Once upon a time a frog and a scorpion stood beside a river.
“Will you give me a ride across?” the scorpion asked.
“You’ll sting me,” said the frog suspiciously.
“Don’t be ridiculous, that would kill us both,” the scorpion answered.
Being a kindly and logical soul, the frog agreed, and soon they were in the middle of the river when the scorpion suddenly stung him.
“Why did you do that?!” the frog cried. “Now we’re both going to die!”
“I am a scorpion.”
It’s an old Russian fable with roots in ancient tales, and equally ancient good sense to bestow upon us sophisticated smartphone and internet types.
For the last few months I’ve had a daily ritual of scrolling through the corona news, scanning for tidbits I haven’t read yet. Sandwiched among all the stories of overwhelmed hospitals and gasping funeral homes, I’m seeing more and more preening, posturing, and finger pointing by politicians looking to deflect blame, advance pet agendas, or simply jump onto the corona star-making machine. It’s a little nauseating, honestly, so I can’t read too much. But these examples do make me all the more grateful for the governors, mayors, and health officials quietly doing their level best to lead their people to safety without hollering “Look at me, I am Amazing!” Sadly, sensible people don’t make lurid headlines, so their stories are largely unsung. Don’t worry, New York, you’re just as famous as ever.
But this is not a story about New York, or even about what has been said. It is about what was not said, and really should have been. I’m talking about China.
For months there have been rumors that the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is very close to the Wuhan wet market where it was first reported to have begun its dreadful spree. Several weeks ago, I pointed out that whether the virus came from an accident at the institute, or through natural animal to human transmission, my first priority was to deal with the situation at hand by protecting my own patch of loved ones. Accidents are part and parcel of the mortal story, so they do happen in every country of the world, no matter how advanced and clever they are. Whether the initial transmission was natural or escaped from a lab is not as important to me because the consequences to myself are exactly the same. It’s what China did afterward that has given me pause.
China’s outbreak and death toll appear to have been massively larger than they admitted, and there is strong evidence that they knew early on that the virus raced through the population via human to human transmission. They just didn’t care to share their information until after the virus had a chance to ride the world, enjoying airline food and complimentary drinks. Internet censorship started rolling in December, soon foreign journalist were expelled, unwitting whistleblowers were arrested and punished, or simply disappeared. Months later, when hoards of families were finally allowed to collect their dead, they faced a strong police presence intent on keeping anyone from photographing the colossal lines. When that strategy began to leak, families were told they had to make individual appointments to pick up a loved one’s ashes, requiring one family member to be escorted by two local government officials to ensure the bereaved couldn’t start looking around and making informal counts that could unmask the numbers of the dead. Funerary urns in their arms, many families were gruffly commanded not to mourn too much. Excessive mourning tends spill over onto the internet, leaving bread crumbs a wary world might later follow. Here I have to interject, if someone had said that to me after my mother died, badge or no, I would have knocked his teeth straight down his throat, and my sisters would have crunched his ribs to gravel!
By the time Chinese families were collecting their dead, they had to be fed a roster of lies to prop up the lies told months earlier, the ones that stopped the world from taking the virus quite as seriously as they ought, until they saw the terrible truth ravaging through Italy. By then it was largely too late. My question is, why is anyone surprised?
Does anyone remember Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward? Lots of younger Chinese people don’t know much, if anything, about it because most of the words have been neatly excised from the record, unlike the graves which still exist. From 1958 to 1962 Mao bragged about the wonderous farming output of the People’s Communes, shipping the surplus food out to the rest of the world as proof. Tragically, the magnificent surpluses didn’t actually exist, and rather than disappoint their Great Leader, local and regional officials simply took everything, leaving the people to starve. Millions perished, somewhere between 20 and 40 million, depending on who you read. We don’t have the exact numbers because it doesn’t pay to keep track of statistics that make you look bad, but 20 million people do not simply vanish without somebody noticing all the leftover shoes.
In 1962 things had begun to looked rather dim for Mao, but never fear, in 1966 he came back swinging, launching the Cultural Revolution, in which bands of militaristic youth were sent to terrorize and denounce anyone who might be so foolish as to own a Hershey bar, or a pair of western jeans, effectively crushing Mao’s opposition. Again, multitudes of people died or lived in terror, until Mao’s death in 1976, finally bringing the Cultural Revolution to an end. But here’s where things get tricky. Mao Zedong was the founder of communist power in China. Denouncing him would have left the party on shaky ground in the same way that America’s second president, John Adams, would have struggled had it been revealed George Washington was actually a vampire who had eaten 3 ¾ of the thirteen colonies. I know, they said, we’ll blame his wife! At her trial she claimed she was just his dog, like everyone else, but they executed her anyway. Then they tenderly placed Mao’s preserved corps in an enormous mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, across from the Forbidden City where his giant portrait hangs over the entrance, what with being a communist emperor and all. Sometimes the mausoleum is open to the public which files reverently through. I’ve seen him myself, and didn’t care for the pork pink light on his face. It made him look creepy.
Chairman Mao is still on all their paper money, and when we lived in China my daughter Abby’s friends would say, “I have two pink grandfathers and one green grandfather,” two hundreds, and one fifty, 250 Renminbi or $35.40. It’s just money, and the high school kids are blissfully ignorant.
One day Abby and a couple of her friends flew to Hong Kong to play for a few days, and as they were goofing around in their hotel room, they got looking at interesting things on the non-firewalled Hong Kong internet. Up popped images they did not expect. Abby’s friend started laughing. “What’s that guy doing? He’s so dumb.”
Abby was horrified. “Don’t you know?”
“What is it?”
The images were from Tiananmen Square, 1989, a lone man standing in front of tanks to stop them from dancing after firing on unarmed students and civilians who had the nerve to say “No.” Officially, the dead numbered 241, but in combing through records after the fact, the BBC reported 10,000 casualties, including those in neighboring apartment buildings, collateral damage, shot in their own homes. In the West the lone man in the black pants is known only as Tank Man, the ordinary, unknown hero, probably on his way home from work, who stood with his little white shopping bag, and made those tanks stop with nothing but a determined stare. A few photos of Tank Man got out, and he became a rallying cry in the West, but he disappeared, never to be seen again. Abby’s friend knew nothing of this.
In China there were things we weren’t allowed to discuss with Chinese nationals, and Abby didn’t know where she stood, even though they were in Hong Kong. She closed the image, and moved on, feeling unsettled. If you ask Chinese teenagers about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, they’ll either look blank, or vaguely reply that some students fired on the government, and that would be all.
In China Abby attended Dulwich College, a British high school for Chinese students where she was the only blonde in a sea of black hair. The headmaster was a foreigner, and being a history buff myself, I asked why she wasn’t being enrolled in a history course. He shifted from one foot to the other. “We wanted to,” he said, pulling a book from the shelf and handing it to me, “but this is what we’d have to do.”
I opened the book, a thick history text, and began turning pages. Black, black, and more black marker inked across so many pages that teaching it would have been like piecing together the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In Nanjing, about an hour from our home in Suzhou, the government has built a beautiful museum dedicated to the 300,000 civilians brutally slaughtered over six weeks by the Japanese invaders in December to January 1937-38. I’ve toured it a few times, and each visit broke my heart. But there are no museums to commemorate the dead of the Great Leap Forward, or Tiananmen Square. Nobody in China talks about Tank Man. Are we really shocked that China didn’t tell the whole coronastory?
Every country tells their own stories, sweeping the inconvenient bits under what by now have become exceedingly lumpy rugs. I shudder to think how many skeletons might be buried in the White House Rose Garden, or at the Casa Rosada in Argentina, or under Parliament in London. No government anywhere in the world can be depended on the tell the whole truth, especially when power, money, or prestige hang in the balance. Corrupt leaders of peoples who consider themselves free must lie more carefully, taking the Emily Dickinson approach, often catching their own feet in her subtle irony. “Tell the truth but tell it slant— / Success in Circuit lies . . . The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.”
Authoritarian regimes don’t bother with subtlety because they always hang a big sharp sword right off the end of their microphone. So far China has met with dazzling success, 10,000 dead here, 20 million there, and hardly a finger pointed. Perhaps tipsy on their growing economic power, they thought they would get away with hoodwinking the rest of the world as well. But too many mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends have been lost, many of whom might have been saved with better information. That’s assuming politicians didn’t choose to ignore it, which truthfully some probably would have. Either way the people should have been allowed to hear it, and understand for ourselves
Ironically, in trying to save face, China has seeded so much distrust that it could take years, if not decades to regain the world’s trust. But the greatest irony of all is that if China had been transparent at the beginning, telling the world its people were dying wholesale from a highly contagious respiratory disease, the world would have come running, wanting to know how we could help. It wouldn’t have been perfect because raging disease is a terrifying thing that can bring out some ugly words. However, as people worked together, phone numbers would have been exchanged, friendships forged, and partnerships begun. In time we would have all been facing the virus together. Instead they pulled out a gun and shot their own toes.
I have used China as an example, but be aware that I love China and Chinese people. History has amply demonstrated that, with a little research, a similar type of story could be written about any country on earth. This truth will continue so long as leaders think of themselves as rulers, rather than servants of the people. Perhaps those of us with uncensored history books will take the time to read them. If we do not study the stories of the past, we are certainly doomed to follow the kindly frog who was stung in the middle of the river.
“Why did you do that?!” the frog cried. “Now we’re both going to die!”
“I am a scorpion, that is my nature.”