China is policing speech that supports “living with Covid”

When will life go back to normal?
When will life go back to normal?
Image: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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For Zhang Wenhong, one of China’s most trusted medical experts on Covid-19, criticism has been a fact of life ever since he rose to prominence for his down-to-earth analysis.

Over the past months, Zhang, who leads Shanghai’s Covid-19 advisory panel, has been attacked for advocating kids to eat milk and eggs for breakfast instead of porridge, a remark that some said revealed his blind worship of a western lifestyle. He was also slammed for receiving a rumored annual salary of 1.84 million yuan ($283,985), an amount that seems reasonable for someone of his status, note Zhang’s supporters: he’s the director of the infectious diseases department at one of Shanghai’s top hospitals.

For his role in presenting frank advice that doesn’t always align with Beijing’s stance, many have compared Zhang to Anthony Fauci, who became an important voice in the US as the Trump administration downplayed the severity of the virus.

But recently, an unusually intense social media backlash against Zhang has gathered steam. The controversy stemmed from Zhang’s recent remarks that the world needs to live with Covid-19. “China’s future approach [to handle Covid-19] must both ensure that it is in a community with shared future with the world, realizing interconnection with the world and return to a normal lifestyle, and also protect citizens from fears for the virus. China should have this kind of wisdom,” he wrote on his Weibo page on July 29, commenting on a new wave of cases caused by the delta variant in China that has caused the country to return to mass testing and strict lockdowns.

While Zhang refrained from making any direct criticism of Beijing’s Covid-zero strategy, which has also including closing its borders and sharply isolating the country, he quickly faced attacks after posting the comments, even though it isn’t the first time he’s advocated for a less rigid approach.

Many labeled him “a traitor to China,” saying he is “pandering to foreign ideas” for endorsing the co-existing with Covid approach that is being followed in some countries such as the US and the UK. The backlash against Zhang this month got a fresh push from Gao Qiang, China’s former health minister.

In an article published in the state-run newspaper People’s Daily, Gao said western countries were “blindly removing or relaxing Covid-19 measures” in pursuit of the “living with Covid” strategy, and thus causing waves of new cases globally. Without naming Zhang directly, Gao said he was very surprised that some Chinese experts have also been advocating this western approach.

Things have escalated quickly since Gao’s piece. Over the weekend, the graduate school of the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai launched an investigation into Zhang’s doctoral dissertation, which the school said has been reported by someone for plagiarism. Meanwhile, a teacher in the eastern Jiangxi province has been reportedly detained for 15 days for making “inappropriate remarks about Covid,” after suggesting in an online post that a Chinese city learn to coexist with Covid-19, according to Chinese media.

When Covid-19 strategy becomes political

The growing sensitivity and scrutiny towards any talk about shifting China’s zero-Covid strategy is a reflection of the political importance of the approach to China’s leaders.

In the early days of the pandemic, Chinese authorities faced anger and a backlash at home for suppressing efforts by doctors to share information about the coronavirus before national officials had announced its existence. But subsequently, China was able to point to its success in containing the pandemic, which first started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, as proof of the one-Party system’s superiority, while countries like the US struggled last year to control the virus’s spread.

Public opinion within China of the government’s performance on this front is now high, helped by government propaganda. State-run news outlet Xinhua, for example, has criticized western governments which have generally not adopted widespread or long-term social restrictions, for not taking proper responsibility for controlling the pandemic, and praised the “centralized leadership” of the Party. Internet users often joke that other nations should “copy China’s homework” on handling Covid-19. Gao, the former health minister, also said the “flaws of the US and UK’s political systems” have led to their missteps in designing Covid strategy in his piece in the People’s Daily.

Indeed, China’s draconian measures, which have included police smashing mahjong tables to dispel crowds and local authorities tying up villagers who step out without masks, would be unimaginable in democratic countries. Yet the approach has helped it to keep the daily new infections low, sometimes literally at zero. By contrast, the US is averaging well over 100,000 cases a day, while in the UK more than 28,000 people tested positive yesterday (Aug. 16).

As such, for many in China, any criticism or suggestion that Beijing loosen its current Covid policy can be seen as a denial of the country’s success in this regard, or even worse, advocating for copying a western approach. That’s a serious misstep given the country’s increasing nationalism. Some critics of Zhang even suggested he might be a “foreign spy,” while others asked how he could be qualified to be a Party member given these remarks.

Beyond ideological reasons, there are practical concerns for China not to relax its Covid restrictions, including concern about the scarcity of hospital beds.

“Beijing would rather have a regional lockdown for a couple of months than a nationwide outbreak…The trade-off makes sense,” said Linghao Bao, an analyst with Beijing-based consultancy Trivium China, also pointing to a key challenge on China’s calendar. ”Beijing will have to think hard about how to deal with the [2022] Winter Olympics. Until then, China won’t change its Covid-free strategy.”

Amid the debate over Zhang’s remarks, Hong Kong, which makes its own health decisions as an autonomous territory, is also doubling down on its Covid-zero stance. It tightened travel rules for arrivals from 16 countries including the US and those in Europe, increasing the hotel quarantine for even fully vaccinated travelers to 14 days from seven.

“An upright man”

Many internet users, bloggers, and prominent scholars have also voiced support for Zhang and his remarks. Some have compared Zhang to Li Wenliang, the doctor whistleblower who was among the first to share information about the existence of the pandemic. Users say they need to protect Zhang this time around, as they failed to do so for Li, who died of Covid-19 in February last year.

“Could [the government] stop doing lockdowns and mass Covid testing? They have caused too much inconvenience for our lives…If we can’t extinguish the virus anyway, can we just calm down and treat it as the way we treat flu?” said one of the top comments on Zhang’s Weibo page, where many others also say they feel measures against Covid-19 have become “overkill” and are restricting people’s basic freedoms.

In an opinion piece published by respected Chinese financial outlet Caixin today (Aug. 16), author Cao Lin said that the support for Zhang is a reflection of the public’s recognition of Zhang as “an upright man who has protected, helped and cured the public.”

Still, overall, there isn’t a consensus that the government should abandon its strict policy, said Bao, the Trivium analyst.

“China has been basically Covid-free for over a year and individuals want to keep it that way…The public will be very upset about any new Covid deaths and will blame the government for it,” Bao told Quartz. “Mishandling Covid comes with a huge political cost in China.”