More than two dozen countries have confirmed cases of the coronavirus that causes the disease now known as COVID-19 – and China is particularly badly affected. Authorities there are battling to control an outbreak that has killed more than 1,800 people across the country since it began late last year. But Chinese officials are also trying to manage public opinion.
On February 15 the Chinese government took the rare step of revealing that President Xi Jinping led a meeting about the virus with the highest members of the Communist Party on January 7. It shows that Xi was aware of the virus sweeping Wuhan nearly two weeks before he publicly acknowledged it. That came days after people across China flooded social media with messages mourning the death of Doctor Li Wenliang from the virus. He was one of eight health professionals who were reprimanded by police for spreading ‘rumours’ about the virus in December. On February 7 thousands of people paid ribute to Li’s public-spirited example on social media platforms, calling for a local government apology to Li while adding the hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech – a right guaranteed by China’s constitution. But within hours, posts featuring that hashtag were wiped by government censors. Meanwhile, authorities are continuing to rigidly enforce anti-rumour measures.
As the outbreak deepens, local government officials in Wuhan have been unsure of how best to handle mounting public ire and and distrust and have looked to the central government led by President Xi Jinping for guidance on what to do next. The head of the Communist Party in Hubei province is among those who have been dismissed as the central government scrambles to manage public opinion as well as the spiralling health emergency. But with the virus evading attempts so far to contain it and a wary public looking for guidance, is now the time for China’s highly centralised government to allow a greater measure of transparency and openness? We put that question to our panel on Monday’s episode of The Stream. Join the conversation.