Academic dissent emerges over coronavirus outbreak

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Originally published by University World News on February 06,2020

By Mimi Leung and Yojana Sharma 

A well-known academic in China has this week criticised the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, highlighting that it has caused widespread dissatisfaction in the country.

The emergence of criticism by academics, medical personnel, and netizens silenced by the authorities for ‘spreading rumours’ could herald a new strand of political dissent with the potential to outlast the current emergency.

Anger has been further stoked by the confirmed death of a whistleblower who was one of the first doctors who tried to warn against the spread of the virus, only to be reprimanded by police.

The swift spread of the coronavirus, first detected in early December in Wuhan, Hubei province, has led to more than 500 deaths – three-quarters of them in Wuhan – and more than 28,000 confirmed cases in China, according to official figures as of 6 February. Apart from China, Asia has seen some 200 confirmed cases, with around 55 cases elsewhere in Europe, North America and Australia. Many countries have travel restrictions in place.

Wuhan has been in lockdown since 23 January. Universities and schools remain shut and the knock-on effects of travel disruption and factory shutdowns are beginning to affect economic activity in several provinces.

Tsinghua University Law Professor Xu Zhangrun published an essay online this week saying the government’s handling of the crisis had put millions of people at risk and was unprecedented in the way it has exposed institutional weakness in the country.

“The anger of the people has erupted like a volcano, and the angry people will no longer be afraid,” he wrote in the essay dated 4 February. Xu Zhangrun was stripped of his teaching position at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University in 2018 after a previous outspoken essay criticising the lifting of the two term limit for Chinese presidents which will extend Xi Jinping’s term in office.

Another prominent law academic, Xu Zhiyong, a former lecturer at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, sentenced to four years in prison in January 2014 for his role in organising a citizens’ movement in 2013, published an article on social media on Tuesday in which he urged Xi to step down for his “inability to handle major crises”, citing several examples, including the China-US trade war, anti-government protests in Hong Kong and the coronavirus outbreak.

In his latest article he said Beijing had put officials’ loyalty above competence. “The mess in Hubei is only the tip of the iceberg and it’s the same with every province,” he wrote. Xu Zhiyong also said the suppression of civil society and freedom of expression made it impossible for people to raise the alarm about the outbreak.

“All chances of public discussions have been smothered, and so was the original alarm mechanism in society,” Xu Zhiyong said of Communist Party censorship of social media posts on the outbreak.

The Cyberspace Administration of China said in a statement on 5 February that it was tightening supervision of social media. This comes in the wake of a directive two days earlier from President Xi Jinping, who said the government needed to strengthen online media controls to maintain social stability amid the coronavirus crisis, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Doctors’ silencing angers the public

Criticism has been emerging in China over the government’s handling of the crisis, particularly its slow response before it locked down Wuhan, a city of 11 million, and the surrounding areas on 23 January, effectively halting all travel in and out of the area, with the exception of a few international evacuation flights.

Zheng Jiawen, a researcher at the School of Journalism and Communication at Nanjing University, together with several Nanjing students, have focused on coronavirus misinformation on the university’s factcheck platform, analysing Wuhan health department updates issued between 31 December and 24 January. In their report published this week they identified a number of inconsistencies in the official narrative.

They noted that the health authority failed to give a “clear response” to the public on the outbreak, using ambiguous and contradictory language in their official bulletins. “We still don’t know what happened in the earliest cases” or when they occurred, their report said. “This is not just about social stability but also about the credibility of a modern government, probably the most important lesson the epidemic has taught our society.”

What has particularly caught the public imagination was the case of eight doctors reprimanded for ‘spreading rumours’. They include Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who told his medical school alumni group in a WeChat message in December that they should privately warn their families about the extent of the outbreak. The post went viral outside his circle of friends.

Li, who himself contracted the disease, and also noted the high rate of infection in health workers, was reprimanded on 3 January by local police for “spreading rumours online” and “severely disrupting social order”. He was forced to promise not to commit further “unlawful acts”, according to an interview with Li published by Beijing Youth Daily. The article was censored within hours.

“Chinese medical professionals in China tried to sound the alarm over the virus. Had the government not tried to minimise the danger, the world could have responded to the spreading virus in a more timely manner,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia.

Calls for the eight doctors to be vindicated have grown online and have even been reported in official media. As public anger mounted, China’s Supreme Court on 29 January criticised the Wuhan police for punishing the “rumourmongers”, saying they should have shown more tolerance.

Sadly, Li Wenliang, aged 34, died on 6 February. It was confirmed on 2 January that he had been infected by the virus.

Chinese Human Rights Defenders , a rights organisation, said it had documented some 254 cases of Chinese netizens penalised by the authorities in January for “spreading rumours” about the coronavirus emergency.

“The government’s draconian restrictions on freedom of information have seriously hampered early warning and rescue efforts needed to control the outbreak,” the rights group said.

In an interview with Chinese state television on 27 January, Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang admitted his administration did not disclose information on the coronavirus “in a timely fashion”. He said under Chinese law on infectious diseases, the local government must first report the outbreak to national health authorities and get approval from the State Council before making an announcement.

But in a rare admission, on 5 February Hu Lishan, deputy secretary of the Communist Party in Wuhan, said: “The public has criticised us a lot … why? It was because some of our work was not done well. What have we not done well? At present, the contradiction between supply and demand of hospital beds has remained conspicuous,” he said.

It was regrettable that a lot of the patients confirmed infected or suspected to have contracted the coronavirus were unable to receive proper treatment at hospitals, Hu said. “This problem definitely has remained unresolved.”

Hospital situation

A foreign student at Wuhan University, who did not want to give his name or country of origin, told University World News that his friends studying medicine “were already hearing from their professors who were working in the hospitals that the situation was worse than was being portrayed, in particular that it was spreading through human-human contact”.

“The professors were very angry that the authorities were not listening and that was making the situation worse,” he said. “Several professors wanted to sound the alarm but were stopped,” he added without saying who prevented them.

An Indian medical student evacuated from Wuhan University this week told local media in India that “the Chinese government first tried to hide [the extent of the outbreak]” but there has been a big backlash from their own citizens on social media, so it “is now trying to do its best”.

He referred to two fully equipped hospitals being built within two weeks in the Wuhan area. “The building of these hospitals was streamed live online and watched by millions. Donation drives were held all over the country, with money donated by both the public and companies,” he added.

But another foreign student from the Indian subcontinent, still in Wuhan, earlier this week told University World News: “Everyone is watching the building of these hospitals but Wuhan already has 10 hospitals so, even though officials did not say, we knew things must be serious if they are needing these new hospitals. It was not clear how these hospitals would be staffed, but now they are bringing medical personnel from around China to Hubei,” she said.

Completed this week, the 1,000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital on the outskirts of Wuhan has begun accepting infected patients and is run by military medical personnel. Wuhan is also converting other facilities, including a sports stadium and two convention centres, into temporary facilities for those with mild symptoms of the disease.

The student said the isolation of foreign students on campuses while Chinese students had not returned to campuses after the Lunar New Year break had meant that it had been difficult to know from their Chinese friends what was happening elsewhere.

In common with other universities in Wuhan and further afield, including Shanghai, medical colleges in Wuhan are closed and students were asked to return to their homes. Large numbers of students have been evacuated from Wuhan by their governments but some still remain.

Wuhan University teaches medical degrees and some other degrees in English which are popular with foreign students.

No start date has been announced for universities in Hubei province.


The outbreak continues to disrupt academic activities. China’s Ministry of Education announced this week that doctoral exams and the second-round National Postgraduate Entrance Examination normally held by universities and institutions in February and March would be postponed, with likely delays in decisions on masters and doctoral places.

The ministry guideline also called for the “timely release” of admissions information, to ensure “safe, stable and orderly admissions” of postgraduate and doctoral students in 2020.

No mass gatherings or large-scale exams should be held during the epidemic outbreak, said the ministry guideline, adding that local authorities, universities and institutions should adjust admissions timetables “in accordance with local prevention and control situations”.

In a separate statement last Thursday, the ministry encouraged schools and universities to use internet platforms for teaching.

In Hong Kong, with around two dozen confirmed cases by 6 February, and the first confirmed death recorded this week, the administration closed most border crossings with the mainland. The city’s publicly funded universities, with 18,000 students from the mainland and more than 100,000 foreign students, have suspended most classes until 2 March, with online courses at some universities replacing some classes.

All universities in Taiwan will remain closed until 2 March. Most were originally scheduled to reopen for the spring semester between 10 and 17 February. With a travel ban with the mainland in place, students from mainland China will not be able to enter Taiwan until after mid-February at the earliest, a date that could be extended. Mainland students make up around a third of Taiwan’s 118,000 foreign students in universities.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education will provide subsidies for institutions to design options for taking courses, such as video conferencing, Education Minister Pan Wen-chung said this week.

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