Discontent Spreads Faster: How the Death of a Censored Coronavirus Doctor Has Inspired Political Debate in China7 min read

Last month, speaking to a crowd of avid supporters in the Wuhan region of China, General Secretary Xi Jinping sounded confident about the decade to come. He boasted about China’s ever-growing economy and fortitude as a nation. Now, only four weeks later, we realized that Xi’s confidence was shortsighted. Since his speech, the Coronavirus outbreak has grown into an epidemic, and citizens are getting restless with his response, putting numerous eyes on the Chinese Commander in Chief.

A lesser leader may have cracked, but you don’t become the leader of the world’s most populous country without being politically savvy. Xi used the teachings of his predecessors, and instead of taking a tenacious and visible battle head-on, he has faded to the shadows (Buckley, 2020). Once the virus was made public on new year’s eve, Xi handed the responsibility of handling the emergency response to his second in command, Li Keqiang. Li has become the face of the operation, travelling to Wuhan and speaking directly with doctors treating patients. Xi, however, has kept his distance; he would rather not get infected with negative press, much less the virus. Instead, he has made sparse public visits to neighborhoods in the nation’s capital of Beijing to help set up safe zones and checkpoints.

Luckily for Xi, his second in command has done an excellent job in response to the outbreak; it certainly does help to have the complete support of the world’s most powerful authoritarian regime. Emergency response teams have effectively set up quarantine zones, and the population is being properly insulated from infection. Even though the outbreak is far from over, Li’s strong-handed but logical approach to containment seems to be working, and a path to eradication is beginning to appear. The world press, at least until as of late, has responded positively to China’s handling of the outbreak (Niu, 2020). Everything was going well for Xi; it seemed as if he had skirted the negative press, and would be able to back-up his mid-January confidence.

There was, of course, a snare in Xi’s plan. It seems that chinese citizens are starting to catch onto Xi’s strategy; the same strategy that Chinese Authoritarian leaders have been using since Chairman Mao in the 50’s. Back in December, before the outbreak was made public, a fairly obscure doctor posted an astounding finding to a medical school chat room: an unknown virus has the potential of festering into an outbreak in the Wuhan region (Buckley, 2020). It is unclear whether the Chinese government knew about the coronavirus when Dr. Li Wenliang made his now famous post. One thing is clear though: they didn’t want anyone else to know about it. Dr. Li’s post was censored. As a result, containment efforts were delayed until the virus was uncontrollable, heavily worsening the outbreak, and creating the current global pandemic fears (Niu, 2020). This is, evidently, a major failure of the Chinese government, regardless of its blunderous or potentially nefarious nature. When news of this failure reached the national stage, there was certainly outrage, but nothing that the censors couldn’t erase at home. Dr. Li’s early discovery was seemingly going to be erased from history, but death has given the finding new life.

Only two months after posting about an unknown virus in a chat room, Dr. Li has passed away due to the very same virus. News of his death shocked chinese citizens. Dr. Li’s story perfectly represents how many of them feel; muffled and suffocated by a government that claims benevolence, but often harms its own citizens in efforts to save face. Chat rooms were flooded with messages of condolence, but also anger. Xu Danei, founder of a social media analytics company, says “I haven’t seen my WeChat timeline filled with so much forlornness and outrage…Tonight is a monumental moment for our collective consciousness” (Yuan, 2020).

WeChat, the Chinese social media platform that is similar to Facebook, is a major driver of the discussion about Xi’s government’s handling of the outbreak. The platform is, of course, censored by the government, but it seems the outcry over Dr. Li’s death is too big for them to stifle. In response, the Chinese Government has announced an investigation into “issues related to Dr. Li Wenliang that were reported by the public” (Yuan, 2020). Now, emboldened reporters and college professors are making the case for freedom of speech. Rong Jian, a political writer in Beijing, says “It’s a big shock to the legitimacy of the ruling party. I think it could be only second to the June 4 incident of 1989. “It’s that big” (Yuan, 2020). Jian is referring to the Tiananmen Square massacre, where the government violently silenced hundreds to thousands of student protestors; an event that has itself been censored in China to the extent that ordinary Chinese citizens do not even know what it was or that it occurred.

Maintaining Authoritarian control is not a trivial task. In order to maintain so much power over the lives of such a vast population, people need to believe their government is benevolent. Xi and his predecessors have approached this strategy aggressively, by censoring the bad and promoting the good (Esarey, 2006). Reporters, Lawyers, and Businessmen that speak out against the government are regularly expedited to prison; many never return. Online censorship is more prevalent than almost anywhere in the world. In the Northwest, Uighur muslims are being sent to re-education camps and replaced by the bus-load by more ‘educated’ citizens in an effort to maintain cultural homogeneity (BBC, 2019). People in China are not allowed to see or hear many things that the government deems threatening to its image. They are, however, constant consumers of pro-state media. Xi’s government has consolidated control of the news media, and pumps out positive stories. Ayn Rand’s fears have taken hold in China.

Dr. Li’s experience with the Coronavirus outbreak, in many ways, shows the bicameral nature of Xi’s government: the public and the private. Before the virus was made public, Xi’s government functioned as usual in it’s private manner. In order to ‘protect the state,’ Xi silenced Dr. Li’s negative news. Unfortunately, the negative news grew out of Xi’s control. Now that it’s been made public, Xi’s government has been forced into the light, and must function publicly.

As described earlier, the unfortunately delayed response has been extremely efficient, so much so that China has received praise from the World Health Organization. Within China their public persona is one of efficiency and benevolence, but under that shiny surface, the Chinese government can cause brutal inefficiencies that lead to suffering. Xi appears to care more about maintaining the image of benevolence, than actually providing it. With scrutiny becoming more and more public, the Chinese people are becoming aware that often the emperor wears no clothes.

Works Cited

Buckley, Chris, and Steven Lee Myers. “Where’s Xi? China’s Leader Commands Coronavirus Fight From Safe Heights.” The New York Times. The New York Times,

February 8, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/08/world/asia/xi-coronavirus-china.html​.

Buckley, Chris. “Chinese Doctor, Silenced After Warning of Outbreak, Dies From Coronavirus.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 6, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/world/asia/chinese-doctor-Li-Wenliang-coronaviru s.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article​.

“Censorship in China.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, February 11, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_in_China#Historical​.

Chao, Rebecca. “Why Do Chinese Billionaires Keep Ending Up in Prison?” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, January 29, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/01/why-do-chinese-billionaires-k eep-ending-up-in-prison/272633/​.

“Data Leak Reveals How China ‘Brainwashes’ Uighurs in Prison Camps.” BBC News. BBC, November 24, 2019. ​https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-50511063​.

Esarey, Ashley. “Speak No Evil: Mass Media Control in Contemporary China.” ​Freedom House​, February 2006.

“Media Censorship in China.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed February 12, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/media-censorship-china​.

Niu, Isabelle, and Tony Lin. “The Coronavirus Reveals China’s Weakness in Handling Public Health Crises.” Quartz. Quartz, February 4, 2020. https://qz.com/1796376/the-coronavirus-shows-how-badly-china-handles-public-health- crises/​.

Yuan, Li. “Widespread Outcry in China Over Death of Coronavirus Doctor.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 7, 2020. h=login-email&login=email​.

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