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The death of coronavirus whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang has prompted calls for greater freedom of expression in China. Photo: AP

Coronavirus: Li Wenliang’s death prompts academics to challenge Beijing on freedom of speech

  • They also call on legislature to make February 6 – when whistle-blower doctor died – a national day for free speech
  • Petition is gaining momentum online but some signatories have already come under pressure
Hundreds of Chinese, led by academics, have signed an online petition calling on the national legislature to protect citizens’ right to freedom of speech, amid growing public discontent over the handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The petition on the highly sensitive issue in China comes as the ruling Communist Party has tightened its control over society in recent years. It also follows a massive outpouring of grief and anger over the death of Li Wenliang, a young doctor who was reprimanded by police for “spreading rumours” when he tried to warn people about the virus outbreak when it began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December. Li’s death from the pneumonia-like illness on Friday has prompted calls for those who sought to silence him to be punished, and for greater freedom of expression in China.

The new virus strain has so far infected more than 44,000 people and killed more than 1,000 in mainland China, with cases reported in more than 20 other countries.

The petition, addressed to the National People’s Congress, lists five demands for Beijing: to protect people’s right to freedom of expression; to discuss the issue at NPC meetings; to make February 6, the day Li died, a national day for free speech; to ensure no one is punished, threatened, interrogated, censored or locked up for their speech, civil assembly, letters or communication; and to give equitable treatment, such as medical care, to people from Wuhan and Hubei province. Many people from the outbreak epicentre have reported experiencing discrimination elsewhere in the country as the virus has spread.

The petition is gaining momentum online, but some of the signatories have already come under pressure. They include Tsinghua University sociologist Guo Yuhua and her colleague, law professor Xu Zhangrun, whose accounts on social media network WeChat have been blocked.

Xu wrote a damning letter last week blaming Beijing’s crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression for making it impossible to raise the alarm about the coronavirus outbreak.

Who was Li Wenliang and how did he become a coronavirus ‘hero’

Guo said the petition could be “another gesture that might not go very far before it’s stifled, but it’s important to take a stand”. “These days, one must speak up regardless of practicality,” she said.

Guo also criticised the authorities for putting political stability ahead of preventing the outbreak by censoring the people it said were “spreading rumours”.

“If the warnings were heard much earlier, this outbreak wouldn’t have got to the stage of no return,” she said.

Another law professor, Zhang Qianfan from Peking University, said he had signed the petition to fight for the public’s right to information because that was the key to containing the public health crisis.

“It will take time to assess whether [public discontent over handling of the outbreak] will eventually threaten Beijing’s ruling legitimacy,” Zhang said. “The main factor will be the damage caused by this crisis to the national economy.”

Meanwhile, veteran mainland journalist Chen Min, who is better known as Xiao Shu, said he felt compelled to sign the petition and act according to his conscience “at a critical juncture that could change China’s future”.

“It is inexcusable for an intellectual not to step up in the face of a national crisis like this, with an impact that far outweighs the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake,” Chen said.

“If anyone has to pay a price for [signing this petition] on such a rational set of demands, then it really shows all sanity has been lost … and it will only further inflame public anger,” he said.


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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Academics lead way on freedom of speech petition