IT’S taken some time but they’ve finally got around to giving it an official name.

Covid-19 might not have the same ominous ring to it as Spanish Flu or Ebola but there’s good reason for that according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In trying to avoid the mistakes of the past, the WHO says it is determined to end the stigmatising impact of diseases being named after a geographical location, individual or group of people.

That, no doubt, will be music to the ears of China’s ruling Communist Party, even if the coronavirus remains for now inextricably connected with the country from which it originated.

When such pandemics strike, those bodies such as the WHO that monitor and respond to outbreaks, usually rely on lessons learned from past experiences in dealing with the latest threat. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of China and its autocratic rulers.

For let’s be clear about this, the coronavirus is not the only disease stalking China right now. Up there alongside the Covid-19 pandemic is a political disease that works hand in glove to ensure the real virus continues to grip and paralyse this vast East Asian nation. I’m talking of course about autocracy.

It should really come as no surprise that history is repeating itself in China right now. The one-party state, it seems, has learned little from those days back in 2002-03 when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak was met with the usual attempt to control and suppress information.

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China’s near obsession with secrecy has always hindered the authorities’ capacity to respond quickly to epidemics. It’s long been established that the SARS outbreak could have been contained much sooner had senior officials, including the health minister, not deliberately concealed information from the public.

To be fair, though, China has progressed further than many countries in recent years in the detection monitoring and eradication of scourges that can flare up in developing regions. But in tandem with these steps forward, the country’s quasi-totalitarian regime continues to step back into the past in playing down or covering up mass outbreaks often at great human cost, as is evident with the coronavirus.

Fearful of the sort of chaos that has historically destabilised China, officials from the Communist Party of China (CPC) tend to prioritise stability, even if it means suppressing important information that, quite clearly the public and wider world in this instance were clamouring to know. The latest example of this of course is Dr Li Wenliang, the Wuhan physician who warned of the virus in an online chat room more than five weeks ago. Since then, the Chinese authorities have made him an example of what befalls those who do not comply with official demands for secrecy.

He was summoned by the authorities and forced to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an unfounded and illegal rumour. The Chinese public disagreed.

Many on social media called the doctor a martyr and hero, and even government officials, celebrities and business leaders risked rebuke by the CPC to join ordinary citizens in expressing frustration and anger.

In so doing they at times managed to circumvent China’s sophisticated censorship and propaganda systems, once again throwing into question the ultimate sustainability of an such an autocratic regime.

When the online hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech was created around the time of Li Wenliang’s death, within hours it had more than two million views and more than 5500 posts before government censors shut it down. But, yet again, here were signs that a restive Chinese public is prepared to challenge the powerful censorship apparatus of President Xi Jinping.

Despite these brave protests, evidence continues to mount that many other “dissenters” have now suffered a similar punitive fate to that of Li Wenliang at the hands of the CPC. The regime in other words is still very much in control. For years, economic growth and technological advance have been seen as potential drivers of systemic political change in China, but the reality is it has worked the other way around.

For those wondering what all this means for China’s future political trajectory or hoping the country might pull back towards the kind of limited liberalism it seemed to be moving toward in the 2000s, recent events have put paid to that.

For there’s simply no escaping the fact that more than seven years into the administration of Xi Jinping, China is now facing arguably the most restrictive domestic political environment since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown 30 years ago. Under Xi, the country’s regime seems relentlessly determined to continue undermining its own and the world’s safety, in order to bolster the CPC’s authority.

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Even long before the coronavirus, the malign nature of such a process the signs were already there.

Take the near obliteration of the country’s once robust intellectual and cultural discourse for example. Or look to the massive system of detention and surveillance in Xinjiang and sinister treatment of the Uighurs and response to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In other words, the writing has been on the wall.

The near pathological secrecy and determination to control its population and nearly all aspects of economic, political, and social life could yet still prove to be the CPC’s undoing. For the moment, though, its grip – while not absolute – is incredibly shackling politically. The West meanwhile looks on comparatively hushed, such is its interdependency on China’s economic and technological buoyancy to date, though the coronavirus might just well put a dent in that too.

Right now the battle to save lives is the priority, but the political ramifications of the systemic cover-ups of scandals and deficiencies over the outbreak are yet to come.

Above all, the coronavirus has underscored how a secretive and authoritarian culture that prioritises political stability is vulnerable. China continues to struggle with transparency and for that it will pay a price. Speaking this week, Chinese government officials were quick to denounce what they described as incidents of anti-Chinese hostility linked to the epidemic.

“I do not want to see this,” Huang Ping, China’s consul general in New York, said at a news conference. “The virus is the enemy, not the Chinese people.”

He’s right. The virus is indeed the enemy, but increasingly for the Chinese people, the country’s autocratic regime is something of an enemy, too.