Free Speech in the Time of the Coronavirus

There is nothing more powerful than an idea.  That is why governments insist on controlling who can have them.  Freedom of speech is both an idea and an idea-generator.  That is why governments work so hard to control who can be heard.  

In the early hours of February 7, the Wuhan Central Hospital released a short statement online that Dr. Li Wenliang was in critical condition.  Within a half hour, over a half-million Chinese had replied to the hospital's social media account with anguish.  "We are not going to bed," wrote one.  "We are here waiting for a miracle."  When he succumbed to his illness a short time later, the reaction was immediate and immense.  Within hours, Dr. Li's death became the most read and discussed story in China, with over 1.5 billion views alone on Weibo, the heavily monitored and censored Chinese social media platform.  A highly liked post mourned his passing: "Light a candle and pay tribute to the hero.  You were the beam of light in the night."

How did a thirty-four-year-old ophthalmologist who was unknown outside his hospital before January become one of the most important public figures in China and a national hero whose death is grieved across his country?  In a closed socialist dictatorship, Dr. Li was "willing to speak the truth."  At the end of December, he sounded the alarm over the emerging coronavirus pandemic by revealing on social media that his hospital was battling an acute respiratory illness that seemed similar to SARS in lethality.  By January 3, the Wuhan police bureau summoned Dr. Li in the middle of the night and threatened him with criminal charges for "severely disrupting social order," demanding that he sign a statement promising his future compliance with politically correct thought.  On January 12, he felt unwell and was taken to an isolation ward.  On February 1, he tested positive for the new coronavirus.  Within the week, he was gone.  

Whether he meant to take up the mantle or not, his name is now a rallying cry for freedom in his country.  In those final hours before his passing, "We Want Free Speech" trended at the top of Weibo.  Proving the truth of the Chinese people's demand, the communist government censored the "We Want Free Speech" hashtag from all social media platforms by the time Dr. Li took his final breaths.  In response, social media users began to post links to the song "Do You Hear the People Sing" from Les Misérables, an anthem against tyranny commonly sung by freedom-fighters in Hong Kong.  They also turned the Chinese national anthem against the Communist Party by successfully pushing its first line to trend across social media: "Arise!  All those who don't want to be slaves!"

There is a lesson here for the West, if we only have the wisdom to see it.  While international governments and multinational corporations continue to seek more effective ways of controlling the people they wish to rule, they are missing a profound development in the world.  The devastation of WWII so shocked the survivors that we have been building international networks imposing order ever since.  After seventy-five years of creating powerful acronyms to control our lives, however, people are finally asking whether trading freedom for peace betrayed both.  Dr. Li's tragic death is a reminder both that the desire for human freedom is universal and that Western governments ignore its importance to their own future detriment.  

The powerful establishment in the United States refuses to understand why Americans voted for Donald Trump.  The powerful establishment in the United Kingdom refuses to understand why Britains voted for Brexit.  The European Union refuses to understand why Poland and Hungary wish to protect their own cultures from mass immigration.  While the U.S. and U.K. and E.U. all work to curb speech by making more and more things illegal to say out loud, halfway around the world, Chinese nationals are fighting daily for the very freedom the West so cavalierly diminishes.  What the protesters in Hong Kong and the mourners throughout China know is that there can be no freedom without the ability to stand up and express the thoughts their government denies them having.  The more that any government demands that some idea must not be spoken, the more imperative it is that what is trapped inside the mind be released.  And any Western government that wraps itself in the tradition of freedom but forbids its citizens from expressing their thoughts is neither free nor permanent.  

While we forget how difficult the struggle for freedom is, the Chinese mourning Dr. Li and the Hong Kong freedom-fighters surely do not.  And while Western governments emulate the Chinese communists by erecting new barriers to free speech, it is becoming clearer and clearer that the world is divided not between despots and free republics, but rather by those who would subsume the individual to the collective aims of the State and those who understand that individual freedom is the only guarantor of legitimate power.

Dr. Li may have changed the course of this emerging coronavirus pandemic by bringing the world's attention to it before it was too late.  Only time will tell.  But he certainly has helped spread a growing awareness among his countrymen that they are not free just because Xi Jinping says it is so.  Likewise, in the West, his fearlessness in the face of governmental force should be one more reminder to those who insist on controlling how we think that they will not be in control forever.  

Days before his death, Dr. Li took a selfie wearing an oxygen respirator and holding up his Chinese identification card in order to prevent the Chinese government from engaging in further propaganda and disinformation regarding his condition.  In a final interview, he said, "I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don't approve of using public power for excessive interference."  How true.  May we be wise enough to listen.  

Image: 云中君 via Wikimedia Commons (cropped).

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