The last 12 months have been catastrophic for the global population, but there is a significant chunk of it who may have fared better had their political leaders handled the situation with more foresight and care. With In the Same Breath, acclaimed Chinese director Nanfu Wang makes the case that perhaps the entire pandemic could have been contained within its city of origin, if not for the mismanagement of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But while Wang does draw parallels between the conduct of Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, the latter’s approach appears to have been characterised by ineptitude and arrogance, while the former’s may have been driven by something far darker.

Wang, a US resident for the best part of the last decade, had visited her homeland last year for the Chinese New Year celebrations and faintly remembers a seemingly unimportant news story about eight medical professionals who were being punished for spreading rumours about an unknown disease. When the news finally broke that the pandemic would transcend all previous expectations, Wang revisited that story and wondered if the CCP hadn’t been suppressing the truth before the official announcement. Trawling through social media availed her of countless stories of people suffering from the virus as far back as December 1st – a full month before China officially recognised the disease.

After hiring a local film crew to infiltrate hospitals and interview medical professionals and bereaved family members, Wang noticed a worrying pattern – no one felt they could talk freely. The few whistleblowers and social media crusaders who revealed the true state of affairs were arrested or “disappeared” in frightening numbers, while the Chinese media continued to report on only the most positive aspects of the story – sometimes often using the same script verbatim. Wang then goes on to examine the US response to the pandemic, drawing unsettling parallels between the words of politicians, so-called medical experts and news readers in both her new home and her birth country.

Despite these similarities, the two countries exhibit several crucial differences. For starters, there are the underlying motivations between the attempts to downplay the crisis and Wang implies that while both were self-interested, the Chinese response was far more informed and thus more despicable. Another key difference manifests itself in the response of the public; while the Chinese population were corralled, coerced and bullied into censorship and silence, they largely complied – and many still profess their love for the CCP despite losing family members to its callous policies. Cut to footage of the US public, protesting in large numbers about their freedoms being curtailed.

Lastly, of course, we come to the largest difference between the two: the outcome. While Wang does highlight that the official death toll from the Chinese government is likely a gross underestimation, it still certainly falls far short of the world-beating totals coming from the States. The reason for that success in controlling the virus is political and ideological; Chinese adherence to the communist ideals that the interests of the collective trump that of the individual enabled it to swiftly shut down metropoles and stop the virus in its tracks. Meanwhile, the land of the free saw people continue to conduct their business as they saw fit and infection rates soar as a result. Indeed, the Chinese media were unabashed in their assertions that “the Chinese system is superior”.

When it comes to battling a global pandemic, it’s difficult to argue against that hypothesis. But at what price? The suppression of human rights? The censorship of the press? The loss of all autonomy? On the other hand, the USA proudly declares itself as the leader of the free world, but what price does that freedom demand? Half a million dead? Mass employment? And when the government and media are employing the same underhand tricks as those seen in China, can it really be called freedom? With a deft directorial hand, dogged journalistic perseverance and some truly chilling footage, Wang opens up the lids of these cans of worms and more, pointing the finger squarely at those in power for the millions of lives which have been and continue to be destroyed by the pandemic to this very day.

Screened as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021