Democracy supporters demand the release of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan. Photo: REUTERS / Tyrone Siu / File
A little over a year has passed since the novel coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan and the world still has many questions about its origin and origin.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is send a team to China this week to investigate the origins of the virus which has now claimed nearly 2 million lives around the world, but health expert warns expectations for visit should be set very slow.
The Chinese government has severely restricted any attempt to investigate the origins of COVID-19 both internally and by foreign experts while advocating alternative theories that the pandemic originated elsewhere.
Senior management sees control over this narrative vital for its hold over the Chinese people and the strengthening of its international reputation.
The stakes could not be higher because Beijing has present the Communist Party is a strong and centralized rule as the key to the country’s success in controlling the pandemic and reviving its economy.
This was contrasted with disastrous efforts to control the disease in the United States under the Trump administration. State Global Times called the United States a hell alive.
In this context, Yanzhong Huang, senior researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, says WHO investigative team
must be politically savvy and draw conclusions acceptable to all major parties.
Citizen journalists disappear after reporting the truth
Part of the Communist Party’s control of the narrative resulted in the detention of many citizen journalists who sounded the alarm bells about the virus in its early stages, denounced the government’s attempts to cover it up and criticized its swift response to control it.
At the end of December, one of these independent journalists, Zhang zhan, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for the crime of quarreling and causing trouble.
A former lawyer, Zhang traveled to Wuhan in February to talk to people about how they were doing in the lockdown. She shared videos and talked about what she observed, at one point noting the fear people felt towards the government was actually greater than their fear of the virus.
In an interview before his detention, she said
Maybe I have a rebellious soul. I am only documenting the truth. Why can’t I show the truth?
Chinese law professor Xu Zhangrun was detained by police for a week after writing articles criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping and then being fired from his university post. He remains under surveillance and has been banned from leaving Beijing, but he keep writing.
Others have simply disappeared. The outspoken lawyer and citizen journalist Chen Qiushi disappeared in February after reporting from Wuhan and did not reappear until late September. He also remained under strict supervision by the authorities.
Use the security system and courts to target civil society
Under Xis’ leadership, the Communist Party became more and more vigorous in protecting the official propaganda around the ideology of the party and the reign of Xis against any form of criticism.
While Xi pointed out in a 2013 speech The importance of propaganda and ideological leadership to the country, the pandemic has allowed the Chinese party-state to expand its ideological control over the courts, eliminating any pretense of judicial autonomy.
This manipulation of the rule of law institutions can be seen in the prosecution of citizen journalists like Zhang Zhan and anyone who questions or criticizes the official party line.
Marxist scholars and party propagandists argue that there are no contradictions between party ideology and the rule of law. In China, they say, there is no need to legally separate powers to ensure justice, because the party is the ultimate expression of the will of the people when it comes to law and order.
In essence, the Communist Party East the rule of law, with Chinese characteristics.
The party has long used the security system and courts in this way to kill chickens to scare away monkeys (a Chinese idiom meaning to punish an individual as an example to others).
What is new and disturbing is the use of this tactic to eradicate all dissent and perceived threats to the party regime from civil society. People targeted in recent years include Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun, Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai and Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei, as well as many foreigners.
Forced silence does not mean the public’s belief
This national political context makes it unlikely that WHO researchers will be allowed to fully investigate all hypotheses about the origins of the coronavirus, such as the claim that it may have been caused by a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
According to the documents, published by Associated Press This month, the government is monitoring scientists’ findings and demands that any research be approved by a new task force under the direct command of Xis before it is released.
The Zhangs case reveals how the challenges of official narratives are now being handled in China. It also shows that Chinese citizens don’t always find official narratives convincing, and propagandists cannot force them to believe in ideology. The forced silence of the critics does not mean that people believe in the official party line.
With the origins of COVID-19, Chinese citizens and the world deserve the truth, not a politically convenient twist.
John garrick, Scholar in Law, Charles Darwin University and Yan Bennett, Associate Director, Princeton University.