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Death of a Hero Doctor Sparks Crisis of Confidence in Xi’s China

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government has worked hard to channel public anxiety over the new coronavirus into patriotic fervour. But the death of a 34-year-old doctor on Friday has unleashed a wave of fury that is sparking a rare crisis of confidence in the Communist Party.
 
Li Wenliang, 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 4 a.m., 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 to celebrate 70 years of Communist Party rule. Now, as the death toll surpasses 600 and the government struggles to regain credibility, many are wondering if China has come as far as they thought.
 
‘Political Crisis’
 
The Communist Party’s claim to legitimacy hinges on its ability to convince the public that only its stewardship will lead to long-term prosperity 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, executive director of the Center for China-U.S. 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 era.”
 
Li had become a folk hero for speaking up, along with another seven doctors, about a mysterious new pneumonia they encountered in Wuhan -- the central Chinese city where the pathogen originated. The eight were sanctioned by local police, though the Supreme Court criticized the move after a 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.
 
‘I Want Freedom of Speech’
 
Hours after Li’s death, the top-trending hashtag “I want freedom of speech” was no longer searchable on Weibo. 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 on social media. Even officials within the party expressed shock and sadness about Li’s death and how his early warnings were treated. In posts only visible to friends on WeChat, some bureaucrats praised the doctor for speaking up and highlighted the injustice of his death.
 
Beijing moved quickly on Friday to try and contain the growing outrage. The Communist Party’s top disciplinary body said it was sending a team to Wuhan to investigate the circumstances of Li’s death, a move that received approval by the Central Committee headed by Xi.
 
Still, like other measures authorities have taken since the outbreak began, it appeared Xi’s government was playing catch up. Its failure to quickly respond to the outbreak forced authorities to take extreme measures: More than 60 million people have been quarantined in Hubei province, businesses were told to stay shut after the Lunar New Year holiday, and travel across the country has been largely halted.
 
At first, the government appeared to see some success rallying the masses with nationalist songs, reports of heroic front-line doctors and the rapid construction of two new hospitals in Wuhan. Over the Chinese New Year holiday, it focused on bread-and-butter issues like boosting production of medical supplies and preparing a raft of measures to shore up the economy and stabilize financial markets.
 
But now, with citizens growing restless for life to return to normal, public anger is turning more on Communist Party officials. More than 5 million people left Wuhan before it was locked down, and the virus continues to spread across the globe. Some 31,000 cases have been reported in more than a dozen countries.
 
Major cities like Beijing and Shanghai have become ghost towns. Social gatherings are discouraged or outright banned in some cities. Children haven’t been able to return to school. The impact is most keenly felt in Hubei, where the mortality rate far outstrips the rest of China.
 
‘Can You Still Brag China Is Strong?’
 
Those who are gravely ill in Hubei are prevented from leaving to seek medical treatment outside the province, prompting hundreds of patients and their loved ones to turn to the internet for help. The posts, with identification numbers and detailed medical histories, are acts of desperation made in the hope that someone will come through with a test kit or a hospital bed.
 
Under one plea, a user asked “after reading the story of the patient’s family, can you still brag China is strong?.” “Praising the strength of the country is not only a kind of arrogance, but also cruel to the millions of Chinese citizens like this patient’s family members,“ the comment said.
 
As the reality on the ground has undercut the propaganda efforts, top leaders doubled down on stifling dissent. On Monday, Xi presided over a meeting of the Communist Party’s seven most powerful leaders, after which a communications official declared that “epidemic prevention and control propaganda” would be the new “top priority.”
 
Propaganda Mocked
 
Since then, the government has removed numerous posts critical of the virus response, taken down accounts on social media and begun “special supervision” of tech giants. That includes Weibo Corp., Bytedance Inc. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., which owns the country’s most popular messaging app WeChat.
 
“The government’s response in the early stage was flustered, even overlooking the control of public opinion,” said Deng Yuwen, former deputy editor of the Study Times, a leading party journal. “If the negative sentiment were allowed to continue, it would not be conducive to the image of the Chinese Communist Party and Xi.”
 
Part of that effort includes dispatching more than 300 local journalists to the front line in Hubei to join some 8,000 medical workers sent to bolster the overwhelmed hospital system. Their job is to “provide strong public support” for the government’s tasks, according to Zhang Xiaoguo, a bureau director in the Communist Party’s Central Publicity Department.
 
The propaganda efforts have been roundly mocked online, reflecting a cynicism that’s grown toward a government seen as out of touch and laser-focused on maintaining control and projecting an image of strength and effectiveness abroad.
 
Flaws Exposed
 
The deaths from the virus so far have mostly been older patients and people who didn’t have access to proper medical care. Questions are already being asked about why Li died when neither applied to him. On Friday morning, damage control from the government in the form of a commentary by state-run China Central Television rang hollow.
 
“Some of Li Wenliang’s previous experiences reflect our shortcomings in epidemic prevention and 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.”
 
Local authorities, who faced demands from netizens to issue an apology to Li, said he “died unfortunately after all our rescue efforts failed” and expressed “deep condolences and regret” while praising his efforts to fight the virus.
 
But in Wuhan, citizens want officials to take responsibility. One resident, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said the whole episode reflected deep problems with a top-down system of government in which everyone is scared to make a mistake.
 
“Because it developed so rapidly,” the person said, “the flaws in the entire system of governance have been exposed under the harsh light of this surprising outbreak.”
 

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