It started badly, with gag orders, cover-ups and ignored offers of help from overseas, but then the Chinese government seized the narrative. It reined in the burgeoning epidemic of Covid-19 at home, and started exporting its rapidly accumulating scientific knowledge of the disease to the rest of the world. Chinese science has often been marginalised and even mistrusted in the west. But will the pandemic change its standing in the world?
“China has moved from student to teacher,” says Kate Mason, an anthropologist at Brown University in Rhode Island and author of Infectious Change, an account of how the 2002-3 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in China transformed the way the country managed public health. After Sars, she says, western experts went to China to help it put in place an evidence-based health system that was informed by international research. That system now exists, with its most visible symbol being the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing, and this time it has been Chinese experts giving instruction abroad. “It has been a good year for China,” Mason says.