Communism kills. The Chinese government, whose “official” statements on the coronavirus outbreak have been suspect from the beginning, recently “revised” their numbers to indicate a death toll of 1,381 in total. This includes six health care workers. One of them was Dr. Li Wenliang, whose official cause of death is listed as the virus. But the circumstances of his death point to the very man-made scourge of communist repression.
Dr. Li, who died the first week of February, should be a hero. On December 30, he raised one of the earliest alarms about the coronavirus, the deadly and previously unknown illness now sweeping China and the world. He sent an online message to several of his friends and colleagues, warning them about a quarantine at the hospital where he worked in Wuhan, the center of the outbreak. At that point, few people know about the illness. Fewer still knew its danger.
In a free society, Dr. Li’s honesty would be normal, even lauded. His warning would have quickly spread, potentially helping millions of people understand the situation. Public attention would have zeroed in on the budding crisis, potentially addressing it before the virus could spread. But in communist China, Dr. Li was treated like a pariah, and his message was prevented from getting to the people.
The local authorities summoned him in the middle of the night. They arrested him then forced Dr. Li to write a “self-criticism” — a classic Maoist method of silencing dissenters that forces them to confess supposed crimes. The authorities shut him up and sent him back to work. They targeted other whistleblowers, too, instead of devoting their full attention to the coronavirus’ rapid spread.
The authorities were acting in the interest of the Communist Party, not the Chinese people, and that meant keeping their nation and the world in the dark as long as possible. Yet the Chinese people have paid the price, including Dr. Li. After returning to his hospital, he contracted the coronavirus from a patient.
Just over three-and-a-half weeks later, Dr. Li has reportedly died from the illness he tried to expose.
His tragic death didn’t have to happen. Neither did the more than 560 others have died in the past two months. A further 28,000-plus have already caught it, from Australia to America. Both numbers are going up by the day, with no end in sight. Hundreds, if not thousands more, are sure to die before the crisis ends.
China has worsened this crisis by doing the only thing it knows how to do: suffocating speech and strangling speakers. Like all communist nations, past and present, Beijing suppresses knowledge that officials deem threatening, whether to their own power, to the integrity of Maoist ideology, or to the veneer of socialism’s supremacy over other systems of government. The coronavirus fit the bill, risking China’s economic growth and the image of the party as an effective authoritarian manager of society. From the perspective of Beijing, Dr. Li had to be silenced. Indeed, by communist logic, Dr. Li had to die for the sake of the state.
Xi Jinping and his communist cadres are learning the hard way that Stalin’s dictum is not accurate: “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.” Killing the messenger does not solve the problem, but it does make others afraid to talk about solutions.
This isn’t the first time China has tried to cover up the truth about a public health crisis with disastrous results. Beijing tried the same approach with SARS in 2003. Officials waited months to publicly discuss that virus, allowing it to spread across the southern part of the country, into Hong Kong, and beyond. SARS killed nearly 350 people in mainland China; at least double that number will die from the coronavirus. Now, as then, the Communist Party is letting its own people perish for the sake of its grip on power.
And they won’t stop with Dr. Li. In recent days, Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, two Chinese citizens known for prolifically posting photos and videos online from inside the quarantine zone in Wuhan, have disappeared. Fang’s last message reportedly stated: “all people revolt – hand the power of the government back to the people.”
Sadly, this phenomenon is not restricted to China. More than 30 years ago, the Soviet Union hid the truth of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It failed to order mass evacuations as a radioactive cloud spread over Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Some 20,000 people developed thyroid cancer as a result.
The current regime in Cuba also puts ideology ahead of its people’s medical needs. That nation suffers high rates of infant death, which officials reclassify as deaths in utero to avoid global criticism and artificially raise the average life expectancy. Rather than devote resources to saving children, however, Havana sends Cuban doctors to dozens of foreign countries to spread communist goodwill.
In the middle of January, as the coronavirus began spreading across the globe, a Chinese official near the epicenter declared that “politics is always Number 1.” This logic — that the good of the Party outweighs the good of the people — is the doctrine of every Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist, and Maoist country in history. Dr. Li Wenliang’s death is a testament to this truth. To remember him is to remember that communism kills its own people, even as it endangers the rest of us.
Marion Smith is executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC). VOC is a Washington-based, non-profit educational and human rights organization devoted to commemorating the more than 100 million victims of communism around the world and to the freedom of those still living under totalitarian regimes.