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Lack of free speech has cost lives in China's virus crisis

Early technical moves in Wuhan were on track until medical professionals were stopped from spreading the word

Lack of free speech has cost lives in China's virus crisis

Tributes to whistleblower Chinese doctor Li Wenliang after his death on Feb. 7. (Photo: AFP) 

The death of Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang on Feb. 7 saw an unusually widespread outpouring of angst and anger from Chinese citizens now living fearfully in the shadows of the latest epidemic that has emerged from the world’s most populous nation.

Statistics about the coronavirus now known as COVID-19 are still unreliable because of multiple reasons including inadequate resources to test for the disease and different layers of systematic obfuscation.

But they have quickly surpassed the 2002-02 SARS epidemic, precisely what the central leadership in Beijing vowed would not happen. China’s leader Xi Jinping had pledged to contain a disease that has spread to more than 30 countries.

Unfortunately, how this happened is all too easy to understand.

In December Li had been one of the first medical practitioners to sound the alarm over COVID-19, a name dreamed up by the World Health Organisation in a vain attempt to dissociate what had become a global epidemic from China. It is course far too late for that.

Li was one of eight people detained by Wuhan authorities for spreading “rumors” — now proved to be facts — about the disease. They were released two weeks later but the damage had been done. All were later revealed to have been medical professionals.

Following Li’s death, Beijing doubled down and lost. It blocked news of his death for hours, then in the following days tried to reverse the truth as propagandists to praise his heroism. Authorities tried to stem public outrage by censoring comments that linked Li’s fate to constraints on speech.

Li’s story has underscored the deadly dangers of the ruling Communist Party regime’s censorship and its antagonistic relationship with the truth. It has exposed what many of us know to be a truism: that freedom of speech and honesty in the way that governments communicate with their citizens are essential because of several fundamentals.

It has long been acknowledged that freedom of speech and truth transparency are better for economic well-being. Markets operate more efficiently with a free flow of information, while truth engenders the trust in the system essential for contractual obligations.

Freedom of speech and the ability to choose a spiritual path or faith, whatever that may be, are also vital for our spiritual health.

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In the case of COVID-19 and diseases before it including SARS, bird flu and swine flu, censorship and a lack of freedom of speech have resulted in more deaths than would have been the case without them.

Chinese authorities trot out the tired line that its censorship of these events, as with everything that casts the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a poor light, is to stop the spread of misinformation or what these days is called “fake news.”

CCP reasoning is that fake news will exacerbate problems; that may be true but the CCP’s version of the truth is all too often silence or lies.

As infections and deaths have mounted, obfuscation over the COVID-19 tragedy has continued apace as Beijing has sought, typically and unsurprisingly, to place the the blame on Wuhan and Hubei officials. Both the city and provincial party chiefs have been sacrificed in an effort to point the blame away from the top.

Many have been keen to point the finger at President Xi Jinping due to his recentralization of power since stepping into the top job as the CCP’s secretary-general. Indeed, from the outset of the COVID-19 epidemic, the very forceful message from Beijing was that this time it was going to be different. That Beijing has this under control, that there was no need to panic.

But actions spoke far louder than words as almost the entire province of Hubei, which has a population of about 50 million, was quarantined, roads were damaged by bulldozers to stop people getting out, and people in most big cities across China, including Beijing, were not allowed outdoors without masks.

World followed CCP’s panic

There have been substantial and acknowledged technical and systematic improvements in China’s health and and medical research systems since SARS. Yet any good work has been stymied by the fact that the basic problems of lies, censorship, cover-up and finger pointing have remained startlingly similar.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from these facts is that China’s Marxist-Leninist system — with so-called Chinese characteristics — is underpinned by state-controlled propaganda that plays fast and loose with the truth.

So frightening has this experience been for the Chinese populace that for a while some very senior voices of dissent emerged in recent weeks.

On Feb 4, Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Beijing’s top-tier Tsinghua University published an online essay titled “Viral Alarm,” which squarely fingers Xi and the CCP for suppressing the discovery of the virus and punishing those trying to tell the truth about it.

This campaign of official silence, Xu writes, “served to embolden deception at every level of government.”

“No matter how complex, nuanced and sophisticated one’s analysis, the reality is stark. A polity that is blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well. How can a nation that doggedly refuses to become a modern political civilization really expect to be part of a meaningful community?”

Many judges have begun to speak out, at least on their personal internet accounts, against the system.

That leaves one question: is Beijing actually listening rather than simply hearing, and if it is can the party really do much to change itself without substantial reform?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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