A picture of Dr Li Wenliang lies with flower bouquets at a hospital in Wuhan. Under totalitarian rule, the first instinct of officials is to suppress bad news, rather than address the problems brought to light by whistle-blowers, Dennis Kwok writes. AFP

The instincts of a totalitarian state


On Feb. 7, news of the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital who was among the very first to warn of the novel coronavirus, grabbed headlines not only in China but all across the world.

Wuhan recorded its first case of novel coronavirus pneumonia on Dec. 1 last year.

As the number of confirmed cases continued to climb, Li, along with seven other doctors, on Dec. 30 blew the lid off the epidemic, using a social media app to talk about the SARS-like pneumonia caused by an unknown coronavirus.

On Jan. 1, the Wuhan municipal government quickly took action: not against the disease outbreak, but instead, against the eight above-mentioned doctors who sounded the alarm on the new virus.

The following day, as CCTV News reported, the Wuhan authorities reprimanded all of the eight “rumor-mongers” for “making false comments” on the internet that “severely disrupted the social order”.

Yet as it turns out, Li’s so-called “rumor” was actually the cast-iron truth about a new and deadly breed of coronavirus-infected pneumonia that would quickly become a national epidemic in a matter of weeks.

Under totalitarian rule, what the people in power always tend to think of first whenever they run into a problem isn’t how to resolve the problem, but instead, how to go after the individuals who made the bad news public.

Ironically, while the rulers are usually able to “resolve” the people who bring the issues to light, they are often unable to prevent the issues themselves from emerging and blowing up on a larger scale.

In China’s case, although the regime in Beijing has succeeded in silencing good doctors, it has failed to contain the disease on which they sounded the alarm.

In consequence, the Wuhan pneumonia has not only swept across the mainland, it has also spread to several parts of the world.

As we can see, a totalitarian state which cracks down relentlessly on human rights is itself a source of virus for the rest of the world.

The Li saga has put the Chinese government in the firing line of many mainlanders in view of the absurdities, yet one is not sure if the boiling public anger would lead to any concrete change on the ground.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 10

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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