Li Wenliang wears a respirator mask, following the coronavirus outbreak, in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media.
Fury, grief and open demands for democratic freedoms erupted in China Friday following the death of a doctor detained by police after he warned about the appearance of a new virus in Wuhan in December.
Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, 33, told friends on Dec. 30 about the emergence of a SARS-like virus. He was then detained by police for spreading rumours and, on Jan. 3, forced to sign a letter attesting that he had severely disrupted social order.
Only weeks later did local authorities begin to acknowledge the danger and severity of the new virus, which by then had spread so widely that it has now killed 637 in China, infected more than 31,000 and been confirmed in 24 other countries.
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Dr. Lis prescient early warning, and the reprisals he endured for telling the truth, made him a heroic figure in China and his death Friday became a national focal point for outrage about Chinas handling of the virus outbreak, which has distilled both the strengths and weaknesses of the countrys Communist Party-led political system.
Dr. Li was a fallen doctor, a patient wearing a ventilator, and a citizen holding up his ID card to say no to a lie. If his death still cant awaken the nation, we are not worthy to continue to live on this planet, Zhou Lian a philosopher at Renmin University, wrote on Chinas Twitter-like Weibo.
Remember February 6, urged another popular Weibo post Friday. It is our day of truth.
Others were more bold. We want democracy. We want the right to vote, one wrote.
Demand freedom of speech, said another. Todays Wuhan could be us tomorrow.
Censors deleted many comments, banishing references to the Jan. 3 letter Dr. Li was forced to sign. But the digital deletions could not fully excise the outpouring of opinion that dominated conversations following his death.
A floodgate has been opened, said Lynette Ong, a scholar of authoritarian politics at the University of Toronto.
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Rarely has so much public condemnation become so plainly visible in modern China. I do believe this is a historical moment. A structural shift is coming, and time will tell what it amounts to,” she said. It may not amount to anything this time, but everything is cumulative.
For two weeks now, Chinese officials have sought to quell the virus using the full suite of tools available to an authoritarian government after President Xi Jinping declared a peoples war on the outbreak. Chinas leaders have placed an entire province on lockdown, enforced urban quarantines in numerous cities and villages, used systems for community-level population control to enforce isolation requirements and mustered construction workers and medical professionals alike to rapidly augment health care resources.
The construction of two new hospitals in fewer than two weeks won China global praise, including from World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said: I have never seen, in my life, this kind of mobilization.
In a phone call with Donald Trump Friday, Mr. Xi said China has full confidence in its ability to defeat the virus.
The ability to concentrate resources to solve major problems is a notable advantage of China’s socialist system that has helped the country overcome major challenges over the past decades. The novel coronavirus will be no exception, the state-run Xinhua news agency said in one of two commentaries published late Thursday night.
The other, however, acknowledged that the virus outbreak is a test to Chinas strength in every respect.
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Indeed, the medical crisis has placed into glaring view weaknesses in a system where political loyalty can be more richly-rewarded than professional competence, where authorities regularly suppress unauthorized information considered a threat to social stability, where the public has little say in its leadership and where party elders have prioritized high-tech infrastructure over top-flight social services.
Warnings from low in the hierarchy even from those who hold respected positions, like medical doctors can go ignored when Communist Party governance relies heavily on orders from above, critics say.
This political system is upside down, said a Chinese political scholar, who The Globe and Mailis not identifying because of the risk of reprisal for speaking openly.
Officials dont really care about the people. They care about their superiors. Thats why they were initially very slow in their response to the outbreak. But when there is an order from above, people have to act very quickly.
Though such criticism is not new, widespread fear of the viral outbreak has made it a personal concern for much of the worlds most populous country. Locking down vast numbers of people has left a population with little to do but stew over what has gone wrong.
The national reach of lockdown measures has elevated the virus crisis beyond past moments of public anxiety, including the crash of a high-speed train at Wenzhou, the devastating Sichuan earthquake or deadly industrial accidents.
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The emergence of the virus also follows a recent series of major challenges to Chinese leadership.
Its the accumulation of so many crises: the trade war with the United States, the Hong Kong movement, the victory of Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan and, most importantly, the downturn of the economy, said Feng Chongyi, a scholar at Australias University of Technology Sydney who studies contemporary Chinese history.
Widespread belief that an initial government coverup delayed a proper medical response has only provided new grounds to question official competence, he said.
Pork is too expensive, corruption and bullying are as common as always, air and water are not getting any cleaner, and you can go broke if you get sick. The coronavirus provides a focus for pent-up resentments of several kinds, said Perry Link, a prominent China scholar at the University of California, Riverside.
Though it boasts the worlds most impressive installation of bullet trains, mega-bridges and airports, China ranks 82nd in the world in per-capita spending on health care, lagging countries like Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Russia and South Africa.
But Beijing has long proven adept at shifting blame to lower levels of governance. Public anger has been trained at officials in Wuhan, where the mayor famously said he was not initially authorized to discuss the virus, and where local health authorities said they had no evidence of person-to-person transmission even when doctors and nurses were falling sick.
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On Friday, the National Supervisory Commission, the countrys feared disciplinary inspectors, said they would dispatch a team to Wuhan to investigate problems reported by the public concerning Dr. Li Wenliang.
There is systemic local anger, said Shaun Rein, an expert in consumer behaviour who is founder of China Market Research Group. The feeling is if people had listened to this doctor who was trying to help the country, then maybe he would still be alive and maybe we wouldnt be in this situation.
At the same time, people are very proud that the central government has blockaded people and are doing the right thing for the country, he said.
Still, Beijing stands at a delicate precipice. If its unprecedented response measures fail to slow the epidemic spread or limit the human and economic toll of the virus, public indignation threatens an erosion of trust in its capability to rule.
For the party, as for the public in fear of the virus, it is a race against time.
I do see people getting truly frustrated. We have situations where parents are under quarantine elsewhere and the child is the only person at home. Its really a humanitarian crisis for many, said Dali Yang, a political scientist who specializes in China at the University of Chicago.
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But if those are actually dealt with in the reasonable short-term, then people will have a sigh of relief and, of course, credit the government with a significant response.
-With reporting by Alexandra Li
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