Will China learn a lesson amid the outcry over a doctor's death?

February 10, 2020 14:36
A makeshift memorial for Dr Li Wenliang, who issued an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak before it was officially recognized, is seen at an entrance to a Wuhan hospital on Feb 7 following the doctor's death from the virus. Photo: Reuters

The death of a Wuhan doctor who was reprimanded for sounding the alarm last December over a looming health threat has created a firestorm, prompting the Chinese government to make a quick move to control the narrative by announcing that it would investigate “issues raised by the people in connection with Dr Li Wenliang.”

The emotional outpouring following the young doctor's death was immense. The official China Daily reported that “hundreds of millions” of people had voiced their views on social media platforms after the 34-year-old ophthalmologist succumbed to the virus that he had warned others about.

The stakes are high and by no means limited to health issues. The Communist Party’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, at a meeting on Feb. 3, asserted that the outbreak posed “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance." That is to say, the party’s future hung in the balance.

Hours after the doctor's death was disclosed, the State Supervisory Commission, the top anti-corruption body, announced that with the approval of the central government it was sending a team to Wuhan. No details were provided.

Many social media postings proclaimed Li a martyr and denounced Wuhan authorities for having silenced him and seven other physicians for daring to alert others to the SARS-like disease, now officially dubbed 2019-nCoV by the World Health Organization. Others called for freedom of speech, as guaranteed in the Chinese constitution. Before such postings were censored, they were viewed by millions of people.

The Chinese government and local authorities have been pointing fingers at each other for covering up the deadly disease in the early weeks, when the virus conceivably could have been contained if the government had acted and the public alerted.

Clearly, one task of the supervisory commission will be to pinpoint responsibility for the actions taken against Dr Li. The Wuhan Central Hospital where Li worked, the Wuhan health commission and the police will probably all be investigated.

After all, even before the doctor was summoned by the police to be reprimanded on Jan. 3, he was hauled in at 1:30 am on New Year’s Eve by the health authority. Then, when he went to work a few hours later, he was questioned by the hospital’s Inspection Section, which asked him if he acknowledged his mistake. And all because he sent a message, “7 confirmed cases of SARS,” to a medical school alumni WeChat group on Dec. 30.

To placate the public and to make the point that local authorities, not the central government, had covered up the initial outbreak, some Hubei officials are likely to be punished, including possible prison sentences.

But free speech and other systemic changes are unlikely.

Hopefully, the party will realize that rigid centralization, with provincial officials fearful of reporting bad news, is in the long run not in its own interests.

In the immediate aftermath of Dr Li’s death, the Chinese government sounded tolerant, even to the point of acknowledging that it may not be perfect.

The national broadcaster, China Central Television, adopted a conciliatory tone in its commentary the day of the doctor’s death. "Some of Li Wenliang’s experiences reflect our shortcomings in epidemic control and response," it said. “We should learn from our mistakes, further improve the national emergency management system, and improve our ability to handle urgent, difficult, dangerous and heavy tasks.”

That hardly sounded like a recipe for wide-ranging reform. However, a commentary in the Global Times went to the heart of the issue. It said that Chinese society should "reflect on why the doctor’s alert was not appreciated in the beginning” and why the whistleblower “was reprimanded instead.”

That is a question that deserves an answer.

Was what happened to Dr Li and the seven other doctors in Wuhan an aberration?

It would appear not. Last Friday (Feb. 7), the Health Times, a newspaper under the People’s Daily, disclosed that police in Wenshan, in Yunnan province, had detained five medical workers on a vague charge relating to spreading information on the coronavirus outbreak. No details were provided as to what information was disclosed.

What is going on? It would be good if the supervisory commission team's remit allows it to go beyond what happened in Wuhan to what the country as a whole can learn from that experience. After all, the Chinese people are paying a high price for the lesson: The death toll as of Monday morning was higher than 900, far greater than the toll taken by SARS in 2002-2003.

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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.