Chernobyl, Ukraine, where a nuclear disaster occurred in 1986. Photo: Creative Commons.

To have recently finished reading Adam Higginbotham’s majestic and extensive Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, perhaps the defining historical work on the event, is to be reminded of the 1986 nuclear disaster’s uniqueness, not just for the reasons leading up to it but also its effects on the Soviet Union afterward. But if a “Chernobyl moment” is to work as a historical analogy – and as something of a historical cliché – it must work through simplification.

First, that a catastrophic event was bound to happen to an authoritarian system so chronically inefficient, corrupt and untruthful. “I came to the conclusion that the accident was the inevitable apotheosis of the economic system which has been developed in the USSR over many decades,” Valery Legasov, a chief of the commission investigating the disaster and who was somewhat mythologized in last year’s HBO and Sky miniseries, wrote in an article published in Pravda just after his suicide in 1988.

Second, that the catastrophe takes place at a certain moment in an authoritarian regime’s history, amid a major political recalibration, and within a certain geography. Indeed, the Soviet Union saw many nuclear disasters long before Chernobyl, such as the explosion of the Chelyabinsk-40 in the southern Urals in September 1957.

But these either happened in remote areas of the empire where it was easy to cover up the events – unlike Chernobyl, which is situated near Ukraine’s border with Belarus, and near enough to the Baltics and Scandinavia for Sweden’s nuclear scientists to detect an explosion the day after it happened – or at a time when secrecy and cover-ups were possible.

Remember that the Soviet leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, publicly proclaimed his policy of glasnost – transparent government and administrative reform – a month before the Chernobyl disaster.  

This brings up the third instruction of the analogy, that at first the regime tries covering up the disaster but because of a commingling of scale, geography and domestic politics, it eventually has to come clean about what happened, destroying local trust.

Indeed, although the Soviets only told half the truth about what happened when they had to explain themselves at a special summit at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna a few months after the disaster, within a few years almost all Soviet citizens knew what had happened.

Soviet nuclear engineer Grigori Medvedev freely published his Chernobyl Notebook in 1989, for instance, and even had the introduction of his book written by Andrei Sakharov, the USSR’s most famous dissident, who had only just been released from internal exile. “The complete and naked truth is necessary,” Sakharov wrote.  

Gorbachev famously later claimed that that Chernobyl, more than perestroika and glasnost, his goals for transparent government, “was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was an historic turning point: There was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed.”   

But does Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus crisis – from its inactivity in December and attempts at a coverup; its rejection of outside assistance from experts from the US and World Health Organization for almost a month; its silencing of doctors; and then only a slow leak of information in January – constitute China’s “Chernobyl moment,” as has become something of a clichéd statement in recent months?

The analogy is useful. Just as the Soviet leaders in Moscow couldn’t cover up a nuclear explosion in Ukraine, communist leaders in Beijing couldn’t completely cover up the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. This, then, demonstrates frailty in the entire system; communism both in the Soviet Union and in today’s China is too centralized and bureaucratic to avert a crisis, but too weak to cover it up completely.

But it also suggests free will; Beijing had the option of transparency and openness in December, but chose against it.

The geographic and political analogies to Chernobyl also apply. Clearly, Covid-19 is now a global pandemic. It also took place during an exceptional time in China, as its economy stumbled for the first time last year, and as Beijing escalated superpower tensions with the United States.  

But the main question is the long-term impact on Beijing of the disaster. Indeed, it wasn’t obvious in the weeks and months after the Chernobyl disaster that it would have such a momentous impact on the Soviet Union. We will not know if this was China’s “Chernobyl moment” until at least 2021, if not 2022. In other words, only once the crisis is over, which isn’t yet.

At the moment, Beijing isn’t admitting responsibility. It’s trying to cover up the coverup. It’s engaged in an aggressive disinformation campaign that commingles as a positive attempt to show China as a role model for the world along with nefarious spreading of conspiracy theories that shift the blame mainly on to American labs.

The Economist spelled this out nicely in last week’s editorial titled “Is China winning?”

“A vast propaganda campaign explains that China brought its epidemic under control thanks to strong one-party rule,” the editorial stated. “The country is now showing its benevolence, it says, by supplying the world with medical kits.… Its sacrifices bought time for the rest of the world to prepare. If some Western democracies squandered it, that shows how their system of government is inferior to China’s own.”

The question of the day is whether this propaganda and disinformation campaign is indeed winning, and how Beijing responds if it fails. By most accounts, it is failing vividly in the United States, where anti-China sentiment is rising. A poll released last week by Pew Research found that two-thirds of Americans now view China unfavorably, up from 47% a little under two years ago and the highest since the pollster began asking the question 15 years ago.

It is also failing among Europeans, who in recent years looked upon Beijing more kindly than Americans. Bloomberg published an excellent article on this last week, while we are now only beginning to learn about the pressure Beijing applied on the European Union to tone down a recent report. Meanwhile, there are also suggestions that Beijing is losing support in countries like Iran and Brazil, where authoritarian governments might normally side with the People’s Republic.    

As such, it is not certain that Beijing can succeed in controlling the global narrative. It’s also quite likely that at some point, when the democratic world is over the worst of the health crisis, when their officials can begin to think about foreign affairs again, and when their politicians are looking for someone to blame, they will become far more willing to push back against China.

Even at this relatively early date (normalcy won’t return until at least mid-2021, if not later) Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne this month became the latest world politician to demand some kind of independent review into how the virus spread in China to the rest of the world.

If controlling the global narrative doesn’t work, Beijing can always fall back on ramping up nationalism at home. For instance, we are already seeing some nationalist backlash against the writer Wang Fang (pen name Fang Fang) for her Wuhan Diary, an online journal that will be published as a book in the West in June, which some Chinese consider treacherous and gives ammunition to the US to critique China. But how much this backlash is orchestrated is hard to tell.

While samizdat did spread in the months and year after the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet public could only learn about exactly what happened from 1988 onward, when state-run publications, mainly more liberal ones like Novy Mir, began reportedly extensively on the disaster, thanks in part to Gorbachev’s lifting of pre-publication censorship.

Whether there will be a similar introspection and investigation by Chinese publications about what exactly happened in those weeks between early December and mid-January in Wuhan, when news of the coronavirus was being hushed up, remains to be seen. Equally tenuous is whether the Chinese people will still believe in their government’s nationalist and conspiratorial rhetoric once the crisis nears its end, and some level of rational thought returns.

As such, a “Chernobyl moment” is really only seen in retrospect. We will have to wait until 2021, or even 2022, to know if it really has any analogy to China’s coronavirus disaster.

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno