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EDITORIAL | Keep the Pressure on China to Disclose Information on the Coronavirus Outbreak



In China, where infections from the respiratory-like ailment caused by the novel coronavirus continue to spread, moves have emerged to bring the Chinese government to task — publicly.


In one such move, a group of prominent scholars issued an open letter in their joint names to the National People’s Congress, the Chinese version of a legislature, demanding the immediate implementation of China’s constitutional guarantee of the freedom of speech.


The open letter severely accuses the Chinese government of being responsible for what the scholars call a “humanitarian disaster” that, they say, has led to the spread of the infection. It also lashes out at information controls by the government.


Since China is under a one-party dictatorial rule, the act of expressing criticism against the Communist Party or the government could result in immediate physical danger to the protesters. Moves critical of the authorities using protesters’ real names, therefore, are quite extraordinary. The issuance of the open letter, consequently, should be taken as evidence of the Chinese public’s extremely serious sense of crisis over the rampant spread of the novel coronavirus.


This situation, of course, is also a reflection of deep-rooted public discontent with the government's restrictions on freedom of speech that have been made tougher under the administration of President Xi Jinping. The Xi government should listen scrupulously to calls that ordinary Chinese have raised acutely — and then see to it that free speech and the flow of accurate, reliable information are ensured.


The open letter signed by more than a dozen scholars was made public on the internet on February 7, in the wake of the death earlier the same day of Li Wenliang, 34.


Li was the whistle-blowing Chinese medical doctor who tried to raise the alarm about the coronavirus in late December 2019 on social media. He was subsequently disciplined by the authorities of the Chinese central city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease. He died during the fight against the outbreak, according to a Wuhan hospital where he worked.


Among the open letter signatories is Zhang Qianfan, a professor of constitutional studies at Peking University in Beijing.


The novel coronavirus pneumonia has spread, while the Chinese general public — including citizens of Wuhan — were left utterly uninformed. The open letter notes:


As a result of the people having been deprived of the right to know, tens of thousands of people have been infected with the pneumonia outbreak, with the death toll running up to 1,000.


The letter cites Dr. Li’s words: “A sound society requires a multitude of views,” demanding that freedom of speech be granted to arguments in the mass media and on the internet for the cause of paying tribute to the death of Dr. Li.


Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, published online an unsparing critique of the government for failing to act effectively in response to the coronavirus epidemic. His written statement in early February called for freedom of speech.


Professor Xu has been known as a leading reformist polemicist in China. He was once subject to suspension from his teaching duties because of his criticism against the amendment of China’s Constitution in 2018 that removed presidential term limits, allowing President Xi Jinping to remain in office indefinitely. We can safely say Professor Xu has taken the action with a great deal of resoluteness and courage this time, too.


The Chinese authorities have reportedly embarked on actions to suppress these moves. To be sure, it would be extremely difficult to raise expectations on China’s prospects for adopting self-cleansing mechanisms conducive to guaranteeing freedom of speech. After all, Beijing has long ignored human rights.


Yet the Chinese government leadership would probably find it difficult to turn a deaf ear to the public uproar if a powerful body of opinion skeptical of the current regime continues surging.


In his telephone talks with United States President Donald Trump about the coronavirus on February 7, Xi stated proudly, “Our country is fully confident of defeating the new virus outbreak,” according to Chinese state-run media. 


To accomplish the task, however, China should take to heart that measures for ensuring disclosure of information and freedom of speech are indispensable.


For the people of Japan, this is no longer someone else’s affair. This country has already suffered a large number of victims infected with the coronavirus, which has claimed yet another person’s life. Japan must continue pressing China to provide accurate information regarding the matter.


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(Click here to read the editorial in Japanese.)


Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun