The world is now getting a taste of what life has been like for people in China for decades: How many times have they also been outraged and not gotten the answers they deserved?
Many people still want to know what led to the harrowing deaths of over 5,000 children during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many of them buried by substandard school buildings that instantly collapsed, unlike other buildings around them. While officials promised an investigation, no official report has ever been released and no officials held accountable for the children’s deaths.
The Chinese authorities investigated the 2011 Wenzhou high-speed rail collision — which killed 40 and injured 192 — concluding that it was caused by a signal flaw. But it did not respond to the public’s suspicions, such as whether the train authorities intended to destroy evidence by burying part of the crashed train cars soon after the accident.
Many governments try to mitigate the impact of disasters on their image. But in China, where the government controls most aspects of life, what happens after disasters is all too predictable: It presents its own version of events, instructs state media to report only on the heroic rescue efforts and picks a few lower-level officials to punish. This performative justice contributes to a peculiar but common perception that while some corporations and local officials may be greedy and corrupt, top leaders are wise patriarchs with the people’s welfare at heart.
As for those who dare to poke holes in official narratives, the mighty weight of state repression awaits. The activists Tan Zuoren and Huang Qi were imprisoned and the artist Ai Weiwei was forcibly disappeared and beaten for investigating the deaths of schoolchildren in the Sichuan earthquake. A journalist, Zhang Zhan, is gravely ill as she stages a hunger strike to protest her imprisonment for documenting Wuhan’s covid-19 lockdown in early 2020. In all these cases, victims’ families who seek the truth are detained and muzzled.
After each coverup, the government subjects people across China to the added indignities of forced amnesia, as the authorities replace the truth with a sanitized version that acknowledges some facts while twisting the rest to bolster the Chinese Communist Party’s image. Long before the Trump administration popularized the term “alternative facts,” people in China had already been living with them. Unlike in democracies, where truthful reporting is available for those who seek it out, the people of China have no alternative to “alternative facts.”
What, then, are the real facts behind covid-19’s origins, and does the Chinese government have something to hide? Perhaps nothing, or perhaps everything. Because the Chinese government has never had to face genuine investigation or accountability following disasters, it finds a World Health Organization team probing around alarming. What if the scientists discover something that indicates high-level culpability, corruption or collusion?
It has been about 18 months since Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who blew the whistle on covid-19 and who was muzzled by the police for doing so, died after contracting the virus, prompting people to mourn across China. At the time, the hashtag “We want freedom of expression” went viral, as did some of Li’s last words, such as “a healthy society must have more than one voice.” The government swiftly censored many of these posts.
Some people in China recognize that the devastating impact of covid-19, like the fatal fallout from other disasters, is a symptom of a government that suffocates freedoms. As the world seeks to curb the pandemic, and as the truth about the virus’s origin slips from our grasp, we are reminded, once again, that the Chinese government’s human rights violations affect us all.
So why is China’s government obstructing the covid-19 origins investigation? Because that is exactly what it does in response to all major disasters.