Accounts about the disease started sporadically. Somewhere in China people were getting sick in unusual numbers. Then press reports started appearing. Large numbers of people were getting seriously ill along main transport axes. News of deaths soon followed. In a few months 60,000 people would die before the disease came under control. This was not Wuhan in December 2019 and January 2020; it was northeastern China from late 1910 to early 1911. The Manchurian Plague, as the incident came to be known, was the first instance of modern techniques being applied to a public health crisis in China. Lessons of transparency and transnational cooperation from that event more than a century ago are still relevant to China and the world today.
In 1910 and 1911, Manchuria was nominally under Chinese control, but years of foreign incursion saw Japan, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and others jostling for power in the region. These foreign actors blamed the Qing government, then running China, for not doing enough to stem the spread of plague. The disease was allegedly transmitted from marmots to humans and later evolved to rapid human-to-human transmission. In response, the Qing court-appointed Wu Lien-teh (伍連德), an ethnically Chinese, Cambridge-trained doctor and public health expert who was born and raised in the British colony of Penang, to fight the plague.
By Wayne Soon and Ja Ian Chong - February 12, 2020
Ja Ian Chong is Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore and a 2019-2020 Harvard-Yenching Institute Visiting Scholar. He is author of External Intervention and the Politics of State Formation: China, Indonesia, Thailand—1893-1952 (Cambridge, 2012).
The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of their institutions.