The New Yorker:
If there was a moment during the coronavirus crisis when the Chinese Communist Party looked as if it was losing its grip, it came on the night of February 6th, as the ophthalmologist turned whistle-blower Li Wenliang lay dying in a Wuhan hospital. In a small act of bravery that is now legend, Li had warned fellow-doctors in an internal chat group, in late December, of the impending contagion, which earned him a reprimand and a threat of arrest for spreading rumors. Li’s death was first reported at 9:30 p.m., but government censors quickly ordered the reports amended to say that he was still undergoing treatment; his death was not confirmed until just before three o’clock the next morning, when most of the country was asleep.
Nevertheless, virtually the entire online population followed Li’s death. The hashtag #LiWenliangDies received six hundred and seventy million views. People blamed the government’s coverup for what was by then a full-blown epidemic. They demanded free speech. They quoted from the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings on totalitarianism and lying. They called for the Communist Party to be held accountable.
Of course, this was all happening in cyberspace, because much of the nation was under lockdown. A long-time expat told me she thought that people would have taken to the streets if they had been allowed outside, and others I talked to agreed. Funerals can be politically charged occasions in China; it was a memorial for the former Party leader Hu Yaobang, who was beloved among liberals, that sparked the Tiananmen Square protests, in 1989. This makes it all the more improbable that, within three months, the Chinese government has managed to harness and redirect public opinion to project a unified, triumphalist message about conquering the epidemic.
On Thursday, the Communist Party kicked off its largest political convention of the year, the back-to-back sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress. Delayed from March, the “two sessions,” as the annual event is called, is turning into a self-congratulatory pageant to declare victory over the coronavirus—and over China’s many critics and dissenters. An emboldened leadership rolled out a far-reaching national-security plan that would erode the semi-autonomous status of Hong Kong.
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