Chinese authorities shut down early warnings about the new coronavirus – reforms should include “free speech” during medical emergencies.
By Frank Ching*
The February 7 death of a Wuhan ophthalmologist unleashed pent-up emotions in untold millions of Chinese who expressed grief and outrage over the handling of the coronavirus and how authorities treated the whistleblower after he alerted other doctors to the deadly disease.
After sending a WeChat message to medical school alumni on December 30, Li Wenliang found himself confronted by the party-controlled establishment, including Wuhan Central Hospital where he worked, the local health commission and police. Authorities pressured the young doctor into signing a police statement admitting guilt to spreading rumors that had “severely disturbed the social order.”
In the aftermath of his death from the COVID-19 virus, millions sent messages voicing grief that the man reprimanded for trying to warn others had fallen victim. Messages ranged from the simple “Dr Li Wenliang has passed away” to those calling for political change, “I want freedom of speech,” “We know the government lies” and “The Wuhan government owes Li Wenliang an apology.”
Millions more read such messages before they were censored. Hundreds of people, including leading academics, signed an online petition calling on the National People’s Congress to defend the right for free speech, which exists as Article 35 in the Chinese constitution though not in reality. So far, no apology has been forthcoming. The Wuhan municipal government within hours of his death issued a statement paying tribute to Li and extending condolences to his family.
As for the central government, no official is about to apologize. Instead, the central government sent a team from the National Supervision Commission, the top anti-corruption body, to Wuhan to “conduct a comprehensive investigation” into matters “reported by the masses about Dr Li Wenliang” without providing details.
Clearly, the central government, without saying so openly, expects to pin responsibility for mishandling of the coronavirus and Li’s early warning on local and provincial officials. Zhang Jin, party secretary of Hubei’s health commission, and Liu Yingzi, director of the commission, were dismissed. On February 13, Jiang Chaoliang, Hubei party secretary and most senior official in the province, was fired along with Wuhan party secretary, Ma Guoqiang. Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong is the new Hubei leader; Wang Zhonglin, party chief of Jinan, in eastern China, is now Wuhan’s party leader. Such dismissals are meant to be an exercise in accountability by the Chinese government. But the Chinese public is unlikely to be satisfied with mere sackings of officials. After all, Jiang, as member of the party’s Central Committee, and Ma as an alternate member, should be accountable to the 25-member Politburo and its seven-member standing committee, at the apex of which sits China’s President Xi Jinping himself.
Questions linger. How did the handling of this virus, which first appeared in early December, go so wrong? Who was in charge? Is there a problem with the system? Given China’s top-down leadership system, it was hardly credible that no one in Beijing was aware of the developing epidemic in Wuhan. Reports suggests that Xi discussed the disease with the politburo standing committee on January 7, a week before public alarms began. He also delivered a speech days before Li’s death, emphasizing the urgent need to tackle the virus. Politburo speeches aren’t often published and certainly not so soon after delivery so Xi may have felt a need to vindicate himself amid the outpouring of anger.
Xi is serving his eighth year as China’s leader, and in theory, he can rule for life. He appears to use the crisis to strengthen his control and international image. Deft propaganda messaging can only go so far, and in the long run, the epidemic could be damaging for him personally.
If nothing else, the epidemic exposes the vulnerability of the Chinese system. Local officials, it seems, are reluctant to be the bearers of bad news to the central government, which decides their promotion prospects. That may well count among the reasons for suppression of Li’s warning. Local officials fear instigating panic, but many also fear being held responsible, preferring a cover-up.
The official People’s Daily published a commentary depicting the ophthalmologist as having been on the frontline in the battle against the coronavirus and urging mourners to unite behind the antivirus effort. China, the party paper said, “needs solidarity more than ever to jointly win a battle that it cannot lose, so that its people can be protected against disaster and patients around the country can return to health.” It was a clever, if not subtle, attempt to change the narrative. Calling for unity at a time of national disaster is among the many ways that the Communist party seeks to prevent discussion of reforms or reasons for disunity.
The party, in effect, suggests that the priority is for citizens to focus on one task: containing the outbreak. Other issues must wait. But then, after the outbreak subsides, the party is likely to tighten its grip rather than to give in to demands for free speech or other reforms. The party regards control of information as a key element for maintaining its monopoly on power and will not surrender that lightly.
There is little doubt that officials in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, did a disastrous job of protecting the health of their 60 million people. They prioritized need for political control, lying about the gravity of the outbreak and doing little to prevent the disease’s spread until the January 23 lockdown.
The central government, when it acted, was decisive. From the lockdown of Wuhan on, the Chinese government kept the World Health Organization and foreign governments informed. Yet that dramatic action now seems too little, too late. According to Wuhan’s Mayor Zhou Xianwang, by then 5 million people had already left the city for other parts of the country, some presumably carrying the virus.
Local health authorities falsified – or withheld – figures of confirmed infections and played down reports of human-to-human transmissions with medical personnel being infected. The government did not institute quarantine measures and instead created circumstances for the virus to spread, holding a lunar new year potluck banquet for 40,000 families.
Even if Li’s death does unite large numbers of people behind one issue such as freedom of speech, chances are slim that China will grant that demand. For now, reformers may be better off by focusing on a narrower issue, such as free speech where medical matters are concerned. The World Health Organization praised China’s “transparency,” and perhaps the world body could advise on institutionalizing such transparency in local and provincial governments.
China, which paid a high price during the SARS outbreak, does not truly comprehend the need for transparency in health matters, a lesson that many people assumed had been learned. Ten years ago, for example, then Health Minister Chen Zhu was quoted by the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying: “SARS has taught us a very good lesson. Now we emphasize information transparency and immediate disclosure.”
Alas, that turned out not to be the case. The lessons of SARS must be learned again at a high price, with the COVID-19 death toll already exceeding that of SARS. The party’s obsession with secrecy, justified as the need for stability, still trumps the people’s need for health information. When Dr. Li sounded his warning, no deaths had been reported and the virus might have been controlled given proper government action and public awareness. The world is now on alert – with more than 75,000 cases and more than 2,100 deaths, with the disease swiftly exported to at least 25 countries.
*Frank Ching is a journalist and author of Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family. Follow him on Twitter.