xi Jinping would warn the world that China had a serious problem.

MCNEIL: There is human-to-human transmission of this virus. All Chinese people should stay away from Wuhan.

ZAKARIA: Why did China's leadership wait until six days after that teleconference to tell the Chinese people and the world? In those six days tens of thousands of people travel in and out of Wuhan.

ZAKARIA (on camera): Do you think that the people, the local officials in Wuhan and Hubei, were they covering this up?

HUANG: I believe there's a cover-up going on.

MCNEIL: There's no question there was a cover-up.

OSNOS: Everything we know about the way the Chinese political system works tells us that the local government was probably a scapegoat.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The New Yorker's Evan Osnos says there is no question the crisis was handled from the top.

OSNOS: Whether or not Xi Jinping knew about it in the very beginning or whether he heard about it a few days later, I find it implausible to imagine that the central government was not aware of the epidemic from its earliest moments. The reality is that China has effectively created a system of information transfer internally, in secrecy.

ZAKARIA: Don McNeil of The New York Times sees it differently.

MCNEIL: Well, this notion that everything happens from the top that the emperor knows where every sparrow falls to me is kind of ridiculous and that has been glommed on to by the Trump administration which is desperate, desperate to shift the blame.

ZAKARIA: A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said there was no cover-up.


ZAKARIA: But whether because of fear, indecision or an instinct to suppress bad news, Beijing waited before revealing what it knew. January 21st, the first known case in America. It's on the west coast.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A man in Washington State has the same virus that has sickened about 300 people in China, killing at least six.

ZAKARIA: American intelligence services are worried. They have been warning the White House this is worse than we're being told. Donald Trump would repeatedly dismiss those concerns.

TRUMP: It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle, it will disappear.

Because of all we've done, the risk to the American people remains very low. We're working very closely with China and other countries and we think it's going to have a very good ending for us.

ZAKARIA: And as he is pushing a trade deal with China, Trump speaks of President Xi in glowing terms.

TRUMP: President Xi loves the people of China, he loves his country, and he's doing a very good job with a very, very tough situation.

ZAKARIA: Then the American President tweets to thank China for its transparency.

TRUMP: Come here, come here.

ZAKARIA: Days later one of Trump's top China trade officials would write a memo warning the virus could become a pandemic. Still Trump downplayed the danger.

January 23rd, finally the order comes down from Beijing, lock down Wuhan. Now the city where the virus began will be cut off from the world.

MCNEIL: All the flights, all the trains, all the highways, all the busses.


ZAKARIA: Crowds swarmed train stations and airports. Residents who may carry the infection are given a few hours to leave. CNN Correspondent David Culver is in Wuhan as thousands are fighting to get out.

DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This gives you an idea of how seriously people are taking this idea to leave Wuhan and get out before public transportation is strictly limited.

ZAKARIA: As the city turns into a ghost town. All hell break loose at hospitals.

MCNEIL: The people were dying. It was total chaos in the hospitals at Wuhan and that's why the numbers were so bad. They couldn't count the bodies. They couldn't test. They didn't have tests.

ZAKARIA: Western journalists have little access to what is going on inside the fight against COVID, but New York Times reporter Donald McNeil is following the crisis closely.

MCNEIL: Holy shit (bleep), this is going pandemic. It looked like what I know the beginning of a pandemic looks like, you know, chaos, terrified people, people flooding in the hospital. You want to say get out, get out, stay home. You know, you're infecting each other. I couldn't sleep that night.

ZAKARIA: Up next, whistles for a whistle-blower.

OSNOS: The decision to silence Dr. Li proved to be a catastrophe.

ZAKARIA: For a doctor who dared to tell the truth.



ZAKARIA: On December 30th an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital sent a private message in a group chat. It was an advisory to other doctors warning of a deadly and terrifying new virus.

OSNOS: He asked them not to circulate the news, but of course it got out.

ZAKARIA: Immediately it caught fire on social media.

ELIZABETH ECONOMY, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: You have a young doctor who is trying to do the right thing, and yet rather than celebrate him, the Chinese government detains him.

ZAKARIA: Chinese authorities summoned Dr. Li Wenliang to the police station in the middle of the night and interrogated him.

HUANG: He was disciplined. He was called a rumor monger.

OSNOS: He was told to keep his mouth shut. And he was forced to sign a document that described what he had done as a mistake.

ZAKARIA: Dr. Li had broken a cardinal rule in China.

OSNOS: Under Xi Jinping, the consequences for saying the wrong thing have become much harsher. The decision to silence Dr. Li proved to be a catastrophe.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everyone stop talking. Listen to me. Quiet. Don't you dare say that again!

ZAKARIA: Over the next few weeks as the disease spread across Wuhan, citizens uploaded scenes of a medical system that was completely overwhelmed.

MCNEIL: Hundreds of people lined up in hospital corridors crowding their way in. There's dead bodies on the hospital floors.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't take it anymore.

MCNEIL: People screaming. Rows of red stools people sitting on all way too close together.

ZAKARIA: Among the infected patients was Dr. Li himself.

WENLIANG: I can barely breathe.

ZAKARIA: First he was persecuted for sounding the alarm.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dr. Li Wenliang has died of the coronavirus infection.

ZAKARIA: He was killed by the same virus he bravely had tried to stop. Li Wenliang was an ordinary man who believed in the truth, his mother said. She said her son never told a lie, even when he was a child.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (speaking foreign language): Everybody wanted him to survive. Who wouldn't? What should we say to his child when he asks where his dad went?

ZAKARIA: Days before his death Dr. Li said, "I believe there should be more than one voice in a healthy society."

ECONOMY: I think that is a statement that is going to stay with the Chinese people for a very long time.

ZAKARIA: It became an anthem for a remarkable digital uprising.

OSNOS: The death of Dr. Li was the trigger for an extraordinary outpouring of public anguish.

HUANG: Any ordinary Chinese would find resonance in Dr. Li that, you know, this could be me.

ZAKARIA: They blew whistles to honor Li as a whistle-blower and a national hero. Around the world people joined the chorus.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (speaking foreign language): Hello everyone. I'm really sad.

ZAKARIA: Millions posted tributes to Dr. Li on Chinese social media.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We saw the government go and take down posts. ZAKARIA: The #wewantfreedomofspeech was briefly trending online. Remember how extraordinary that is in a country known for the largest and most sophisticated online censorship system in the world.

OSNOS: It was such an outpouring of outrage that it swamped the usual Chinese censorship system. They simply could not keep up.

ZAKARIA: The Chinese people were furious about Dr. Li's death and the initial cover-up of the severity of the outbreak.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (speaking foreign language): For us ordinary people, what use are you governments?

ZAKARIA: As the virus spread people's anger got even louder.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (speaking foreign language): Please. I beg you to leave. Step down.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (speaking foreign language): Not enough hospitals beds! Not enough medicine. All the news reported by CCTV is fake! It's fake! It's all fake!

OSNOS: There's no question the Chinese Communist Party looked at the outpouring of rage about their handling of the virus in Wuhan and saw this as the greatest threat to their control since the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989.

ZAKARIA: China, of course, famously crushed dissent with brute force at Tiananmen Square. But this time in a rare move the central government allowed for a limited opening of protests online.

OSNOS: They didn't want to clamp down entirely. They needed to maintain some kind of safety valve. Allow this outpouring of grief and rage to spill out in the relative confines of the internet. Otherwise it was going to end up in the streets.


ZAKARIA: The regime quickly turned to another tool in its arsenal, propaganda.

OSNOS: Overnight they made a switch. Instead of Dr. Li being an enemy of the state, all of a sudden he became the hero. In some ways what they did was an act of political desperation.

ZAKARIA: The Chinese government pointed out that Dr. Li was no decedent. He was a proud member of the Communist Party. The government awarded Dr. Li Wenliang one of the country's highest honors. It called him a martyr.

As China's measures to contain the virus seemed to work, a sense of national pride began to grow.

In early March with the disease seemingly under control, Xi went to Wuhan himself.

OSNOS: They wanted to create this very clear impression of this one man leading this national response against the virus.

XI JINPING, CHINESE PRESIDENT (speaking foreign language): We can definitely win this war.

OSNOS: This is the man who has led you out of harm's way. And all of the powers of propaganda and political engineering were directed to fortify the image of his leadership.

ZAKARIA: China's eventual success in containing the virus and its efforts to reframe the narrative appear to have worked within its own borders.

OSNOS: Propaganda works. People forget about the mistakes and they forgive them for the errors they made.

ZAKARIA: Coming up, the man at the center of this story.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to standing political members.

ZAKARIA: On November 15th, 2012.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: The Chinese Communist Party is about to announce a new leader.

ZAKARIA: The largest nation on earth revealed its next ruler.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Foreign Language)

ZAKARIA: A 59-year-old party official named Xi Jinping.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What can China and the world expect from the leadership of Xi Jinping?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It turned out Xi had big plans. He called for a great renewal for China. That would restore its former glory. As a great power.

EVAN OSNOS, THE NEW YORKER: He is trying to usher China into a position of being a superpower.

ZAKARIA: This was a very different message from that of China's previous leader. Since Deng Xiaoping had begun China's reforms in the 1980s, China had followed his advice, hide your light under a bushel. But that was decades ago.

Now China had become the world's second largest economy. Xi wanted his nation to take its place as a great power on the world stage. He also wanted to consolidate his own power. Which he did with remarkable ease. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The communist party official having sex with an 18-year-old prostitute.

ZAKARIA: Xi launched an ambitious anti-corruption campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's a gift from a construction company in return for contracts.

ZAKARIA: Addressing a real problem in China, handcuffed and flagged by security.

ELIZABETH ECONOMY, AUTHOR, "THE THIRD REVOLUTION": Corruption was rampant and a source of enormous societal discontent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Xi Jinping has been cleaning house on the mainland.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He made crackdown on corruption a priority.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The party says no one is immune.

ZAKARIA: Over 1 million party officials were punished.


ZAKARIA: Including the former head of domestic security, Zhou Yongkang. Along the way, the Communist Party removed Xi's term limits so he could potentially stay in power for life.

ECONOMY: He's, in some respects, creating a kind of cult of personality.

ZAKARIA: Secure at home, Xi turned outward to the world. Bringing a new aggressive attitude, that had not been seen from China in years.

OSNOS: For a long time, Chinese political leaders relied on a principle they called hide your strength and bide your time. Xi Jinping is not interested anymore in hiding his strength and biding his time.

ZAKARIA: Xi sought a new relationship with America. Of equals. His modernized military now often wins war games against the United States over Taiwan.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tensions rising again this afternoon --

ZAKARIA: And in the South China Sea --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They built airfields, ports, deployed weapons there.

ZAKARIA: -- China has been building up entire islands that house military hardware.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: China claims virtually all of it.

ZAKARIA: Expanding its reach along with its ambitions. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: China is, quote, not frightened to fight a war with the U.S. in the region.

ZAKARIA: But in order for his nation to truly be a superpower, Xi wants China to lead not only with its military might --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: China is turbocharging its bid to become a tech superpower.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dubbed China's Google.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The world's largest and fastest growing.

ZAKARIA: But also with its scientific and technological innovations.

OSNOS: A lot of technology leaders and political leaders in the west have been shocked by the pace of China's advances in technology.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the age of A.I., data is the new oil. So China is the new Saudi Arabia.

ZAKARIA: Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt predicted the Chinese could easily eclipse America in artificial intelligence by 2025.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Huawei's super fast 5G network.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Said to be up to 100 times faster than existing 4G cell sites.

ZAKARIA: China already dominates the U.S. in 5G technology.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today, a new moon is in the sky.

ZAKARIA: Many are calling China's tech renaissance a sputnik moment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Placed in orbit by a Russian rocket.

ZAKARIA: Similar to the Soviets' alarming triumph during the space race.

But as Xi's great rejuvenation, makes great leaps forward, it comes at a cost.

OSNOS: The philosophy of the economic miracle years, growth above all, making the numbers. Meant that people were willing to cut corners in terms of safety, hygiene, in ways that were very damaging and ultimately put the country at risk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Crisis levels of air pollution in Chinese cities.

ZAKARIA: China's air pollution is a toxic nightmare, killing nearly 1 million people every year. Horrific industrial accidents like this one in Tianjin, which killed nearly 200 people.

ECONOMY: Smoke still filled the air.

ZAKARIA: Are disturbingly common. Xi Jinping has tried to address these problems. But as China races forward with growth above all, the country has to deal with the fallout.

OSNOS: For a lot of people in China, they began to say, hold on, is this a bargain that we're still willing to accept? Is China's growth actually worth the risks to our health?

ZAKARIA: In 2018 China unveiled a new bio laboratory in Wuhan. The country's first level 4 facility built to handle the most dangerous viruses on earth. It was designed with help from some of France's top virologists but soon questions arose about safety at the lab. Including from U.S. officials who visited there two years ago, according to "The Washington Post."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As for the origins of Covid-19 --

ZAKARIA: The Trump administration without showing any proof --

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF THE STATE: There's enormous evidence that's that where this began.

ZAKARIA: -- claimed that the deadly coronavirus came from that lab.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What gives you a high degree of confidence that this originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can't tell you that. I'm not allowed to tell you that.

ZAKARIA: The Chinese government and the lab's lead virologist who is world renowned have vehemently denied that claim. Scientists say it is far more probable that the virus originated naturally outside of a lab. And intelligence indicates that the lab theory is highly unlikely, according to two western officials.

But the Wuhan lab is in some ways a metaphor for a new China. Technologically advanced, but raising concerns about safety. Tied to the west but now increasingly distant. It could become the spark that launches a new cold war between the two largest economies on the planet.



ZAKARIA: It is this extraordinary sight of excavators moving like choreographed dancers in the sand. That has become the face of China's fight against COVID. With record speed in just 12 days, an army of workers built not one but two hospitals from the ground up.

OSNOS: You saw the whole full force and power of the Chinese state marshalled in service of a crucial national emergency.

ZAKARIA: It's tempting to say authoritarianism alone was behind the country's containment of the virus. And while it certainly played a part, strategic planning did as well.

DONALD G. MCNEIL JR., AUTHOR, "ZIKA: THE EMERGING EPIDEMIC": This is like catching the wind in a net. Nobody's ever stopped a fast-moving transmissible pandemic in its tracks.

ZAKARIA: President Xi Jinping declared a people's war, a Maoist personal demanding that the entire country mobilize to crush the invading enemy. But remember, this is China, where crushing the invading enemy may involve measures that would not fly in a democracy.

OSNOS: They undertook these very draconian methods that Americans would not accept. The blunt fact is that the authoritarian system, the system of censorship, propaganda, control and surveillance actually helped them deal with the virus because people already have this built-in sense of surveillance in their lives. They tolerate it.

ZAKARIA: First came the mass lockdown of Wuhan. A city about five times the size of London. At the time it was the most extensive and restrictive shutdown in the history of the world. Some struggled to get food. Public transportation completely cut off. Then greater China was sealed off, over 780 million people told stay home.

Most significant, the country rapidly turned hundreds of hotels, schools and stadiums into mandatory quarantine centers.


OSNOS: Quarantine in the United States and in China mean very different things.

MCNEIL: They did use aggressive measures. You could be impolite and say they used brutal measures.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People were quickly taken away from their families to these giant gymnasiums or stadiums, apart from their family, and that is the key element.

MCNEIL: They made people go into quarantine and that saved lives.

ZAKARIA: This is the ugly side of China's approach. In this dramatic video, authorities forcefully remove people from their homes. Doctors in Wuhan say this aggressive quarantine regime was the turning point in controlling the pandemic. Another key to China's success --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Testing, testing, testing. Find the virus.

ZAKARIA: In Wuhan temperatures were taken everywhere. At the entrance to every building complex, every train station and at newly-erected checkpoints. Droves of government workers were enlisted in the effort. Sanitizing public spaces, manning checkpoints, reporting suspicious cases, acting as the watchful eye of the central government. These social controls were enforced by the government's high-tech surveillance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Drones flying over people. Reminding them to put on their masks. ZAKARIA: This is China's version of contact tracing. The country relied heavily on technology, using mobile apps to further track the movement of its people. Citizens were assigned scannable QR codes showing their risk of carrying the virus.

MCNEIL: You can't get on a subway without the app.

ZAKARIA: Green means unrestricted movement. Yellow for people with moderate risk. And red for individuals who are sick and need to quarantine for 14 days. Oxford University researchers praised China's system of digital contact tracing for achieving sustained epidemic suppression.

Western democracies such as Germany are debating whether to roll out their own versions, but they have been met with a storm of concerns about privacy and infringement of individual rights.

The trade-off between individual rights and public safety in the wake of a pandemic is one both governments and citizens are re-evaluating. Despite China's role in the initial spread of the virus, its vigilance in containing it and fighting a second outbreak has been watched and studied the world over.

Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea have already followed China's lead, but they quelled the virus without most of the authoritarian methods. Now many other countries want to do what China has already done, restart their economies and resume some sense of normal life.



ZAKARIA: Let me close with a few of my own thoughts on this incendiary topic. In order to make sense of it, we first need to ask ourselves what question are we posing? If the question is where did the novel coronavirus come from? The answer appears to be in all probability from a bat in China, though we do not have scientific proof of this as yet.

The next big question is, did China cover up the nature of the virus initially? The answer is, yes. Though when we say China, we mean the local governments in Wuhan, Hubei, which clearly did so. It remains unclear whether the central government was directing this or complicit in it.

It's also worth remembering that in the initial stages of the virus, there was little information and a good deal of incompetence in China. We tend to think of Beijing as 10 feet tall, but this episode reminds us that it makes mistakes just as easily as other governments do.

Why was China covering this up? Most likely the local officials wanted to prevent bad news from moving up to Beijing. They wanted to keep their economies buzzing, and they feared that the initial incompetence would be revealed. But it's possible Beijing was involved for similar reasons. What has been revealed in the COVID story is something that we know about China but is worth remembering. It is a dictatorship. And at its core, this means it always seeks to control information. It suppresses free speech, censors news, restricts access, all to shape a favorable narrative. It punishes whistle-blowers and dissidents routinely. It expels foreign journalists.

This report will not air in China. But leave aside journalism, Beijing has now even stopped permitting purely scientific papers on COVID to be published until they have been cleared by the Communist Party. There is no such thing as science or research that is apolitical in China. When a crisis hits, even biology must be made subordinate to the interests of the Communist Party.

But up in of this changes the fact that it had little to do with the spread of the virus around the world which would probably have happened inevitably, given the extent of travel and trade with China. It certainly has nothing to do with the spread of the virus in America.

By January 30th, Donald Trump had the following information. The WHO had declared the virus a global health emergency. Americans had been infected. His top officials had briefed him on the dangers of the virus spreading in the country, and one of his most trusted aides, Peter Navarro, had written a memo, based he said on Chinese reports warning that the virus was likely far more contagious than the flu, more like the bubonic plague or smallpox. On January 30th, Trump was asked about the dangers of a pandemic and he dismissed them.

TRUMP: We're working very closely with China and other countries, and we think it's going to have a very good ending for us.

ZAKARIA: Like the Wuhan officials in early January, Trump probably made a judgment that the virus would not be a big problem.


He said it will go away in April with warm weather, and he was worried that taking any strong actions would spook the economy or the stock market. It is those misjudgments that have significantly worsened the COVID crisis in America.

Remember, the accusation against China is that they delayed telling the world the nature of the virus for five or six days. Donald Trump delayed acting on information he had for five or six weeks. Now to deflect blame from himself, President Trump has decided to bash China. This compounds one bad policy with another.

Whatever China's mistakes, missteps and deceptions, the fastest way to defeat this pandemic would be to build a broad international coalition, get countries to pool resources, share information, and coordinate actions. China, meanwhile, has tried to scrub its own record clean by floating a conspiracy theory that the U.S. military created the outbreak in Wuhan.

At the height of the Cold War, the two superpowers of the day, the Soviet Union and the United States cooperated on a global alliance to vaccinate the world against smallpox. We are now in the middle of a global pandemic, and the superpowers of this age, the United States and China are trading insults and one-upping each other in a childish and pointless blame game that will save not one human life anywhere.

I'm Fareed Zakaria, thanks for watching.