No Reform in Sight: China’s increasing suppression of free speech

In recent days, a Chinese academic has been removed by the Chinese government. This is because of the production of an open letter criticising the government’s handling of Covid-19 and the demand for freedom of speech.

Zhang Xuezhong was arrested on Sunday night at his home in Shanghai. The letter in question was posted onto WeChat the previous night. It was addressed towards the National People’s Congress (NPC) and has been widely circulated online.

“He was taken away on Sunday night. Three police cars came to his house” (Zheng, 2020) said Wen Kejian when he saw the event take place. In the post, Zhang wrote alongside the letter that “the best way to fight for freedom of expression is for everyone to speak as if we already have freedom of speech.” (Zheng, 2020) Zhang had been a big contributor to various overseas newspapers and had become well known for being a strong critic of China and its government. He had previously stated that China had developed very poor governance and that “the outbreak and spread of the Covid-19 epidemic is a good illustration of the problem” (Zheng, 2020).

With the first cases being reported in Wuhan, China in December, the coronavirus has infected more that four million people and has killed more than two hundred thousand individuals. The calls for increased freedom of speech has been a growing issue within China. Earlier this year in February, many individuals had been arrested for “spreading rumours” (Zheng, 2020). This comes as public mourning after the death of Li Wenliang. Li Wenliang was the whistle-blower doctor who had alerted fellow doctors in December about the spread of a flu-like illness within China. He would later die from the coronavirus within China.

In the letter, Zhang stated that “twenty-two days before the [lockdown to contain the outbreak] in the city, Wuhan was still investigating and punishing citizens who had disclosed the epidemic, including Dr Li Wenliang … showing how tight and arbitrary the government’s suppression of society is.” (Zheng, 2020) In addition to this, the letter went onto state that the Chinese government’s failings had been realised through the lack of transparency and scrutiny, highly implying that China had mishandled the outbreak and withheld information that eventually resulted in the outbreak to escalate into a full pandemic.

Featured image credit: Kin Cheung/Associated Press