BY NOW, it’s well known that people in China who speak up about the covid-19 epidemic are risking online harassment, arrest or worse from Communist authorities. According to the China Digital Times, between Jan. 1 and April 4, 484 individuals were criminally charged for public comments about the health crisis, including acts as innocuous as reposting an article about long lines outside a funeral home in Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus originated.

So consider the courage of Zhang Xuezhong, a legal scholar who on Saturday posted an open letter on WeChat addressed to the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature, which is due to meet later this month. Mr. Zhang not only sharply criticized the handling of the epidemic by the regime of Xi Jinping; he called on the legislature to order the release of political prisoners, legalize political parties and nonstate media, and begin drafting a new constitution.

“The best way to fight for freedom of expression is for everyone to speak as if we already have freedom of speech,” Mr. Zhang wrote, according to the South China Morning Post. He was echoing Vaclav Havel, the famed dissident in Communist-era Czechoslovakia who became the country’s president after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

The result was entirely predictable: After his manifesto circulated widely online, Mr. Zhang, 43, was taken by security forces from his home in Shanghai on Sunday night, the Hong Kong-based newspaper reported. He must have known he could be in for harsh treatment. Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize after writing a similar appeal in 2008, was imprisoned from then until weeks before his death in 2017. Mr. Zhang was released late Monday. But his letter was removed from all Chinese social media sites, and it won’t be a surprise if he faces further consequences.

Mr. Zhang has been challenging China’s totalitarian political system for some time. In 2013, he was fired from his teaching post at East China University of Political Science and Law for criticizing the constitution. Last year, he was barred from legal practice after he acted as a defense lawyer for several dissidents, including human rights lawyer Guo Feixiong.

But Mr. Zhang appeared to be galvanized by the regime’s response to the covid-19 outbreak, including the silencing of doctors and journalists who tried to call attention to it. Twenty-two days before the authorities imposed a lockdown in Wuhan, Mr. Zhang wrote, they were “still investigating and punishing citizens who had disclosed the epidemic . . . showing how tight and arbitrary the government’s suppression of society is.”

Plenty of Chinese citizens appear to be unhappy with the regime’s ruthless approach to dissent. When Li Wenliang, a doctor who was reprimanded for trying to sound the alarm about the coronavirus in December, died from it in February, there was an explosion of grief and anger on Chinese social media. Not everyone in China would support Mr. Zhang’s liberal democratic remedies. But we suspect he will be widely, if quietly, applauded for speaking truth to power.

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