Pandemic Control Strategy:  A Subject for Debate, and Debate Suppression

In recent months, a spirited debate about COVID-19 pandemic control strategy has emerged online, but is actively being suppressed through post deletion and other censorship, intimidation, personal attacks, and retaliation for speaking out. Whether the commentator is an esteemed infectious disease specialist, a well-intentioned local teacher, or an attorney with qualms about the vaccine, there have been swift consequences for daring to question, debate, or even make suggestions regarding the government’s “total eradication” pandemic control strategy.

CDT Chinese has archived a number of posts and stories related to the debate. Below are summaries and translations drawn from a selection of this content.

The Expert Opinion

After a July 10 international flight from Moscow to Nanjing touched off an outbreak of the highly infectious COVID-19 Delta variant, a local lockdown was imposed and millions of Nanjing residents underwent numerous rounds of testing. The rapid response succeeded in muting the worst of the outbreak, but was not sufficient to stop it from spreading to 17 of China’s 23 provinces. The global spread of the Delta variant, the rise of other variants, and the possibility of waning immunity have led many experts to conclude that long-term coexistence with COVID-19 is an inevitable reality.

On July 29, esteemed virologist Dr. Zhang Wenhong weighed in with a Weibo post in which he discussed the Nanjing outbreak and its implications for coexistence and pandemic control policy:

The Nanjing outbreak has prompted a nationwide “stress test,” and given us much to ponder about future epidemic prevention and control. […]

  1. Will the outbreak in Nanjing worsen or spin out of control? […]
  2. In the midst of the Nanjing outbreak, is it time to start paying more attention to the protective effect of vaccines? […]
  3. What we’ve been through is not the hardest part: even harder is finding the wisdom to coexist with the virus in the long run. 

More and more people have come to believe that the epidemic will not end in the near future, nor even in the distant future. The vast majority of virologists now recognize that this is a longstanding virus, one that the world must learn to coexist with. The Nanjing epidemic has once again shown us the omnipresent nature of the virus. Like it or not, the future will always hold risk. As to how the world will coexist with the virus, each country will offer up its own answer. China once had a perfect answer to this question, but after the outbreak in Nanjing, we certainly have more to learn. China’s future choices must ensure a shared global future, intercommunication with the world, and a return to our normal way of life, while at the same time safeguarding our citizens from fear of the virus. China surely possesses the wisdom to do this.

We have already beaten the novel coronavirus once, and we will certainly find a way to triumph over it in the long run. [Chinese]

Although the post was not deleted or censored, the mere mention of “coexistence” with COVID-19 was enough to trigger attacks by state media outlets and some social media users, who accused Dr. Zhang of politicization, capitulation, and even being a traitor to the nation: 

A skewed, unscientific online poll asking users to vote on whether Dr. Zhang is a traitor: 23% chose “not a traitor (already decided),” 62% chose “is a traitor,” and 14% chose “let history be the judge.” [Chinese]

As the internet exploded with debate over the respective merits of zero-sum virus eradication versus long-term coexistence, economist and former Minister of Health Gao Qiang published a strongly-worded op-ed, via a People’s Daily channel, in which he repudiated the notion of coexistence with COVID-19 and branded its supporters “capitulationists.” Although he did not mention Zhang Wenhong by name, many read it as a personal attack and an attempt to discredit Zhang’s ideas.

The day after Gao’s editorial appeared, news media outfit Mr. Middle (中产先生) mounted a direct challenge to Gao and the zero-sum strategy, arguing for a “middle-of-the road approach” to managing COVID-19. The post was censored the next day, and Mr. Middle’s WeChat public account was suspended until September 9. CDT has archived a copy of the Chinese article and translated it in full. Here is a short excerpt from the translation:

One faction advocates total eradication of the virus; the other advocates coexistence with it.

The internet has already erupted into arguments about these two different approaches.

The divide was made especially clear in a statement issued yesterday [August 9] by Gao Qiang, the former health minister:

“Coexistence” is completely unacceptable. Humankind and the virus are locked in a life-and-death struggle. Ultimately, victory will rely on medicines that can kill the virus. At this stage, we cannot relax, and in fact must increase our efforts. We must “cast the virus from our borders” and drown it in the vast ocean of the People’s War.

This statement has emboldened the “eradication faction.” The original proponent of “coexistence,” Zhang Wenhong (a top infectious disease expert), was savaged and tarred with accusations by a bunch of Weibo users with little more than a middle school education. [Source]

Social media users who mocked or criticized Gao Qiang’s statement found their posts quickly deleted. One such post,An Open Letter to Comrade Gao Qiang,” was deleted from WeChat:

Greetings, Comrade Gao Qiang!

I have read, with great respect, the highly influential article you published in recent days. […] I felt it might be best if I wrote you a letter. Even with my limited knowledge and proficiency, I can tell that this article of yours is very likely to bring disaster upon the scientific community.

Firstly, I don’t know why you take this attitude toward our nation’s doctors. It stands to reason that you and these doctors are a part of the same system: if you have opinions or suggestions for a certain doctor, surely there are channels through which you can communicate with him. […] Yet you chose to publish a broadside like this in the official media. If I’m honest, your article has some literary merit—each word a gem, dripping with dispassion, bombarding the mind, yet leaving no trace behind. And though you name no names, we all know exactly who you mean. Given your immense stature and power, how could a humble doctor withstand your barrage? 

To the best of my knowledge, the doctor you refer to is a scientific researcher. His statement that “the world must learn to coexist with this virus” was simply his professional opinion: whether it was right or wrong is a matter for debate. However, you elevated his statement to the level of politics, to the level of individualism, and instantly transformed an academic difference of opinion into a conflict between enemies, a clash between systems. In doing so, you made that doctor a target of criticism by lumping him in with the governments of Western countries you criticize, such as the U.S. and the U.K. If we were to turn the clock back a few decades, an article such as yours would be enough to condemn that doctor as a counterrevolutionary or a traitor in service of a foreign power. He’d be flayed alive, and lucky if he survived.

“The master sergeant kills with the stroke of a pen,” as the saying goes. Your article is bound to bring disaster upon the scientific community. Based on your argument, who would dare to engage in scientific research in the future? Who would dare to come up with innovative scientific ideas? How would it even be possible to continue normal academic exchange, write about popular science, or attract foreign researchers to China? Most importantly, that doctor won’t have fallen fighting on the front lines of the pandemic, nor cowered before the ravages of the virus, but will have been destroyed by your pen, taken down by the article you wrote. [Chinese]

On August 15, Dr. Zhang’s alma mater, Shanghai’s Fudan University, announced that it was launching an investigation into his doctoral dissertation, published in 2000, after a recent plagiarism complaint. As the AFP reports, the investigation was widely viewed as being politically motivated, a form of retaliation for his comments on coexistence:

[…] [His] thesis, published in 1998 in the Chinese Journal of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases, had a review with a total of about 3,700 words, according to Changanjie Zhishi, a social media account operated by Beijing Daily.

Professor Yan Feng, from Fudan University’s Chinese literature department, said the accusers had deliberately confused a review and the main body of research, and also deliberately did not talk about the difference between academic norms 20 years ago and today.

“Using this as a tool for the attack, then who will dare to speak out and act according to their professional judgment in the future?” Yan said on his microblogging account. [Source]

The academic retaliation and personal attacks inspired many people, ranging from esteemed doctors to ordinary citizens, to defend China’s most prominent virologist’s right to express his informed medical opinion on the pandemic, described here by CNN’s  Nectar Gan and Steve George:

Ning Yi, a public health expert, posted on Weibo a photo of himself and Zhang in support, commenting: “If we can’t protect an expert as selfless as Zhang Wenhong, then our society is doomed.”

Yan Feng, a Chinese literature professor at Fudan University, warned of the potential chilling effect of the political witch hunt against Zhang. “Who will dare to speak out, who will dare to take responsibility, who will act according to their professional judgment in the future?” he asked.

Some Weibo users said the attacks on Zhang are reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, during which scientists — along with intellectuals and artists — were subject to public humiliation and savage attacks by the Red Guards for their perceived political unreliability. [Source]

CDT has reprinted and archived a Weibo essay by news blogger Wei Zhou (维舟) titled  “If Zhang Wenhong Can No Longer Speak Out”:

[…] In this society, we all know how frightening such defamatory accusations can be: they are more than harmless nonsense; they have the potential to cause serious harm. While someone of Zhang Wenhong’s stature might emerge unscathed, many others, witnessing this cacophony of attacks, will stay silent out of fear. To be honest, it even frightens me.

We can’t expect everyone to be a saint—unblemished, eternally correct, unerring in their personal convictions—which makes it all the more essential that everyone have the right to speak. Zhang Wenhong is one of the very few public figures who can still express a differing opinion. As to whether his opinion is correct or not, I fear that the majority of people are in no position to judge, but one thing is certain: he can offer an expert perspective.

If someday he is no longer able to speak out, some will consider it a victory, but it will be a loss for all of us. [Chinese]

On August 18, Dr. Zhang resurfaced after several weeks of media silence to post an update on his Weibo account, reassuring the public that he was fine and had simply been busy with his medical responsibilities. He also walked back his previous post a bit, averring that China’s current “total eradication” efforts were “the most suitable” policy. On August 23, as SCMP reported, Fudan University announced that it had concluded its investigation, clearing Dr. Zhang of any academic misconduct: 

[…] In a brief statement on Monday, Shanghai’s Fudan University said it found no evidence of academic misconduct in the doctoral thesis of Zhang Wenhong, who became a household name in China for his advice on the coronavirus pandemic.

The university said it did not find any malpractice, only some minor irregularities in the review section of the thesis, which did not affect the quality of the research or amount to academic misconduct.

[…] His reappearance in social media was read as a sign that the controversy over his “coexistence” remarks was over. Some of his supporters left messages online saying his critics owed the doctor an apology. [Source]

CDT has also republished an article titled Zhang Wenhong is saved; Zhang Wenhong has lost,” that explores the chilling effect this saga might have on future debate. Below is a partial translation:

[…] But this wave of personal attacks has still been effective, because it proves that Dr. Zhang is not perfect. Now that he has “a stain” on his record, will people still find his opinions credible?

My attitude is that Dr. Zhang’s opinions are as credible as ever, and all too rare. It’s just unfortunate that he may not feel free to make these “off-the-cuff remarks” in the future.

Zhang Wenhong posted an update on Weibo a few days ago about what he’s been doing during the media firestorm: treating patients at the outpatient clinic, participating in a pandemic prevention conference in Shanghai, and fulfilling his duties and obligations as the leader of the Shanghai Medical Treatment Experts Group. It was also a way to let everyone know that he was safe. Although he mentioned nothing about the personal attacks against him or complaints about his thesis, the public still felt a sense of relief to know that Dr. Zhang was “well.”

But some people may have carelessly overlooked the last part of his Weibo post.

My interpretation is that the sentence, “We must remain staunch in our convictions,” is his response to former Minister of Health Gao Qiang’s criticism of “capitulationism.” In this passage, Zhang Wenhong agrees that China’s current “eradicationist” pandemic prevention policy is ideal, appropriate and should be staunchly maintained.

At the same time, he also claims that he rarely posts on Weibo, and that it is typical for him not to post: it would be easy to interpret this to mean that he will not be making any more off-the-cuff remarks on Weibo in the future.

[…] It appears that this whole long process—the huge controversy touched off by Zhang Wenhong and the clamour of accusations against him—may soon be coming to an end. If this is true, there is one final risk: that we will have lost something of inestimable public value. In the process of “saving” Zhang Wenhong, the people may ultimately have “lost” him—that is, if he retreats to his consulting rooms and does not speak out anymore. [Chinese]

The Well-intentioned Suggestion

Lesser-known individuals and ordinary citizens have also faced retaliation for posting opinions, criticisms or suggestions that diverge from the government’s preferred pandemic-control policies.

CDT has archived a deleted WeChat post from Zhu Xuedong about a teacher in Jiangxi province detained by police for 15 days for posting an innocuous comment in an online discussion thread:

Excuse me, Fengcheng Police: Is Talking About “Coexisting With the Virus” Just Cause for Arrest?

In Fengcheng city, Jiangxi province, a teacher named Zhang has been detained for 15 days for posting a humbly-worded online comment suggesting that the government ease up on strict pandemic prevention measures and try to “coexist with the virus.”

This is such a bizarre story.

The story came to my attention on August 11, when I noticed a brief item in the @丰城发布 [Fengcheng Announcements] official WeChat account:

On August 10, a teacher with the surname Zhang—under the user name @无线观察 [Online Inspection]—posted an inappropriate comment related to the pandemic on a news story, causing an adverse social impact. Our municipal Public Security Bureau responded promptly, placing Zhang under a 15-day period of administrative detention in accordance with the law. After posting the offending comment, the teacher deeply regretted his mistake, voluntarily deleted the comment and posted an apology from the same account to his fellow netizens.

[…] Zhang has already deleted the content, but if the screenshots of other netizens are accurate, his “inappropriate comment” was as follows:

Yangzhou is not that large or populous. Couldn’t we try easing up on strict pandemic prevention measures and coexisting with the virus, then see what results are? That way, the whole country could benefit and learn from Yangzhou’s experiment. This is just a suggestion, so don’t attack me.

[…] Government power overstepping its boundaries is a terrible thing. […] [E]ven if this teacher Zhang from Fengcheng did post a comment that was sarcastic or problematic, what law did he break? If there isn’t even space for that kind of speech, what kind of future do we have to look forward to? [Chinese]

The story of the teacher’s 15-day detention garnered a lot of attention and posts on WeChat, Weibo, Twitter and other social media, with many commenters dismayed by the overreaction of the police:

@SpeechFreedomCN: In Fengcheng City, Jiangxi, a teacher named Zhang posted a comment on a news thread making a humbly-worded suggestion that the government allow Yangzhou to get rid of some of the strict pandemic containment measures and try “coexisting” with the virus. For this, he was detained for 15 days.

@malbv2gHA2jzZz8: I saw this news today and was floored. By this standard, my days of eating prison slop aren’t far off.

@acme790228: That’s the environment for speech in our country nowadays—just making a suggestion has become “making inappropriate comments,” lol

The Statement of Vaccine Concerns

The space for online debate about COVID-19 vaccines is also constrained, despite public concerns about issues ranging from vaccine efficacy to lack of transparency or official accountability when it comes to pandemic policy.

On August 10, Xie Deping, a lawyer in the city of Mianyang, Sichuan Province, wrote a statement to the secretariat of his local lawyers’ association explaining his reasons for not wanting to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at this point in time. The statement was widely circulated after one of Xie’s colleagues, unbeknownst to him, posted it online.

The story gets stranger. On August 15, Xie received a call from the local police station inquiring about the statement. Although he confirmed that the call was, in fact, coming from the station, it was a confusing conversation, exacerbated by local dialect and the caller’s unwillingness to provide any information about himself, such as his full name, job description, or official title.

CDT has archived a now-deleted WeChat post that details the story and includes photos of Xie Deping, a copy of his statement and a transcript of the puzzling telephone call. After confirming Xie’s name and address, the purported police officer broached the subject of the “viral” statement:

Police: You posted something on the internet that said, “I don’t want to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus at this stage,” right?

Xie: Well, I sent an image [of that] to a group of lawyers.

Police: Huh?

Xie: I said I sent the image to a group of lawyers.

Police: You recently posted a thing that said, “I don’t want to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus at this stage.”

Xie: I said I sent the image to a group of lawyers.

Police: Your voice sounds a bit…have you been drinking? Drinking at noon?

Xie: What?

Police: Have you been drinking today?

Xie: No, I haven’t been drinking! […] 

Police: Can I tell you why I’m calling today? Because you live in our jurisdiction. Our national vaccine management law has now authorized the vaccine for emergency use, all right?

Xie: Uh-huh.

Police: Can I tell you another thing, another reason I’m calling? If you publish something on the internet, it must be positive content. And you ought to be aware that the country is now promoting the vaccine. If you post something like this, and people repost it, and it has a certain impact, that’s definitely bad. Right?

Xie: How could it be bad?

Police: I told you how just now. Let me put it this way: how could it not be bad?

Xie: Are you really calling from the police station? [Chinese]

The call lasted just over three minutes. After multiple attempts by Xie to confirm the caller’s full name and rank, the person simply hung up. Later inquiries to the police station proved fruitless. 

Xie Deping isn’t sure if the police will take any further measures against him, but he says that he doesn’t feel that he did anything wrong, and has no regrets. He plans to continue to “wait and see” before deciding whether to get the vaccine.

A vaccine-related joke on NetEase has also disappeared from social media:

Posted everywhere: “If you refuse the vaccine and cause an outbreak, you will be held strictly accountable!”

Response: “So if I take the vaccine and still get infected, who can I hold accountable?”

Related CDT Chinese posts:

八点健闻 | The Delta Strain Has Spread to 17 Provinces: Is it Time for China to Consider Coexisting with COVID-19?

冰川思享号 | You’re Working Awfully Hard to Discredit Zhang Wenhong

Dragon TV Host Luo Xin Banned From Weibo for “Inappropriate Remarks”


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