China’s coronavirus cover-up has far-reaching implications for free speech

Zineb Riboua

May 5, 2020

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” George Washington’s words resonate more with each passing day during this pandemic, where free speech is in growing danger. The global crisis has underlined some fundamental issues related to freedom of information and the right to ask questions of authoritative voices.

Many remain unaware of the flagrant violations committed by the Chinese communist party (CCP). It churns out propaganda and misinformation relating to the Chinese state’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, and when officials speak out and call attention to those falsehoods, they are lethally cracked down upon.

On 30 December 2019, Dr Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist at Wuhan central hospital, sought to caution his colleagues about the virus and its apparent human-to-human transmission. Four days later, at the behest of the CCP, he was pressured into renouncing what he had said.

On 10 March 2020, Dr Ai Fen, who was at the time director of Wuhan central hospital’s emergency department, publicly denounced the data put out by the Chinese authorities. On 16 March, less than a week later, he disappeared.

Resisting CCP authoritarianism from within, given its ruthless intolerance of whistleblowers, is almost guaranteed to endanger your safety. The CCP is behaving as if the proper use of critical thinking poses a greater threat to humanity than the ongoing pandemic.

China does not see dissension as mere questioning. It views those who undermine the integrity of its propaganda as posing an existential threat to its survival as a great power. That is why it feels the need to crack down on them so harshly.

This is far from the first time the CCP has used its immense influence to suppress true insights on its epidemic. Earlier, it censored use of the “#WuhanSARS” hashtag and launched investigations into eight Wuhan residents who shared statistics on social media, on the grounds that they had promoted “misleading information”.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has since declared that the Chinese regime’s delay in acknowledging various fundamental facts about coronavirus was the reason it was able to spread so widely, resulting in a global outbreak.

The CCP doesn’t even limit its rampant and arbitrary curtailing of individuals’ right to free speech to its own citizens. In March, it expelled foreign journalists from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

Geng Shuang, a spokesman of the foreign ministry, defended that decision by alleging that the US was trying to use coronavirus to undermine the Chinese state: “The United States cannot proceed from ideological prejudice, use its own standards and likes and dislikes to judge the media of other countries, let alone suppress the Chinese media unreasonably.”

Borders are no obstacle for the CCP either. An Australian student and pro-Hong Kong activist faced expulsion from the University of Queensland for questioning the institution’s ties to the CCP. A Chinese diplomat labelled him an “anti-China separatist”.

In response to China’s stark increase in hostility towards vocal individuals, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned against the possibility of CCP infiltration of the American education system: “The Chinese government has been methodical in the way it has analysed our system. It has assessed our vulnerabilities and it has decided to exploit our freedoms to gain an advantage over us at the federal level, the state level, and the local level.”

Aiding and abetting China’s capricious desire to control minds, thoughts and misconceptions of the meaning of democracy and liberty is nothing less than criminal.

Free speech is a fundamental right. It underpins many of our other freedoms. It must be preserved – not neglected – especially in times of crisis. China will continue to push its cover-ups and its manufactured facts. The information war will go on raging.

We all have a historical duty to stand up to the authoritarian regime that has killed millions, that intimidates Hong Kong and Taiwan with violence, systematically persecutes Uyghur Muslims and locks them in concentration camps, and seeks to exert pressure over other sovereign countries to help cover up its failures on Covid-19.


Written by Zineb Riboua

Zineb Riboua is a research intern at the Atlantic Council. She is the founder of the China in MENA Project.


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