More than two dozen countries have confirmed cases of the coronavirus now known as COVID-19 – and China is particularly badly affected. Authorities there are battling to control an outbreak that has killed more than 1,300 people across the country since it began late last year. But Chinese officials are also trying to manage public opinion, following an outburst of popular anger sparked by the death of a doctor who tried to raise the alarm as the virus took hold.
News of the death of Doctor Li Wenliang – one of eight health professionals who were reprimanded by police for spreading ‘rumours’ about the virus in December – was met with grief and anger by people across China. On February 6 thousands of people began paying tribute to Li’s public-spirited example on social media platforms, calling for a local government apology to Li while adding the hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech – a right guaranteed by China’s constitution. But within hours, posts featuring that hashtag were wiped by government censors. Meanwhile, authorities are continuing to rigidly enforce anti-rumour laws.
As the outbreak deepens, local government officials in Wuhan have been unsure of how best to handle mounting public ire and and distrust and have looked to the central government led by President Xi Jinping for guidance on what to do next. The head of the Communist Party in Hubei province is among those who have been dismissed as the central government scrambles to manage public opinion as well as the spiralling health emergency. But with the virus evading attempts so far to contain it and a wary public looking for guidance, is now the time for China’s highly centralised government to allow a greater measure of transparency and openness? We put that question to our panel on Monday’s episode of The Stream.
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