When a new disease erupted one year ago in Wuhan, a group of journalists and activists rushed to the central Chinese city to document the extraordinary events, as hospitals were flooded with patients and authorities struggled to cope.
Among them was an idealistic lawyer from Shanghai called Zhang Zhan who filmed the overflowing hospitals, deserted streets, empty rail station and even a top-security laboratory conducting secretive experiments on bat coronaviruses.
After Wuhan’s Communist official suggested the city’s traumatised citizens needed ‘gratitude training’ to thank the party for its efforts to control the pandemic, the fearless 37-year-old went on the streets to ask residents if they really felt grateful.
‘Is gratitude something you can teach? If you can, it must be a fake gratitude,’ she responded caustically to her camera.
Like other citizens and professional journalists carrying out such risky work, Ms Zhang posted her impassioned reports on YouTube and social media to feed the appetite of a country desperate to learn about a deadly new virus.
Among them was an idealistic lawyer from Shanghai called Zhang Zhan who filmed the overflowing hospitals, deserted streets, empty rail station and even a top-security laboratory conducting secretive experiments on bat coronaviruses
Now this bold woman — who was seized by police in May — has paid the price for honesty in a dictatorship built on lies, propaganda and repression.
Yesterday, she was jailed for four years on the spurious charge of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’, despite being in poor health after going on hunger strike in protest over her detention and then being brutally force-fed.
In one of her reports Zhang asked a simple question: ‘Why can’t I show the truth?’
The answer is simple: truth is a dangerous weapon in a totalitarian system of government.
And the Communist Party in China, under the tightening iron fist of President Xi Jinping, was shaken by a public backlash this year over its botched response to this pandemic.
This is, after all, a regime that brooks no dissent, restricts families from having children, runs a network of concentration camps to crush religious minorities and is unleashing an Orwellian surveillance system to control 1.4 billion citizens.
True to form, it tried to cover up the outbreak late last year. Officials silenced doctors attempting to warn people to protect themselves, barred outside experts from entering the country, hid the true death toll and even delayed the sharing of scientific data about human transmission.
Yesterday, Chinese lawyer and citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was jailed for four years on the spurious charge of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’, despite being in poor health after going on hunger strike in protest over her detention and then being brutally force-fed
This is why Li Wenliang, an obscure ophthalmologist, became a national hero. He tried to warn his students to take hygiene precautions — but when these messages were shared among citizens, police made him sign a statement regretting his ‘misdemeanour’ in spreading false rumours.
Then he caught the disease himself and died aged only 34 in February. ‘A healthy society should not only have one kind of voice,’ he told a magazine shortly before his death.
One study by Southampton University found China might have cut the number of cases by 95 per cent if it had acted after finally notifying global health authorities. Instead, it carried on with New Year festivities that included a feast for 40,000 participants in Wuhan and vast numbers of folk moving around the giant country.
Some superb reports by Chinese journalists helped expose initial stumbles. Most have been wiped from the internet. At least three other citizen journalists also disappeared suddenly, although one has been freed under surveillance.
This trio included another outspoken lawyer and citizen journalist who posted disturbing footage from Wuhan hospitals — of bodies, anguished patients and overcrowded rooms in the city’s hospitals — and a local resident called Fang Bin who went missing after posting a video that claimed to show corpses of Covid victims.
China’s leadership is, of course, far from alone in making mistakes in responding to this virus. But now it is doing everything possible — at home and abroad — to promote a phoney narrative that it should be seen as the hero of these dark hours.
In one of her reports Zhang asked a simple question: ‘Why can’t I show the truth?’ The answer is simple: truth is a dangerous weapon in a totalitarian system of government.
After sending 300 officials to Wuhan to push party propaganda, which included making nurses shave their heads to demonstrate dedication to the patriotic cause, the politburo demanded tighter internet control and tougher crackdowns on dissent.
Then as the government began to contain the outbreak in its own borders through draconian lockdowns and use of surveillance technology, it launched an assertive campaign to shape global debate.
So while the rest of the world struggles to control a disease that emerged in China, its own increasingly aggressive diplomats — aided by human and robotic social media propagandists — push the idea that its response proves the superiority of firm autocracy over floundering democracies.
China has also used its immense wealth to buy support from poorer nations and is promising countries across Africa and Asia priority access to its vaccines, to expand influence and soft power.
It has been aided by an unexpected surge in exports after shaking off the virus, especially to the United States in defiance of predictions that the pandemic would lead to reduced reliance on its rival superpower.
Communist chiefs also used this distraction to throttle the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong with the imposition of a security law that has led to the jailing of some activists and the flight of others. ‘We’re scared, to be honest,’ one campaigner texted me.
Meanwhile, officials are desperate to dampen growing suspicions over the origins of this new disease in a city that is, coincidentally, home to a high-security lab that was carrying out work on its collection of bat-borne coronaviruses.
There is, so far, no evidence to disprove the conventional wisdom among scientists that Covid-19 emerged through some natural spill-over from nature. Yet equally, there is nothing to disprove suggestions that it might have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has admitted to safety concerns and was carrying out experiments on samples collected from bats 1,000 miles away.
These suspicions have been fuelled by the curious behaviour of the unit’s best-known scientist — Shi Zhengli, who is nicknamed Batwoman for her trips to collect fecal and blood samples from the mammals in their caves.
And the Communist Party in China, under the tightening iron fist of President Xi Jinping, was shaken by a public backlash this year over its botched response to this pandemic
Professor Shi quickly identified the closest viral relative to this new disease in an academic paper — but failed to mention it was linked to the deaths of three miners with a similar respiratory disease eight years ago. Strangely, she said they died from fungal infection before being made to provide more information.
Now there are fears the World Health Organisation, so deferential to China from the start of this pandemic, is allowing the Communist leadership in Beijing to dictate the terms of its belated pandemic inquiry.
The WHO’s mission to probe its origins is expected to travel to China next month. But there are concerns it is relying on Chinese data and has, according to its published terms of reference, given Beijing the right to vet its experts.
China is a cruel society led by smart people who understand the meaning of that mantra from 1984 — Orwell’s novel warning about totalitarianism — that whoever controls the past also controls the future.
This is why they aim to create a false, self-aggrandising narrative on the pandemic. And this is why the jailed lawyer Zhang has been stuffed inside a prison hellhole after seeking to tell the truth about a virus that has infected the world.