How not to win the hearts and minds of the people

March 23, 2020 16:38
A medical worker attends to a Covid-19 patient at a Wuhan hospital. Photo: Reuters

China’s National Supervisory Commission team investigating Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, whose death on Feb. 6 spurred an outpouring of grief and anger, has made a rare admission of “improper” police instruction and “irregular” law-enforcement procedures in its report on the officially labeled “rumor-monger”.

During the six weeks of the commission’s investigation, the world had turned topsy-turvy, with China declaring victory over the coronavirus outbreak, whose epicenter has shifted to Europe and is increasingly wreaking havoc in the United States.

On Dec. 30, Dr. Li told members of a medical school alumni chat group that there were seven cases of an illness similar to the severe acute respiratory syndrome in the hospital where he worked. Four days later, he was summoned by the police, reprimanded, and forced to sign a letter saying he had made unlawful and false statements that had “severely disturbed the social order”.

The commission, while acknowledging that Dr. Li had not intended to disturb the social order, noted that some of the information he provided “was inconsistent with the actual situation at that time”, seemingly supporting the police allegation of rumor-mongering.

The Li Wenliang incident clearly reflected a policy of suppression of health information vital to the public. Seven other Wuhan doctors were labeled “rumor-mongers” as well. In China, information is a key part of the system of control, jealously guarded by the party.

Zhong Nanshan, a noted Chinese specialist, has said that if preventive measures had been taken in December or January, the epidemic would have been much smaller. A University of Southampton study showed that if interventions had been conducted one week, two weeks or three weeks earlier, cases “could have been reduced by 66 percent, 86 percent and 95 percent respectively, significantly limiting the geographical spread of the disease”.

The world would not be in its current situation, with China posing as its savior, offering face masks and other medical equipment to ill-prepared countries.

The report called for very light penalties. The police station was asked to withdraw its admonishment of the doctor. A deputy station head was given a demerit and an officer was cautioned. The Public Security Bureau apologized to Li’s family.

It is highly unlikely that such a gentle tap on police knuckles would have much impact on public trust in government. Li has become a symbol of a truth-teller who is persecuted.

How Wuhan residents feel about the Chinese government was vividly shown in an unusual public incident earlier this month when Vice Premier Sun Chunlan inspected a locked-down housing estate, which had just been cleaned up before her arrival. Residents, not allowed to go out, yelled from their windows, “Fake! It’s all fake!”

That happened on March 6. The next day, an online firestorm broke out when Wuhan’s top official, party secretary Wang Zhonglin, called for “gratitude education” for the city's residents so that they could properly thank President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party for the way they had handled the health crisis.

But gratitude was the last thing on the minds of the people of Wuhan. Fifty thousand of them had been infected by the coronavirus and more than 2,000 had died. They had all gone through a month and a half of agony. People were still dying in hospitals. Gratitude wasn’t their primary sentiment, to put it mildly.

The fury unleashed by Wang’s call for “gratitude education” precipitated an urgent meeting of the party’s propaganda officials. According to China Media Project of the University of Hong Kong, the announcement of that meeting said that the response to Wang’s remarks was comparable as a “public opinion incident” to the uproar that followed the death of Li Wenliang.

One journalist, Chu Zhaoxin, posted remarks on WeChat directed at party secretary Wang. He said: “You are a public servant, and your job is to serve the people. Now the people you serve are broken, the dead are still cold, and the tears of the living have not yet dried. The sick have not yet recovered, and much of their dissatisfaction is completely reasonable. Rather than blaming the people in Wuhan you serve for not being grateful, you should reflect and be ashamed because you and your team are not working properly.”

Two days later, March 10, Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in Wuhan, his first visit since the coronavirus outbreak began. He sported a bright blue N95 face mask and talked over a video link with medical workers and patients in the Huoshenshan hospital. And, despite their lack of gratitude, he hailed the city’s residents as heroes.

Judging from these events, the party, after 70 years in power, still finds it difficult to understand, not to say win over the hearts and minds of the people of China, not just of Wuhan.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.