This seeming delay was of a familiar pattern in China, one suggesting that local officials may have played down early warning signs or simply did not coordinate enough to see the problem’s scope.

While outsiders might suspect an attempted cover-up as the cause, experts see something much more worrying: weaknesses at the very heart of the Chinese system.

Its rigidly hierarchical bureaucracy discourages local officials from raising bad news with central bosses whose help they might need. And it silos those officials off from one another, making it harder to see, much less manage, the full scope of spiraling crises.

“That’s why you never really hear about problems emerging on a local scale in China,” said John Yasuda, who studies China’s approach to health crises at Indiana University. “By the time that we hear about it, and that the problem reaches the central government, it’s because it’s become a huge problem.”