Tale of two doctors reveals how China controls the narrative
As coronavirus spreads, Beijing cracks down on any dissent from the party line
When China was in the grip of the devastating Sars epidemic 17 years ago, two doctors emerged as the heroes of the crisis. Jiang Yanyong, a semi-retired military doctor, blew the whistle on a cover-up of the Sars outbreak, while Zhong Nanshan was credited with discovering the virus behind the disease. Within months, Dr Jiang was scrubbed from the official record after being deemed too outspoken by the Communist party. But Dr Zhong has re-emerged this month as the champion of efforts to control the spread of the new coronavirus.
The story of the rise and fall of the two men underlines the tight control China’s leaders try to maintain over the official narrative, especially when confronting a potentially destabilising crisis such as an epidemic. This tendency to suppress bad news has only grown under President Xi Jinping, who has centralised power into his own hands since taking charge of China in 2013.said M“Whistleblowers, like Jiang, are complicated because their heroism exposes these systemic problems — in Jiang’s case a massive cover-up of the extent of Sars,” said Mary Gallagher, director for the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. Until early 2003, only a handful of Sars cases had been officially reported in Beijing. But on April 9, international media reported that Dr Jiang had leaked a letter claiming Sars had killed six people and infected another 60 at a Beijing military hospital. The revelation blew the cover off a government attempt to conceal the rapidly growing number of cases, eventually forcing Beijing to admit it had obstructed the truth about what would become a global epidemic.
While he was briefly lauded by state media as a hero, by May 2003 the Financial Times reported that Dr Jiang had been barred from talking to foreign journalists as authorities worried he was too outspoken. The FT called the 89-year-old’s home last week but was told he was unable to speak. “This space for critique is extremely fragile,” said Maria Repnikova, director of the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University. “If the crisis appears to be larger than anticipated . . . we may expect some of these spaces to shrink and more propaganda to emerge.” Dr Zhong has provided a much easier narrative for Beijing. In April 2003, his team isolated and identified the Sars virus, according to state media. The discovery was a turning point in treating patients in Guangdong province, where the outbreak had begun several months earlier. Chinese media portrayed Dr Zhong as a “white-gowned fighter” who worked until he collapsed on the job. He has enjoyed a steady rise through the Chinese health sector and was most recently appointed head of an expert panel that is helping the National Health Commission conduct research on the new coronavirus strain. China: why coronavirus is Xi's biggest crisis
The party thrust Dr Zhong back into the public spotlight when he told state television on January 20 that the Wuhan outbreak was now being transmitted between humans, making clear for the first time the gravity of the situation. The news came at a critical moment in the spread of the virus. In the following weeks, the number of confirmed cases grew rapidly, reaching 20,348 by Tuesday with 425 dead, eclipsing the 349 people killed by Sars in mainland China. By pre-empting the explosion in the number of cases with a formal announcement from an authoritative figure such as Dr Zhong, the Communist party was able to dodge accusations that it had reacted too slowly or overseen a cover-up. Dr Zhong’s outlook on the coronavirus — that it will peak within the next week — is by far the most optimistic view available from a high-profile medical professional. Most other projections put the climax of infection several months later in April or May.
There is also evidence of a crackdown on would-be whistleblowers as the coronavirus epidemic has grown. Online activists this week pointed out how Wuhan police questioned eight medical personnel who had raised concerns over Sars-like infections as far back as early January. “Under Xi, the tolerance for muckraking and whistleblowing has declined markedly,” said Peter Lorentzen, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco. He noted that social media, which did not exist during the Sars crisis, had become a perennial threat to party control.
“As I see it, the party — not just Xi — has decided that the benefits of better information and improved governance from whistleblowing no longer outweigh the cost in terms of potential destabilisation or delegitimisation.” Dr Jiang’s legacy has gradually disappeared from public record in China. In 2004, he sent an open letter to China’s premier requesting the government re-examine the Tiananmen Square massacre that saw more than 1,000 people killed in June 1989. The letter landed him in detention for a short period and has made him a permanent pariah in Beijing. His name does not appear in searches on the website of Xinhua News or other state media sites. “We can see that the state is very active in scrubbing the records online,” said Elizabeth Brunner, author of Environmental Activism, Social Media, and Protest in China. “References to these events and people should be growing but the record is disappearing.”