"There should be more than one voice in a healthy society." This statement from Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor whose death unleashed a storm on Chinese social networks on the night of February 7, made the headline on Caixin’s international site (though not its Chinese version), the best Chinese media outlet for information about the epidemic. Internet users are reported to have clicked on his name 1.5 billion times in no more than 24 hours. The hashtag #IWantFreedomOfExpression was reportedly clicked on 3 million times before disappearing. On February 11, another hashtag denouncing propaganda encouraging the elderly to donate their pensions was seen 60 million times. The expression "this person" (nageren), a paraphrase referring to Xi Jinping, had to be banned from the web. Once again, intellectuals are signing petitions for freedom of expression.
China is no longer the country it was at the time of the contaminated blood cases or the SARS epidemic. The whole population uses social networks, and even more so while in voluntary – or imposed - confinement. Controlling the social media entails a dilemma: it is difficult to stem a tidal wave unless the internet is shut down. This measure is technically possible and already put in place in Xinjiang, but would amount to a state of national siege in the present circumstances. Taking down a selective number of accounts – a measure which is akin to social death in today's China – cannot be extended beyond a certain point.
The regime will therefore have to temporarily adjust to a transformed balance of power between the apparatus and public opinion, which is proving its existence once again. But observers would do well not to jump to hasty conclusions about the loss of the Mandate of Heaven or about an open questioning of Xi.
When did it become known?
The truth – which, truthfully, none of us knows – is probably not straightforward. The central authorities’ delay in reacting to the information from Wuhan is obvious. The best investigation to date, from a Chinese source, is the one translated by China Change. The publication of a February 3 Xi Jinping speech to top leaders in fact proves he – and they - were informed of the dire situation on or before January 6. Added to this delay is local mismanagement. A banquet of 40,000 families held in the centre of Wuhan on January 18 and celebrated in the local press, will go down in history as an example of the incompetence of local action. The structure of the Chinese health system – hospitals and dispensaries rather than scattered general practitioners – did not help prevent the virus from spreading, quite the contrary. The human-to-human transmission, obvious from the cases of doctors in the first days of January (and even earlier from other patients), was only recognized on January 20. The World Health Organization, and with it rather uncurious foreign governments, chose to unquestionably believe what was in fact at least a two week cover-up. In the build-up to the New Year's festivities, the usual propaganda about the "people's leader" did not stop.
Whether it was a sycophant reflex or an underestimation, the one who is the commander-in-chief and who buried the expression "collective leadership" undoubtedly bears responsibility for it.