Lessons from China: Truth is needed for free citizens to comply with restrictions to combat Covid-19

Most democratic governments are extremely uncomfortable in imposing the restrictions that are needed with the outbreak of the coronavirus. They may differ in their approach towards tackling Covid-19 but have all been open about the number of cases and the measures they were taking to prevent infections. They know instinctively that their free citizens will only comply with restrictions if they have enough information. This is also the case in South Africa, where President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize have been praised for their forthright, open communication with the nation on the outbreak of the coronavirus. In his weekly ‘From the Desk of the President‘ Ramaphosa stressed the need for truth in forming a social compact between citizens and their government and he quotes Abram Lincoln who said “if given the truth, [the people] can depend upon to meet any national crisis. Michael Morris writes about China’s effort to suppress the truth about the coronavirus that was spreading like a wildfire in Wuhan and how the doctor who first raised the alarm, not only became a victim of a vicious campaign by the Chinese government but also died from the virus itself. That suppression of the truth has resulted in the global spread of Covid-19. Morris says the Chinese experience demonstrates that authorities should trust people and then they will heed restrictive measures to contain the virus. First published in Daily Friend. – Linda van Tilburg

China syndrome: Covid-19 and the penalty of unfreedom

By Michael Morris*

‘Everyone please be careful.’

These words, expressed only 11 weeks ago by a man who is now dead, have been freighted in the short time since they were written with a tragic, global, irony.

In any other context, they might have made all the difference.

But Dr Li Wenliang’s cautionary advice of late December 2019 – coupled as it was with a timely early warning of the sudden, frightening appearance of the yet unnamed strain of coronavirus since identified as SARS-CoV-2 – stimulated an authoritarian rather than a public-spirited response from the mighty state apparatus of the Republic of China.

The timeline is instructive.

The first sign of the new coronavirus appeared in a patient on 1 December in Wuhan.

Worrying symptoms

At his hospital in this huge, bustling city of 11 million people in the heart of China, Li became aware of a cluster of patients exhibiting worrying symptoms of a SARS-like disease, and shared what he knew and feared with former med school classmates on a WeChat group. He told the group that, as he understood it at that point, the disease was spread by droplet transmission at close range, and affected multiple organ systems. It was at the end of December that he urged his friends to ‘please be careful’.

On the same day, the Wuhan Health Commission posted an urgent notice ‘on the treatment of pneumonia of unknown cause’. To this notice was appended the warning: ‘Without authorisation, no units or individuals shall release treatment-related information to the outside.’

Shortly thereafter, Li’s WeChat group was banned. But Li himself was in for more unwelcome attention.

Not only was he subjected to a disciplinary procedure at his hospital, but he was taken in by the police and reprimanded for ‘spreading rumours’.

“With the approval of the central committee, the state supervisory committee decided to send an investigation team to Wuhan, Hubei Province, to conduct a comprehensive investigation on related issues reported by the masses involving Dr Li Wenliang

The record of his being dealt with by the Wuchang Branch of the Wuhan Public Security Bureau at the South Road Street police station on 3 January bears all the traces of the pitiless logic of authoritarianism, which, it is safe to say, always fails ‘the masses’ it deceivingly claims to serve.

The official statement notes: ‘With the approval of the Central Committee, the State Supervisory Committee decided to send an investigation team to Wuhan, Hubei Province, to conduct a comprehensive investigation on related issues reported by the masses involving Dr. Li Wenliang.’

The interests of the ‘masses’ were poorly served by what followed – a menacing reprimand for Li’s ‘posting untrue statement “7 confirmed SARS cases at Wuhan Hua’nan Fruit and Seafood Market” on the WeChat Group “Wuhan University Clinical Class of 2004” on Dec 30, 2019’.

‘Illegal act’

Couched in the all too revealing register that obscures what is always the case with the trampling of human rights in the march of socialism, the police informed Li: ‘[We are] now filing an official warning and admonitions to you on the illegal issue of posting untrue statements on the Internet according to the law. Your behavior severely disrupts social order. Your behavior has exceeded the scope permitted by the law and violates the relevant provisions of the Public Security Administration Punishment Law of the People’s Republic of China, which is an illegal act! The police authority hopes that you can cooperate with our work, listen to the admonishment by the police officers and stop conducting illegal activities.’

It goes on: ‘We hope that you calm down and reflect carefully, and solemnly warn you: if you continue to be stubborn without any regret, and carry out illegal activities, you will be punished by the law! Do you understand?’

Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise Li’s answer was a defeated: ‘Understand.’

In a formal statement at this time, the police said they would ‘investigate and punish with zero tolerance these illegal acts that fabricate and spread rumours and disrupt social order’.

Just days later, on 9 January, Covid-19 claimed its first victim in Wuhan. This fatality was only announced on 11 January. All the while, the crisis mounted. It was no rumour, after all.

Worst possible time

Yet it was only on 22 January that Beijing acknowledged the seriousness of the epidemic at a press conference in the capital, and, a day later, imposed the frightening lockdown on Wuhan and Hubei province. And it was only weeks after the first infection that China notified the World Health Organisation of the outbreak. By early January, the spread of the virus coincided with what has been described as the world’s largest mass migration – the movement of hundreds of millions of people across China and across the world for the Chinese Lunar New Year. It was the worst possible time for an epidemic.

In the compelling documentary, Coronavirus: How the deadly epidemic sparked a global emergency, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the scale of the crisis by late January is borne out by footage and data showing Wuhan’s hospitals struggling to cope, and medical staff beginning to crack under intolerable pressure.

At that point, there were 830 patients, and 25 deaths.

A little more than a week later, Dr Li Wenliang was among the casualties. In the weeks since, China’s death toll has risen to more than 3 200 (with more than 80 900 cases), and the global death toll has soared to more than 12 000 (with nearly 300 000 cases).

Back in early February, most South Africans, like most people in the West, almost certainly thought of coronavirus as a distant threat, apparently successfully limited to China. Beijing had imposed a lockdown, after all. That was one good thing to be said of authoritarianism; you could do that without fear of social or political repercussions.

But the lockdown failed, where, almost certainly, Li’s early warning – had it been heeded – would have saved lives and enabled a quicker, better-managed response.

In ABC’s documentary, Chinese political commentator and democracy campaigner Dr Wu Qiang is emphatic.

‘Concealing the truth’

Local government in Wuhan was not accountable to the people, but to the central government, adopting a policy of concealing the truth from the public, but trying to control the epidemic internally. This contradiction prevented them from properly mobilising to deal with the spread of the epidemic.’

Richard McGregor, East Asia Senior Fellow at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan international policy think tank, observed: ‘When those doctors started sharing information, they were doing what you would expect medical professionals to do… to try and sort of pool information and see what was actually happening. But of course that’s a dangerous thing to do in China. I think there’s little doubt right now that local officials in Wuhan did withhold information. They’ve admitted as much. The doctors in Wuhan who were talking about it were explicitly told to shut up.’

Wu Qiang, who lost his university job for defying a ban on teaching democracy, said; ‘They were concealing the truth. The information withheld from the public caused the outbreak of the disaster and the spread of the disease.’

For McGregor, this is the ‘key point in this saga’.

The handling of the coronavirus crisis in China is a chilling illustration of the penalties of unfreedom, and of distributing liberty in the hands of the people

‘They lost two weeks, maybe three weeks, just when the virus was at its nascent point, just at the time when they could have traced it, but that was lost because it got caught up in the politics of the information flow and information surveillance in China.’

In common with the fear of freedom shared by all statists – a damaging feature of policy-making in South Africa, from 1948, but also from 1994 – the handling of the coronavirus crisis in China is a chilling illustration of the penalties of unfreedom, and of distrusting liberty in the hands of people.

In a poignantly tragic sequel just this week – too late, not only for Li, but for many hundreds of thousands, conceivably – even Beijing seemed to at least partly acknowledge this truth when it apologised to Li’s family and withdrew the reprimand against him.

Read also: Only herd immunity can control Covid-19 in SA – James Myburgh. MUST READ!

Beijing’s investigation, a response to public outrage, in Wuhan and elsewhere in China, found that the Wuhan authorities had acted ‘inadequately’ in reprimanding the 34-year-old doctor, and had failed to follow ‘proper law enforcement procedure’. Wuhan police said two officers responsible for improperly reprimanding Li had been disciplined, but what procedure should have been followed was not explained.

Investigators went as far as recognising that Li’s attempts to sound the alarm on the coronavirus was a positive influence that helped raise awareness.


There are lessons, here, for South Africa. The liberalism that the Institute of Race Relations argues for with undiminished vigour is not an abstract virtue, but a way of being, good habits that give society dynamism and resilience because they engender a sense of responsibility and agency in individuals.

In our present, harrowing circumstances, the success of our fight against Covid-19 will hinge not on the force of state power brought to bear on South Africa’s 58 million people, but on the willingness of the population to comply with the onerous but essential social-distancing measures that have proved to be the best way to flatten the infection curve and save healthcare systems from collapse.

It is correct, in this crisis, for the state to have extraordinary – temporary – powers to regulate society for our collective benefit. But, as the Chinese experience demonstrates, the authorities must trust the people enough to tell them, timeously, what’s at stake and what must be done, and to know that when they say, everyone, please be careful, we will be.

  • If you like what you have just read, subscribe to the Daily Friend. IRR head of media Michael Morris was a newspaper journalist from 1979 to 2017, covering, among other things, the international campaign against apartheid, from London, and, as a political correspondent in Cape Town, South Africa’s transition to democracy. He has written three books, the last being Apartheid, An Illustrated History, and has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. He writes a fortnightly column in Business Day.