ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
China has quickly mobilized vast resources to counter a deadly new virus. It's close to finishing two makeshift treatment centers that broke ground only last week. And it's put the largest-ever quarantine zone in place, locking down more than 50 million people. But those measures happened a full three weeks after the first cases were reported, and angry residents are asking why. NPR's Emily Feng reports.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The first reports of a mysterious pneumonia-like illness began to trickle in on New Year's Eve. Online, people in the city of Wuhan began reporting suspected cases in their neighborhoods and asking for help. Wuhan's police responded quickly.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Eight people disseminating rumors have been investigated and dealt with according to the law.
FENG: Yesterday, China's supreme court published a scathing commentary, saying attempting to penalize all such rumor mongering was not only impossible but also unnecessary, a direct criticism of Wuhan's police. It's the latest tension between the local and the central governments as anger mounts at how leaders in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province handled the outbreak at first.
HU XIJIN: (Through interpreter) In balancing the pros and cons, the local Wuhan government did not judge the situation accurately at first.
FENG: Hu Xijin is the editor-in-chief at state tabloid Global Times. He's a hawkish proponent of China's government but isn't afraid of criticizing it every now and then.
HU: (Through interpreter) Some of our officials favor social stability when handling matters and will take the approach of being repressive internally.
FENG: Two weeks after doctors say they began seeing a wave of possible coronavirus cases, a famous scientist, Zhong Nanshan, visited Wuhan and confirmed. At least 14 medical staff had gotten the virus themselves. That meant...
ZHONG NANSHAN: (Through interpreter) Now we have concrete proof that shows there is definitely human-to-human transmission of the virus.
FENG: Hu, the editor, says one of the reasons behind the delay in a disclosure like that is scientists are still struggling to understand this never-before-seen virus.
HU: (Through interpreter) You have to have scientific proof first. Otherwise, anything you do is meaningless.
FENG: But Wuhan's mayor, Zhou Xianwang, put the blame on the central government in this astonishing interview this week.
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ZHOU XIANWANG: (Through interpreter) We lacked timeliness in disclosing information. As a local government official, I can only disclose this information after I've obtained approval to do so. Many people do not understand that.
FENG: China amended laws and created new ones after the SARS epidemic of 2003 to improve cooperation between the provincial and central levels. But Vivienne Shue, a professor at Oxford University who studies Chinese governance, says this tension hasn't gone away.
VIVIENNE SHUE: The central-local relationship in China is the core dynamic of how the political system works.
FENG: Beijing wants one thing - to control the virus. Provincial governments prioritized another - to keep reported incidents at a minimum because the blame is often pinned on them. And...
SHUE: The trouble is, of course, that in a system that works that way, you can only have so many high priorities at any one time.
FENG: Dali Yang, a professor at the University of Chicago, says another reason behind the virus' spread at first is timing. January is when China's provinces hold top meetings to review the year's achievements and to plan for the following year.
DALI YANG: So the local leadership had an incentive, basically, to project this air of calm.
FENG: On New Year's Eve, China's disease control center went to Wuhan to investigate the new illness. More than two weeks later, the city's mayor was still holding holiday banquets for 40,000 people and encouraging travelers to vacation in the city during the Lunar New Year holiday. Here's Dr. Yang again.
YANG: This is a vast bureaucratic system with many interests, so people have gotten into the habit very often of trying to - for example, try to censor.
FENG: Now the problem is too big to sensor, and the political system has swung in the opposite direction - contain the outbreak at all costs.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.