Editorial | The dawn of a new era?

Paulo Coutinho

Nothing will be the same after the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus, recently dubbed Covid-19, that infected mainland China and the world with an epidemic disease, financial hurdles, and uncertainty.

The major case in point is the way the communist country leaders dealt with the situation in the first instance: shutting down inconvenient voices for trying to warn people about an unknown and extremely contagious virus, in the likes of SARS in late December.

Li Wenliang, a Wuhan eye doctor, in contact with the sick, who first spread the news on a closed chat group of fellow medics, was detained, questioned, and forced to apologize “for spreading rumors” – only to contract the virus himself and tragically die from it last week.

Even on his death berth, Li suffered abuse. State media broke the news of his death Thursday night last week only to retract it a few hours later at 2am Friday. The good doctor, deemed a national hero in China’s frenzied social media, was officially declared dead the next hour, at around 3am, when the story was already all over the major news broadcasters.

Beijing came out in force saying it would investigate “in depth” the circumstances surrounding his death and with a great deal of hypocrisy praised the efforts of Li Wenliang. I guess what they really want to know is how the news was leaked, and who did it.

Medical staff in China or Macau or elsewhere are the front-line workers who put their lives in danger when dealing with extremely contagious diseases. They should be encouraged and protected by the political elite, not persecuted by dystopian paranoia.

No wonder Li’s death fueled popular anger against Xi Jinping’s Communist ruling clique. Moreover, people’s disappointment is shifting from seemingly innocuous social media over to mainstream media, to academia and onto the streets.

Last week, a woman was photographed in Shanghai holding a sign calling for freedom of speech and a group of Chinese academics have signed an open letter calling for the government to issue an apology to the deceased doctor and for more freedom of speech and rights guaranteed by the constitution to be protected.

One of the petitioners is Xu Zhangrun, a law professor from one of the country’s top universities, who lambasted the Communist regime:

“It is a system that turns every natural disaster into an even greater man-made catastrophe. The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance; the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state has thereby shown up as never before,” he wrote in an essay.

Beijing’s propaganda machine has been blaming Western “conspiracy theorists” for overly criticizing China, but this time heavy criticism comes from within.

As the virus spread more fiercely and the death toll shot up, over 60 million people in several provinces were put in lockdown – something unthinkable in the liberal West.

Doctor Jeremy Farrar, disease expert, to Der Spiegel: “It is doubtful that the inhabitants of major Western cities would put up with a several-week’s-long cutoff of their cities. Such draconic measures would cause a huge disruption to communities and to society. If the worst-case scenario really happens, people will probably be asked to stay at home on a voluntary basis. But for such voluntary measures to work, it is very important that politicians and public health experts start preparing people now with open, honest and transparent communication. Trust is crucial, it takes time to be established and it can be lost quickly.”

Trust is of essence indeed, and that is what the Chinese people are losing. It may be a long shot to say that things will never be the same in China. But after the Hong Kong conundrum and the Covid-19 epidemic, nothing should stay the same.

Categories China Editorial Macau