The power of honesty about COVID-19

China’s suppression of the truth about the coronavirus’s origins has led many Chinese to demand freedom of speech. Their honesty could lead to honest governance.

AP
A woman wearing a face mask walks across a pedestrian bridge in Beijing, China.

Last December, when COVID-19 was first detected in China, one of the first casualties was the truth about its existence. Hundreds of Chinese who raised alarms were suppressed. Even six months later, China still attacks those calling for an independent investigation of the virus’s origin or how officials initially dealt with it – despite such information being essential to preventing a similar pandemic.

The first hurdle in persuading China’s ruling Communist Party to allow such a probe is to show that it is living a lie. To stay in power, authoritarian regimes often hide behind falsehoods and rely on fear to stifle the truth.

While a few countries such as Australia are now asking for an investigation of COVID-19’s beginnings, the most powerful voices for accountability may be those Chinese simply insisting on the freedom to tell the truth.

One of them is writer Fang Fang who wrote an insightful journal about life in the city of Wuhan during the outbreak. Another is prominent businessman Ren Zhiqiang who wrote an essay critical of how Chinese leader Xi Jinping responded to the coronavirus. In February, 10 Wuhan professors signed an open letter demanding the right to free speech for those now criticizing the government.

Last Saturday, legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong joined this chorus with a letter on the popular social app WeChat. He suggested that China’s suppression of constitutional rights contributed to the pandemic. He asked the country’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, to create a representative committee that would write a new constitution according to “modern political principles.”

For writing the letter, Mr. Zhang was detained for 24 hours by officials. Like other grassroots intellectuals in China, he has learned to counter official lies by “living in the truth,” as the late Czech dissident Václav Havel put it.

“The best way to fight for freedom of expression is for everyone to speak as if we already have freedom of speech,” Mr. Zhang wrote in the letter.

Many dissidents in China do not wish to topple the regime. They seek to rebuild society from the bottom up by the fearless practice of independent thinking in daily life. They see power as residing in conscience and honest dignity, not the Communist Party.

“One word of truth outweighs the whole world,” wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident. In China, the truth may yet come out about COVID-19, even if bit by bit, as more individuals see themselves as already free to speak out. Being self-governed by truth is the best path to creating a truthful government.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.