As the death rate from the coronavirus climbs across China, so too does defiance toward totalitarian rule not seen since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
First came “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear,” a Feb. 2 demand from Tsinghua law professor Xu Zhangrun for press freedom, free speech, freedom of assembly and association, the end to secret police surveillance of the internet, and respect for the basic universal rights, in particular the right to vote in open elections. China, he wrote, “needs to ground itself substantively in the concept that Sovereignty Resides in the People.”
Then on Feb. 7, eight other scholars joined Prof. Xu in “The Right to Freedom of Speech Starts Today,” an “Open Letter to the National People’s Congress” that blamed the coronavirus crisis, and China’s pariah status, on government secrecy. “For thirty years the Chinese have been made to surrender their freedom in exchange for safety, and now they fall prey to a public health crisis and are less safe than ever,” the scholars wrote. “A humanitarian disaster is upon us. The speed with which the rest of the world is repelled by China is faster than the spread of the virus, leaving China in an unprecedented global isolation.”
Then on Feb. 9 came the “2020 Changes China Petition” to “The National People’s Congress, the State Council and National Compatriots,” which began with 27 signatories, most of them scholars and lawyers, then grew to 230 with the addition of business people, and more lawyers, then to 427 when laid-off workers, farmers and “citizens” joined in, some of whom saved the government the trouble of tracking them down by providing their ID numbers or their cellphone numbers. When the list grew to 665 with the addition of a retired police officer, a jurist and a medical worker, the drafters of the open letter, having made their point, stopped accepting additional signatories.
Many signatories have since disappeared, called in for questioning, or — in what may be cynicism by the government itself — been placed in quarantine. Yet more critics of the Communist’s rule continue to speak out, often invoking Li Wenliang, the physician who first warned of the coronavirus outbreak only to be reprimanded for rumour-mongering and threatened with prosecution. Dr. Li subsequently became the virus’s most eulogized victim.
“In order to memorialize this good doctor, to remember this enormous tragedy, and to warn of the consequences of repressing speech, we hereby call upon the masses, organizations, enterprises and institutions, independent media, and the overseas Chinese community, to declare the day of Doctor Li Wenliang’s death, February 6, 2020, the “People’s Day of Truth.” On this day every year, we will observe three minutes of silence to honour Dr. Li and to reflect on this tragedy,” proposed The China Human Rights Lawyers Group.
In some of the most pointed and personal of the protests, Xu Zhiyong, a former Beijing district congressman, called on Chinese President Xi Jinping to resign, citing his mishandling of Hong Kong’s anti-government protests as well as the coronavirus epidemic, and portraying Xi as a hapless leader in a time of crisis.
In his last post, before the authorities picked him up, Xu concluded: “This nationwide calamity could only happen without democracy and freedom of speech. While the public are distressed for Dr. Li and their country, the Communist Party hides in the shadows and acts as eyes and ears. In their hearts, there is no right and wrong, no conscience, no bottom line, no humanity.”
In 1989, when demands from students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square challenged the government’s legitimacy, the Communist Party brought in troops from distant parts of the country, encircled the protesters and mowed them down. Today the protesters aren’t limited to students and they aren’t easily encircled — they’re everywhere and they’re growing.
“The People are no longer fearful,” said Prof. Xu Zhangrun. “Indeed, why should they submit to a system that in its arrogance arrogates unto itself the sole right to proportion life and death, and survival itself?
“Now, as a result of this Great Virus, the People are enraged and they’ve had enough.”
By Patricia Adams