SPF China Observer


No.24 2020/04/03

Everyone is a hero

Kazuyuki Suwa (Professor, School of International Relations, University of Shizuoka)

The extraordinary circumstances we have been experiencing have continued into the spring.
 Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, has postponed his planned visit to Japan in the spring, and the Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics scheduled to be held this summer have also been delayed.
 This author was forced to cancel a visit to China that had been scheduled for mid-February (Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong) to conduct field research with seminar students. The graduation ceremony this year was also cancelled, and so I had to say goodbye to my students in our seminar room. The entrance ceremony for the 2020 school year has also been cancelled, and the start of classes has been delayed by a week (as of April 2). Looking at my schedule book, I see that the last time I was in Tokyo was February 13.
 The impact and sense of crisis that the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, which began in Wuhan, Hubei Province, has had on both Japanese society and societies throughout the world has exceeded all initial expectations. Seventeen years ago, in the spring of 2003, I was living in Beijing during the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak. Looking back on this experience, I recall that even then there was not as deep a sense of despair as exists now.
 2019 was a year marked by Sino–US trade friction and the protests in Hong Kong. Then, 2020 saw the COVID-19 outbreak. China is currently experiencing a period of upheaval. However, in the midst of this crisis, I have noticed two unchanging aspects in the circumstances currently enveloping Chinese politics. Perhaps these are the “two constants” the Chinese Communist Party often speaks of. Here, I will discuss these “two unchanging aspects.”

1. The unchanging “courageous intellectuals”

 According to the Chinese authorities, the outbreak in China has passed its peak. [1] Without a doubt, as publicized by the Chinese authorities, the Chinese people focused their “cohesive power and fighting strength on the eradication of the disease” [2] to shift circumstances in a positive direction. But there were those in China who were resistant to these propaganda efforts by the Chinese authorities, or who were silenced by the authorities who, by the subsequent actions, showed themselves to be the true “people of China.”
 Here, I would like to first discuss the response of the Chinese authorities to the death of a physician in Wuhan who was the first to report the “SARS outbreak” there as well as the response of intellectuals.

The death of Dr. Li Wenliang and the response of the Chinese authorities

 Despite the wishes of many people in China that he recover from his illness, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, died on February 7 at the age of 34. The cause was a viral infection he had acquired from one of his patients.
 The event that directly led to Dr. Li gaining widespread attention was the following information posted to WeChat (a social networking service similar to LINE) on December 30, 2019, by a college classmate: “Seven people who have contracted SARS have been placed in quarantine at my hospital. Please tell your family and friends to take steps to prevent infection.”
 The Chinese authorities moved quickly after viewing this post. The following day, December 31, the Wuhan Health Committee released information regarding “a pneumonia infection,” stating that “Although there have been 27 confirmed cases of people being infected with viral pneumonia, we have not observed person-to-person infection. We are currently investigating the cause of the infection.”
 China has strict regulations on speech. Something that could never happen in Japan happened immediately after this in China. Several days later, on January 3, the local Security Police precinct that had jurisdiction over the area where Dr. Li’s hospital was located, called him in and demanded that he sign an admonition for “disrupting public order by releasing information without first checking the veracity of that information.” The admonition he was forced to sign stated the following: “We hope that you will calmly reflect on what you have done as we admonish you for the incident listed below. If you insist on your own way of thinking, fail to reflect upon your actions, and as a result engage in illegal activities, you will be subject to legal sanctions. Do you understand?” Dr. Li had no choice but to sign. [3]
 There was also a case involving the novel pneumonia in which “a certain physician indicated that, shortly after a different physician said in an interview with the media that he had begun informing other physicians about a type of pneumonia of unknown origin, but that he was silenced and told he ‘shouldn’t be talking to others or talking with the media.’” [4] Thus, the Chinese authorities revised their assessment of Dr. Li.
 On the day Dr. Li died, February 7, the National Supervision Commission of the People's Republic of China announced that it would “send a survey group to Wuhan, upon the approval of the Party central authority, to conduct a full survey of the situation.” [5] A spokesperson for the National Health Committee also held a press conference the same day and stated, “The Committee is deeply saddened by the death of Dr. Li, and we would like his family to know that our deepest sympathies are with them.” [6]
 Approximately one month after the start of the survey, Dr. Li’s “honor was restored.”
 First, on March 5, the National Health Committee, the Human Resources Social Security Department, and the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine announced the awards to be given to organizations and individuals who had made achievements in the effort to prevent infection. Dr. Li Wenliang’s name was among those who received awards. [7]
 Then, on March 19, Xinhua reported on the final conclusions reached by the National Supervision Commission. The details of their report were as follows: [8]
 1. “Dr. Li, who posted information to a WeChat group, did not have the personal intention to disrupt public order. However, since Dr. Li publicized information without first checking its veracity, some of the information he posted was not completely consistent with the actual circumstances.”
 2. “The Wuhan City Public Security Bureau (Wuchang Branch, Zhongnan Street Police Station) wrongfully issued a letter of admonition to Dr. Li, and the law enforcement process that was used to issue the letter deviated from norms. The Survey Group proposed to the Wuhan City Supervision Organization in Hubei Province that it would be proper to supervise the situation; that the Security Bureau withdraw the letter of admonition; that it investigate the type of responsibility that should be taken by the employees involved in this issue; and that the results of the their administrative measures be immediately released to the public.”
 3. “The forwarding and transmission of information about this issue by Dr. Li to his classmates and coworkers were for the personal intention of warning them to take proper measures to prevent infection. The fact that he forwarded large amounts of this information led to public interest in the situation. Objectively, he was encouraging a wide variety of people to take the infection seriously and increase their efforts to control and prevent it.”
 4. “Those who need to be cautioned are hostile forces who, to attack the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government, have called Dr. Li an ‘anti-establishment figure’ who resisted the established systems and an ‘awakened person.’ This is completely in opposition to the facts. Dr. Li was a Communist Party member and not an ‘anti-establishment figure’ or the like.”
 Although these findings were awkward in the sense that they attempted to assign blame to both sides, in light of these findings of the Survey Group, the Wuhan Security Bureau posted the following announcements on an SNS site that same day: (1) the Wuhan Security Bureau withdraws the letter of admonition and has decided to solemnly apologize to the family of the person in question for the mistake that was made, and (2) the deputy chief of police at the police station was subjected to “administrative penalties,” and the officer in charge was issued an “administrative warning.” [9]

Those who protested

 After hearing of the death of Dr. Li, some intellectuals believed the Chinese authorities should be criticized for their handling of Dr. Li. When the SARS epidemic occurred 13 years earlier, Dr. Jiang Yanyong publicized its cover-up by Chinese authorities and was critical of their handling of the issue, but this time around, criticism of the Chinese authorities has been more severe and varied.
 On February 8, a total of 28 lawyers and scholars who work in the field of human rights focused on “the suppression of freedom of speech” and released a position statement to the Chinese authorities. [10] The main points listed in this document were as follows: (1) The spread of COVID-19 throughout Hubei and the entire country was a “man-made tragedy” that was caused by the obliteration of freedom of speech. (2) We must forever remember the words that Dr. Li left with us: “In a healthy society, it is not possible for everyone to be of the same opinion.” [11] (3) We demand the following: (a) a generous funeral for Dr. Li and a stone monument erected in his honor; (b) the abolition of all regulations and systems that are in violation of Article 35 of the Constitution (author’s note: “The people of the People’s Republic of China have freedom of speech, publication, assembly, association, demonstration, and protest”); and (c) the holding of a National Council that includes the participation of experts from a wide variety of fields for the purpose of a comprehensive examination of recent domestic policies.”
 Next, Yang Yao, director of the Institute of International Development at Peking University, posted critical views from within the system on the Institute’s website. According to Yang, “The countermeasures against the novel coronavirus pneumonia are a major test of the governing capacity of the government,” indicating that he believes there is a problem in that capacity. For example, he stressed that, although the government has demanded that production activities be resumed, since workplaces are subject to punishment if even a single worker were to be infected, management is not complying for fear of the consequences. As a result, he continued, there is a “need to preserve enthusiasm in the provinces,” and this requires that the “one strike and you’re out” policy (that a single failure leads to demotion and/or relocation) used to assess those in management positions be reassessed. He goes on to say that, “As was the case in the 1950s, we need to build a congenial relationship with those in Democratic Party factions.” This was a bold statement indeed, as it was critical of the current administration’s insistence that “the Party controls all.” [12]
 Author Yan Lianke made the following statement in an online lecture delivered to graduate students in Hong Kong: “If we are unable to be ‘whistleblowers’ like Dr. Li, then let us become the sort of people who can hear the call of the whistle.” He went on to say, “As masses of people raise their voices in a chorus, proclaiming, as they surely will soon, that we’ve ‘won the war’ against the spread of this novel pneumonia, there will be those standing silently apart from them who are holding tombstones. Let us become the sort of people who remember this indelible stigma. Let us become the kind of people who are able to someday relate to future generations this memory—our own memories.” [13]
 In addition to the people mentioned above, many other intellectuals—including Xu Zhangron, Xu Zhiyong, Fang Fang, and Ren Zhiqiang—have publicized their criticisms of the Chinese authorities. [14]

2. The unchanging “collaboration between the leaders and the media”

 Since the spread of the disease, the Party has mobilized the media to portray the strong leadership of Xi Jinping and his administration, and the contributions they have made. However, their delayed response to the crisis cannot be glossed over.
 As mentioned above, in an interview with a person in charge of the National Supervision Commission, it was emphasized that Dr. Li’s statements “led to public interest” in the infection. However, as we will see below, countermeasures were put into effect on the national level as of late January. Thus, there was a blank period of at least three weeks between Dr. Li’s showing concern and the implementation of countermeasures. [15]
 According to a Party publication, in a speech delivered on February 3 at a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, Xi stated, “When I presided over the Politburo Standing Committee meeting held on January 7, I made specific demands regarding measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus pneumonia infection.” [16] However, oddly, there is not a single mention of the word “infection” in the official reports of Xi’s statements at the January 7 meeting. [17] Perhaps the truth had somehow prematurely crept into the propaganda measures?
 What follows is an examination of Xi’s actions regarding the measures put into place as a result of COVID-19 infection and the media reporting on them.
 The start was delayed and action was sluggish.
 The January 21, 2020, edition of The People’s Daily newspaper ran two articles of great interest about measures against coronavirus disease.
 The first of these was a Xinhua report from Beijing dated January 20, which stated, “In Wuhan and another area, a type of pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus has been confirmed.” [18] It further states, “Chinese authorities have stated that this is the first case in which infection has been confirmed outside of Wuhan.” [19] In fact, the National Health Committee, which has jurisdiction over infections, began posting information about the infection in Wuhan on its website as of January 11. Then, on January 21 it began posting infection status information for the entire country. This seems to indicate that they first realized the severity of the situation ten days after they started making posts on their website. The first notice, which was posted on the 11th, was already providing information about “initial diagnostic results [which] indicate that the pneumonia is caused by infection with the novel coronavirus.” [20]
 The second article was a report on Xi’s issuance of an “important directive” demanding that all Parties and the government “take measures to deter and prevent the spread of the infection with the life and health of the public as their top priority.” [21] This author’s understanding of Xi’s “important directives” is that it was common for them to be widely reported, along with the dates, locations, and principal participants in meetings held on specific issues. However, the reporting in this case did not include any of those details, and instead simply stated that the directive was issued “after the outbreak of the infection.” If the infection was actually being regarded as a serious event, why did Xi not cancel his travel plans (his visit to Myanmar on January 17 and 18, followed by a tour of Yunnan Province from the 19th to the 21st) and immediately returned to Beijing?
 Nevertheless, upon returning to Beijing, the response was indeed swift.
 On January 23, the city of Wuhan was, for all intents and purposes, completely sealed off. Then, on January 25, which was New Year’s Day according to the lunar calendar, the Politburo Standing Committee met. The fact that this meeting was held on the day that to the Chinese people is the most important family-oriented day of the year indicates the sense of crisis that existed in the government at that time. In addition to hearing reports on the status of the infection and the measures being taken against it, it was also decided that an “Epidemic Steering Group” be established in the Party (the director was Prime Minister Li Keqiang), and the need to publicize relevant information swiftly and accurately was emphasized. [22] That night, “once the TV news anchors read Xi’s important directive saying that ‘We must strengthen the concentrated and unified guidance provided by the Party,’ the entire Chinese nation went into ‘war mode.’” [23] Then, at a meeting on January 28 with WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom, Xi stated that he himself was the person with ultimate authority regarding infection prevention measures in China. [24]
 The collaboration between Xi and the media to portray him as a “leader at the front lines” began around the time that Xi first appeared in public in Beijing wearing a mask, which was on February 10, the first day back to work after the delayed Spring Holiday (the lunar New Year holiday).
 On February 13, Xinhua reported that the Party had decided that Yong Ying, the mayor of Shanghai, would be installed as the party secretary of Hubei Province instead of Jiang Chaoliang. [25] Yong Ying was from Zhejiang Province, and he was Xi’s underling during Xi’s time working in that province. He was also known to be Xi’s protégé. On a talk show broadcast by Central Chinese Television, Jiang Chaoliang, the previous Wuhan party secretary, said, as did the Party at that time, “If I had made a decision earlier, the situation would have been better than it currently is.” This statement led to his being forced out of his position as party secretary.
 A press conference held by the State Council Information Office on March 5 turned out to be an opportunity for praise to be heaped on Xi and the “excellent system.” Specifically, according to the deputy director of the external party liaison, who appeared at the press conference, “The Chinese people and the Chinese race should be glad that Secretary Xi is the kind of leader who takes the reins.” Many national leaders also offered praise, saying, “The Chinese speed, Chinese scale, and Chinese efficiency with which the virus countermeasures were implemented indicate the excellence of the Chinese system.” [26] On the same day, the Global Times (web version) reported with pride that “China was the country that discovered the infection first.” [27]
 On March 10, Xi traveled to Wuhan, where he displayed confidence that there were signs the infection was under control. After this point, portrayals of Xi as “the leader of China, the country contributing to world peace” began.
 As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, on March 12 a spokesperson for the National Health Committee stated, “The outbreak in China has passed its peak.” During a telephone conversation with Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Gutteres that took place on the same day, Xi spoke proudly of his achievements, saying, “The struggle borne by the Chinese people bought precious time for the rest of the countries in the world to set up countermeasures of their own against the infection, and thus China made an important contribution to the world. The Chinese will share our experience preventing an epidemic with countries in the world facing the same situation. We hope to engage in the joint development of drugs and vaccines, and we will supply countries where infection is already spreading with as much assistance as possible.” [28]
 Thereafter, Xi had many telephone conferences with leaders of nations around the world, during which he offered them assistance. [29] As the infection spread throughout the US and the countries of Europe, it became increasingly difficult to deny the impact of these examples of “diplomacy by telephone calls offering comfort.”

3. Who is a hero?

 For several consecutive days, the Chinese media praised the heroic efforts of “the people” who were focused on preventing the spread of the infection and eradicating the infection itself at the request of the Party, and the media emphasized the increased solidarity of the people. As the Chinese government insisted that the peak of the spread had passed, [30] it began emphasizing its contributions to the global community, which included the dispatch of medical teams to many European countries where the infection was still spreading.
 The Party was publicizing the appearance of many “heroes.” However, who exactly were the heroes involved in the series of infection prevention measures? Xi, who sent a close associate to act as the leader of Hubei Province and who exposed himself to danger when he visited Wuhan, is a hero. The “people”—that is, medical professionals—who responded to the requests of the Party and engaged in rescue activities in the regions with the most severe infections are certainly heroes. However, perhaps we can also consider the intellectuals who bore the brunt of criticism by the Party and the government as heroes. This author believes that, to overcome the present crisis, all heroes—the Party, the people, and those who dissent—are necessary. However, this requires that the Party display the kind of tolerance to include among the heroes those with dissenting views. In addition, to establish whether the “excellent system” that the Party emphasizes is in fact as excellent as they say, a forthright and comprehensive investigation of the criticism that the “initial response was delayed” must be conducted. This is because pressure on those with divergent views to remain silent, which led to the delay of the initial response, and the enforced shutdown of the city that helped prevent the spread of the infection are characteristics of an authoritarian government. In the absence of dealing with this sort of process, it is impossible to foresee a better future.
 How should the global society—and, in particular, the US and Japan, whose responses China pays the most attention to—face China, which has now switched to the offensive?
 In this paper, I mentioned the arguments of some intellectuals, but what is of utmost interest to the general public in China is not freedom or democracy. The disaster that is the coronavirus is an extremely important and serious humanitarian problem that has a direct effect on the lifestyle and the very lives of the people. In this sense, people are inordinately focused on the issue of whether other countries are behaving in a friendly way toward China or not—and that will likely affect people’s perceptions of the rest of the world more than it normally does.
 However, the US and China are engaged in a fruitless war of words. The US leadership is needlessly irritating China with statements such as “the Chinese virus” and “the Wuhan virus,” while Chinese diplomatic spokesmen are making unfounded, emotional statements such as, “The virus may have been brought into China by the US military.” [31] If the US and Japan expect China to move in the direction they hope it will, then they need to focus on cooperating with a wide variety of the Chinese public, who love their country. Biased and emotional criticisms of the Party and the government are counterproductive.
 The Chinese Party and the government have refused to ascertain the overall situation in their country due to an overemphasis on their “virtues” and due to their hiding of defects. Some in the Japanese media and among Japanese intellectuals who refuse to see China in a comprehensive way have maximized its faults and ignored its merits. Should we not seize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity provided by this health crisis to revise our perceptions of China? If the major power that is China can see itself objectively, surely it would naturally garner the respect of the global community without having to place special emphasis on the “excellent system” created by one-party rule! For China, this is a turning point that will determine whether their empty “creation of a common destiny” slogan reaches the level of a philosophy that is officially recognized by the global community.
 There is a final issue facing us. One result of people avoiding the use of public transportation during the SARS epidemic in China was the emergence of the popularity of owning one’s own automobile. Are the Chinese Communist Party and the major Chinese corporations focused on seizing the opportunities provided by the coronavirus outbreak to increasingly utilize “big data” and make innovations in AI technology? As China continues developing its “Belt and Road Initiative,” the Party is certainly promoting the international standardization of those technologies. In China, will this mean that the Party continues to develop its so-called “happy surveillance society”? [32] Although we have not yet returned to a social or psychological state in which we are able to engage in calm debate, we need to maintain a critical eye as we examine whether the Party’s policies are achieving universal happiness.

(Dated Apr 2, 2020)

1 「国务院联防联控机制2020年3月12日新闻发布会」[] (last accessed on March 22, 2020).

2 国纪平「命运与共,团结合作方可共克时难」『人民日报』March 28, 2020.

3 「悼念殉城者李文亮:不概离去的“吹哨人”」[] (last accessed on March 28, 2020).

4 “Whistleblower doctor dies, repercussions,” Asahi Shimbun, February 7, 2020, evening edition.

5 「国家监委派调查组赴武汉就涉及李文亮医生有关问题作全面调查」『人民日报』 February 8, 2020.

6 「February 7, 2020新闻发布会文字实录」[] (last accessed on March 26, 2020).

7 「关于表彰全国卫生健康系统新冠肺炎疫情防控工作先进集体和先进个人的决定」[] (last accessed on March 29, 2020).

8 「国家监委调查组负责人就群众反映的涉及李文亮医生的有关情况依法开展调查答记者问」『人民日报』 March 20, 2020.

9 「刚刚 武汉市公安局撤销李文亮训诫书并郑重道歉相关责任人被处理 [、] (last accessed on March 30, 2020). The administrative penalties and warnings were both in the category of “punishments of national civil servants,” but the former is more severe.

10 「惟有改變 才是對李文亮醫生最好的紀念——致全國人大、國務院並全國同胞書 [] (last accessed on March 29, 2020).

11 Li said this in a January 30 interview with Caixin Media.「新冠肺炎“吹哨人”李文亮:真相比平反更重要」[] (last accessed on March 31, 2020).

12 「从战“疫”看现代化治理体系」[] (last accessed on April 1, 2020).

13 “The ‘man who remembered’ his experience of this calamity,” Newsweek (Japanese edition), March 10, 2020, pp. 28–33.

14 Xu Zhangrun’s statement: [], Xu Zhiyong’s statement: [] (in both cases: last accessed on March 27, 2020). This author is not in complete agreement with everything they said, but he believes there is value in considering their statements.

15 According to the March 13, 2020, edition of the South China Morning Post (web edition), to the extent that can be confirmed at present, the first people who were infected with the novel coronavirus appeared in Hubei Province on November 17, 2019.

16 「在中央政治局常务委会会议研究应对新型冠状病毒肺炎疫情工作时的讲话」[] (last accessed on March 21, 2020).

17 「听取全国人大常委会,国务院,全国政协,最高人民法院,最高人民检察院党组工作汇报 听取中央书记处工作报告」『人民日报』 January 8, 2020.

18 「已确认存在人传人和医务人员感染」『人民日报』 January 21, 2020.

19 「新型肺炎急拡大 患者数3倍超」『朝日新聞』 January 21, 2020.

20 「武汉市卫生健康委关于不明原因的病毒性肺炎情况通报」[] (last accessed on March 22, 2020).

21 「习近平对新型冠状病毒感染的肺炎疫情做出重要指示强调 要把人民群众生命安全和身体健康放在第一位 坚决遏制疫情蔓延势头」『人民日报』 January 21, 2020.

22 「研究新型冠状病毒感染的肺炎疫情防控工作」『人民日报』 January 26, 2020.

23 “State of high alert: Signs of people disappear from the streets of Beijing,” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, February 12, 2020.

24 「习近平:我相信,我们一定会战胜这一次疫情!」[] (last accessed on March 29, 2020).

25 「湖北省委主要负责同志职务调整」『人民日报』 February 14, 2020.

26 「国务院新闻办公室2020年3月5日新闻发布会文字实录」[] (last accessed on March 27, 2020).

27 「国际锐评:要求“中国道歉”无理又荒谬」[] (last accessed on March 30, 2020).

28 「习近平同联合国秘书长古特雷斯通电话」『人民日报』 March 13, 2020.

29 e.g.「习近平向意大利总统马塔雷拉致慰问电」『人民日報』 March 15, 2020.

30 Shutdown of Wuhan to be lifted on April 8.「武汉以外地区解除离鄂通道管控」『人民日报』 March 25, 2020.

31 “US claims that spread of infection is ‘China’s fault,’” Yomiuri Shimbun, March 27, 2020.

32 Kajitani Kai, Takaguchi Kota, Happy State of Surveillance: China, NHK Publishing, 2019.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LINE
  • はてな