Tue, Feb 11, 2020 - Page 9 News List

Doctor’s death sparks crisis of confidence in Xi’s China

Dissent is rising among Chinese as the death toll from the 2019 novel coronavirus mounts and problems arise due to Beijing’s response

By Li Danda and Sharon Chen  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) government has worked hard to channel public anxiety over the 2019 novel coronavirus into patriotic fervor, but the death on Friday of a 34-year-old doctor has unleashed a wave of fury that is sparking a rare crisis of confidence in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Li Wenliang (李文亮), who was sanctioned by local authorities after blowing the whistle on the disease last month, succumbed to the virus early on Friday. His death was immediately met with an outpouring of grief and outrage by hundreds of millions of social media users: They vented about how he was initially silenced, and mourned with the pregnant wife and young child he left behind.

Making things worse, reports of censorship and police intimidation swiftly followed his death. Many also expressed suspicion online that officials tried to stage-manage Li’s death after state-run media deleted initial reports of his passing and replaced them with news of doctors trying to revive him.

The death was finally confirmed before 4am, hours after reports first emerged.

“This country does not deserve its citizens,” said a 26-year-old student from Wuhan who asked to be identified by the name Joanna. “The government blocked the information as they always did, hiding the fact of a dead body for hours and pretended everything was going alright. This government never learns to reflect or correct. It’s deadly rotten.”

The death is becoming a lightning rod for growing discontent with the party over its handling of the virus, undercutting Xi’s efforts to portray China as entering a new era of wealth and power. Just four months ago, China’s 1.4 billion people watched the biggest-ever display of military might unfold in front of Tiananmen Square in Beijing to celebrate 70 years of CCP rule. Now, as the death toll surpasses 900 and the government struggles to regain credibility, many are wondering if China has come as far as they thought.

The CCP’s claim to legitimacy hinges on its ability to convince the public that only its stewardship will lead to long-term wealth and the country’s emergence as a global power. While mass street protests like those in Hong Kong are unlikely to occur on the mainland because strict Internet surveillance and censorship make organizing nearly impossible, the virus is a unique challenge, testing the party on every level.

“This is not only a public health crisis, but a political crisis for President Xi Jinping,” said Suisheng Zhao (趙穗生), executive director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of International Studies. “People are expressing dissatisfaction with the way Xi governs the country since taking power — the centralization of power, the firm control of public expression, the return to the ideological control of the Mao [Zedong, 毛澤東] era.”

Li had become a folk hero for speaking up, along with another seven doctors, about a mysterious new pneumonia they had encountered in Wuhan — the city where the pathogen originated. The eight were sanctioned by local police, although the Chinese Supreme People’s Court criticized the move after strong backlash from people who blamed the crackdown for slowing the local government’s response to the virus, losing a precious opportunity to contain it.

Hours after Li’s death, the top trending hashtag “I want freedom of speech” was no longer searchable on some social media platforms. The song Do You Hear the People Sing? from Les Miserables, a musical about people who have taken to the streets to protest against tyranny, was removed from several local music services after many posted it online.

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