A digital uprising in China

Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today and the Freedom Forum, paid for a sign in Red Square that said, “Freedom Works.” Actually, freedom doesn’t always work. However, it works far more often than the denial of freedom. Indeed, it seems to me that the denial of freedom never really works for a society in any strong sense.

China is the latest test case. Some American liberals argue that the denial of freedom by the Chinese government is working in a strong sense. The jury is still out.

Or is it?

Li Wenliang is the doctor thought to be the first person to sound the alarm over the coronavirus. The Chinese government responded by detaining and silencing him for spreading “false rumors.” The authorities’ lockdown on information about the virus undoubtedly increased significantly the magnitude of the epidemic that now plagues China and threatens other countries.

On Friday, Dr. Li died from the virus. According to the Washington Post, within hours of his death millions of Chinese tried to bypass censors to post the hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech. The censors eventually prevailed, but deleted sentiments are still real sentiments.

The link between the government’s suppression of speech — the lack of freedom — and the public health disaster in China could not be more clear. Li has become the symbol of that link.

This Washington Post editorial tells us that the cononavirus outbreak “is shaking the foundations of a political system built on President Xi Jinping’s assurance that the party knows best for all.” I don’t know if the epidemic actually is shaking the system’s foundations, but it should.

Speaking of Xi, he was scarcely seen in the days following the outbreak. When he finally appeared, after days of speculation as to his whereabouts, it was at an event with Cambodia’s dictator, a stooge of China.

In free nations, leaders can’t get away with going into hiding during times of disaster. Dictators can. However, doing so erodes confidence in their leadership.

As part of its response to the epidemic, the Chinese government erected a hospital to house victims. It built the hospital in ten days and brought in foreign journalists to show it off.

Some journalists seem to have been impressed, the way Tom Friedman is always impressed by this sort of accomplishment by the Chinese. However, the hospital’s 1,000 beds are insufficient to meet the scope of the epidemic.

Nor does its construction negate the fact that the hospital wouldn’t have been needed had the government responded properly to initial warnings by doctors. Being stuck in an impressively constructed hospital is no substitute for being healthy.

I don’t know what the political fallout of the coronavirus disaster will be. I don’t know whether there will even be any meaningful fallout.

But the epidemic is yet more evidence that unfree societies don’t really work for ordinary people who are trapped in them.

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