Asia Pacific | FOCUS

In China, demands for more free speech outlast coronavirus lockdowns

Bloomberg

As an official’s son visiting the U.K. back in 1989, Xiao was afraid to talk about the crackdown on democracy activists in Tiananmen Square. But this January, as word spread among his friends that a Wuhan doctor had contracted the virus sweeping the Chinese city, he spoke up.

“Situation is very ill-condition in Wuhan. Take care of yourself! The case this time could be even worse than 2003,” he wrote on the messaging app WeChat, referencing the SARS outbreak 17 years earlier. Xiao wrote the message partially in English to evade official censors, as Chinese authorities still hadn’t acknowledged human-to-human transmission.

Now, the Communist Party member says he’s still angry over the local government’s attempts to cover up a disease that has now killed more than 140,000 globally, including 3,300 in China. Like many who endured the 11-week lockdown in Wuhan, Xiao believes the government must become more transparent and more receptive to the people’s concerns.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of speaking out on the right things,” said Xiao, who asked that his full name not be used. “My purpose of expressing my opinion is not to overthrow a regime. I’m not debating anyone, but hoping to make the nation stronger.”

Three months after the COVID-19 outbreak unleashed a rare outpouring of criticism of China’s government, doubts linger about how much the Communist Party’s secrecy and censorship contributed to the crisis. Even as China seeks to revive its economy under a host of restrictions meant to prevent another outbreak, some are urging looser limits on speech.

‘Clown with no clothes’

President Xi Jinping allowed some criticism of local officials during the height of the outbreak, including mass expressions of grief for whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, who died Feb. 7 after contracting COVID-19. During a visit to Wuhan on March 10, Xi told local officials to “understand, tolerate and pardon” some outbursts after the long period of quarantine.

Still, Xi has declared the party’s handling of the virus “correct” and complaints about the central government remain off limits. Outspoken property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was placed under investigation last week after he was widely associated with an anonymous article denouncing the country’s “great leader” as a “clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor.”

The risk of dissent boiling over during the outbreak-induced economic slowdown has been driven home by incidents of unrest as the government lifted lockdowns in Hubei province, which encompasses Wuhan. Dozens of small shop owners protested outside one of Wuhan’s biggest shopping malls to demand a cut in rent last week, days after violent border clashes as police in neighboring Jiangxi province tried to keep Hubei residents out.

Some prominent academics are advocating for a system that allows for more dissenting views without threatening a regime many Chinese credit with the country’s return to global wealth and power. Earlier this month, 25 scholars from the country’s so-called New Confucians intellectual movement posted an article calling for relaxing internet controls and creating a channel to allow for people to share blunt feedback with the government.

“Although the country is emerging from the disaster brought by the coronavirus plague, the trauma and pain are enormous,” wrote the scholars, including professors Guo Qiyong of Wuhan University, and Bai Tongdong of Fudan University in Shanghai. “In this process, many problems facing the state governance manifested. We hope these problems get serious reflection and are addressed.”

The self-described “moderate” scholars say that such systems have a long history in China, with Confucius more than 2,500 years ago praising a minister for opening public spaces for discussion and tolerating dissent. Invoking one of China’s most influential historical figures is intended to be less threatening to the ruling party, which early on in Xi’s tenure banned the promotion of “Western values” including multiparty democracy and freedom of the press.

In the years since, Xi has expanded controls on social media, requiring real-name registration of accounts, criminalizing the spread of rumors and punishing influential commentators with millions of followers. The Wuhan outbreak exposed the cost of such controls, with Li and several other doctors reprimanded for sharing warnings about the coronavirus infection risk in WeChat groups in late December.

‘It’s all fake’

Zhang Hai, who took his 76-year-old father to Wuhan for surgery on Jan. 17, said the army veteran who worked on China’s early nuclear program might still be alive if they had known the coronavirus was contagious before the trip. Officials wouldn’t acknowledge the threat of human-to-human transmission for another three days. By Feb. 1, his father, Zhang Lifa, was dead from complications related to the virus.

“I am very patriotic, don’t get me wrong. I very much support what the central government has done,” said Zhang, who has been fighting rules requiring him to be accompanied by officials to collect his father’s ashes. “But as for the local government — they were trying to cover up the fact in the beginning by saying this virus is containable and it’s not contagious among human beings.”

Last month, Chinese social media users defied censors by reposting an interview with Ai Fen, a whistleblowing Wuhan doctor, by posting dozens of coded versions of the text in scripts ranging from emoji to Klingon. The original link was restored the next day.

Other incidents have exposed cracks in government efforts to manage public opinion. Some occupants of a Wuhan apartment block shouted “it’s all fake” during a visit by Vice Premier Sun Chunlan in March, a protest that state media attributed to the community’s failure to deliver food to residents as promised.

‘Really pissed off’

“Some well-educated, middle-class people discovered that their insecurity is eternal under this regime, but I don’t think a majority of them want to challenge the political regime,” said Chenchen Zhang, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Queen’s University Belfast. “This time, it’s possible that the system of disease control will be reformed, but as a technocratic reform without political reforms.”

Besides replacing the party chiefs of Hubei and Wuhan, Xi’s government has censured local police who disciplined the whistle-blowing doctors. The national health commission has since honored some, including Li, as martyrs.

Xiao, the Communist Party member, said the episode showed that some in the government had forgotten that their job was serving the public. He said he was “really pissed off” when the city government asked residents to express gratitude to the party during Xi’s visit last month.

“What is the president responsible for? It’s serving the people,” Xiao said. “The government officials should offer help to the people when we are in trouble because we pay our taxes. Then, why do you want us to be grateful?”

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner