THE FOUR-YEAR PRISON sentence handed down to Zhang Zhan by the Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court on December 28 for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ under article 293 of China’s penal code by dint of her citizen journalism on conditions in Wuhan in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak is intended to be chilling of anyone challenging the official narrative of China’s response to the pandemic.
Beijing is not just glossing over missteps and dissembling by local officials, arguably inevitable in the ‘fog of war’ of an unfolding pandemic. It is laying out a national portrayal of a system of governance that handled a public health crisis with competence and compassion, and intended to stand in contrast to the chaos and inadequacy displayed by the United States in particular.
The death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor castigated by the local government for warning about the virus and who then died of it, allowed the government to recast a muzzled whistle-blower as a fallen hero. However, other critics of Beijing’s initial response in the press or on social media have been silenced or censored. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities have detained several activists and citizen journalists for independently reporting on the pandemic.
Perversely, the same day that Zhang was tried and convicted, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention released data suggesting that the scale of infection in Wuhan had been much greater than initially disclosed.
Extrapolating the results of a nationwide serological survey conducted by the CDC in April implies that as many as 500,000 residents of the city may have been infected. That would be tenfold the 50,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases reported by health authorities by the middle of that month, although the official count does not include asymptomatic cases.
The data also suggest that the draconian lockdown of Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province effectively limited the spread of the virus within China. In six other cities and provinces, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong, the serological survey revealed extremely low prevalences of the virus.
However, the ability to enforce a complete lockdown on a city of 11 million people and a further 47 million in the surrounding province would not be the governance competency message that Beijing might wish to promote.