Is the Coronavirus Outbreak a Pivotal Moment for China?

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Originally published by Voice Of America on March 7, 2020

WASHINGTON – The death last month of China’s whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, weeks after he warned of a new, unnamed coronavirus in an online chatroom, triggered an outpouring of calls for free speech in the world’s most populous authoritarian country.

In online chatrooms, many mourned the doctor’s passing as they talked about the importance of transparency and free speech and demanded an end to the party’s ever-expanding control over all aspects of life. Some saw echoes of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, but others said the Chinese government’s heavy handed controls and massive surveillance apparatus are too effective at neutralizing dissent.

Analysts told VOA Mandarin that not only is this coronavirus moment nothing like the spring protests of 1989, but free speech in China continues to worsen despite Beijing’s rise on the global stage.

Outcry and crackdown

Days after Li’s death, Jan. 31, a sudden knock on his door awakened Su Ping. A 48-year-old who owns two financial companies and lives in Shenzhen, China’s high-tech hub, Su found police officers at the door. They told him someone had reported him for “publishing inappropriate statements online.”

The officers took Su to the police station. There, he signed a document promising, “not to publish inappropriate statements or do anything that would cause panic” in the future.

Su said the “inappropriate statement” was an open letter he signed online mourning Li’s death and calling for freedom of speech and transparency. Snatched from his home in the middle of the night, and well aware of the authorities’ ability to make him disappear, Su said he had little choice but to sign the document.

Inflection point

Authorities warned, then silenced Li Wenliang in early January for revealing the scope of the coronavirus outbreak. On Jan. 1, when Wuhan police announced that Li and seven others had been summoned for admonition, the local health authorities were reporting that there were dozens cases of “viral pneumonia of unknown causes” without obvious evidence of human-to-human transmission. By the time Li’s death was announced Feb. 7, it was clear that he was correct and authorities had wasted time.

As of Thursday, the virus has spread to at least 88 countries with more than 98,000 confirmed cases and at least 3,300 deaths globally, according to WHO. Most of the deaths, 3,045, and confirmed cases, 80,711, are in China. The majority of those are in Wuhan.  

The announcement of Li’s death unleashed a torrent of grief and anger on social media. Millions of Chinese paid tribute to him while condemning the government for valuing stability over people’s well-being.

Su signed one of the open letters, which cites Article 35 of China’s constitution.

It states that Chinese citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”

Su said he signed the open letter because, “the quick spread of the virus across the country has something to do with [the lack of] information transparency.”

“I’m a bit afraid after signing the letter … but someone has to stand up,” he said. “Otherwise, the situation will never change. If no one is willing to stand up, the whole situation will get worse.”

Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer, also signed the letter. Wang told VOA she signed, “because our survival rights are under threat. Many people are willing to stand up and speak out, even if they are scared of the possible crackdown from the government.”

Wang said that she received a warning from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice.

According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders , as of the Feb. 16 deadline for the petition that Su and Wang signed, it had only 665 signatures.

Careful courage

Lao Dongyan, a professor specializing in criminal law at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, described Li’s action on the virus as “careful bravery and courage” on her public WeChat account.

“We worry about the consequences for speaking out, we worry about punishment from work, discrimination from colleagues, or even a visit by the police,” she wrote. “To keep our jobs, we remain silent, we keep withdrawing, until we are cornered.”

She added that Li’s death made her aware that the government does not tolerate speaking out on even the most basic rights. Her post, like many others, was quickly deleted.

Chen Pokong, a U.S.-based political commentator who was a leading activist during the Tiananmen movement, described the current outcry from the public as “extremely weak” when compared to 1989 when tens of thousands took to the streets.

“After 30 years of tight control and relentless crackdown, people are scared,” he said.

Wang said today’s strict electronic surveillance makes it impossible for people to unite and stage public protests as they did in 1989.

“People are angry, but the key issue is the ubiquitous surveillance cameras and the grid management system. You look at the cameras, [they’re] everywhere. This kind of grid management control, plus the lockdown of the cities … it’s even hard for me to go out to do grocery shopping, to say nothing of going out for protests,” she said, adding that she needed a pass to come and go from her neighborhood.

One citizen, two cameras

Chinese authorities have used the outbreak to set up even more rigid controls that expand the country’s current surveillance network based on cell phones and street cameras.

A 2019 report from market research firm International Data Corporation predicts that by 2022, China will have up to 2.76 billion surveillance cameras, or two for each citizen.

Wang said that with such controls in place, she does not support protests by common people.

“I do not think it’s wise for the bare-handed protesters to go against the modern weapons systems. There is no need to do that, and you can never win,” she told VOA.

To contain the virus, China has locked down major cities and stepped up neighborhood checks nationwide. Chen said these measures serve two purposes for the Communist Party.

“On the one hand, they thought it could block the virus from spreading. On the other hand, it allows them to lock the people down, preventing them from going out on the streets and standing together,” he said.

“The lockdown of the cities may not be able to block the virus, but it efficiently separates the people, making it hard for them to organize a meaningful front to speak out about poor governance.”

Narrative control

Beyond physical controls in Wuhan and other cities, the party is controlling public opinion.

“The government has framed the narrative such that the people that are primarily taking the blame are local level officials”, said Rory Truex, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

China’s governing system is one of fragmented authoritarianism, he said, where responsibility for making and implementing policies is spread across many levels of government. This structure allows for easy scapegoating in times of crisis.

On Feb. 13, the central government ousted Jiang Chaoliang, Hubei’s highest-ranking party official, for mishandling the outbreak.

Truex added that in the West there’s a tendency to underestimate the level of support for the Communist Party itself, especially the central leadership and someone like Xi.

“If people were going to be on the street, it would have happened by now. People can be angry about something, but it’s different to go from anger to an actual social movement,” he said.

Pent-up anger

Chinese media reports focus on the people’s commitment to fighting the outbreak, the bravery of medical staff, government feats such as building a new hospital for Wuhan in 10 days, and most importantly, the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

Wang Juntao, a dissident who participated in Tiananmen, said the outbreak won’t tarnish Xi’s reputation because so many people have been brainwashed.

“The patient will say ‘Two people in our family were infected due to Wuhan mayor’s mishandling [of the outbreak], but President Xi came to our rescue,’ ” Wang said.

Still, exiled Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng told VOA that because “the outbreak has touched the bottom line … the Chinese people will eventually hold the government accountable, by means that might not be peaceful, rational and non-violent.”

“If the government makes Xi Jinping a scapegoat, that would mean something,” he said. “If the high-ranking officials are not able to do this, the pent-up anger will definitely find a way out. If you don’t release it, it will explode.”

Lin Yang and Feng Lin contributed to this report from VOA’s Mandarin Service.

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