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.

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.

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