A little over a year has passed since the appearance of the new coronavirus in Wuhan City, China. Since then, the whole world is still asking many questions about its origins.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has sent a team to China this week to investigate the origins of the virus – which has now done nearly 2 million victims around the world. But health expert Dale Fisher, chair of the WHO-affiliated Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, warns not to expect big conclusions from this visit.
The Chinese government has severely curbed any attempt to investigate the origins of COVID-19 – both internally and by foreign experts – while circulating other hypotheses according to which the pandemic would have originated elsewhere than in China.
For senior Chinese leaders, control information on the origins of the pandemic is necessary to maintain the government’s grip on the population and restore China’s reputation internationally.
The stakes are high for China, as the central government attribute its success in controlling the pandemic with the centralized power of the Communist Party, thus strengthening its legitimacy.
This contrasts with the disastrous efforts to control the spread of the disease in the United States under President Trump’s administration. The Global Times, Chinese state newspaper, described the United States as the“Hell on earth” talking about the impacts of COVID-19.
Given these tensions, Yanzhong Huang, a senior researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, a non-partisan US think tank, believes the WHO investigative team will need to employ political strategies and draw conclusions acceptable to all parties.
Make dissidents disappear
The Chinese Communist Party has controlled the news by arresting numerous citizen journalists who sounded the alarm bells about the virus as soon as it emerged. They exposed the government’s attempts to cover up history and criticized its drastic way of controlling the epidemic.
At the end of December 2020, one of these citizen journalists, Zhang Zhan, was sentenced to four years in prison for “provocation to troubles”.
This former lawyer went to Wuhan in February to interview residents about their confinement habits. She shared videos, telling them what she observed, and among other things that people feared the actions of the government more than the virus itself.
In an interview given before his detention, she revealed:
Maybe I have a rebellious soul… I’m only documenting the truth. Why can’t I show the truth?
Zhang Zhan is just one of many critics the government has tried to silence.
A Chinese law professor, Xu Zhangrun, was detained by police for a week after writing articles criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping, 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 lawyer and citizen journalist Chen Qiushi disappeared after reporting in Wuhan in February and did not reappear until the end of September. It remains under the “Strict surveillance” authorities.
Use the security system and courts to target civil society
Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the official propaganda of the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party has regained new vigor and stands up against any form of criticism.
In a speech delivered in 2013, Xi underlined the importance of propaganda and “ideological leadership” for the country. The pandemic will have allowed the Chinese state to extend its ideological control over the courts, thus eliminating all their claim to autonomy.
This manipulation of the legal apparatus manifests itself in the prosecution of citizen journalists like Zhang Zhan and anyone else who questions or criticizes the official party line.
In China, they say, there is no need to have a legal separation of powers to guarantee justice, because the Party is the ultimate expression of the will of the people in matters of public order. In essence, for them, the Communist Party East the rule of law, with Chinese characteristics.
The Party has long used law enforcement and courts in this way to “kill chickens to scare monkeys” (a Chinese maxim meaning “to punish an individual to set an example for others”).
What is new and disturbing is the use of this tactic to eradicate all dissent and perceived threat in civil society against Party power. Among those targeted in recent years are Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun, the Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai and the Sino-Australian journalist Cheng Lei, as well as many foreigners.
The silence imposed does not mean the public’s belief
This national political context could make the task of WHO researchers more difficult. They are unlikely to be allowed to fully investigate all hypotheses about the origins of the coronavirus, such as the one that a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is involved.
According to these documents published by the Associated Press, the government monitors scientists’ results and requires that all research be approved by a task force under the direct authority of President Xi Jinping before being published.
Zhang Zhan’s case reveals how challenges to official narratives are now handled in China. It also shows that Chinese citizens do not always side with official narratives and that they do not swallow the ideology of propagandists without criticizing them. The silence imposed does not mean that people believe in the official Party line.
Chinese citizens – and the whole world – deserve to know the truth about the origins of COVID-19, not to pay the price for politically useful propaganda.
The original version of this article was posted on The conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas between academic experts and the general public.