This article is by Kevin Carrico, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University. It was originally published in Hong Kong Free Press on March 25 and is reproduced on Global Voices under a content association agreement.
If we learn anything from the spread of COVID-19 around the world, it should be the importance of freedom of expression.
The Chinese Communist Party's decision to silence discussion of the emerging disease and to sanction the doctors who raised the alarm created an ideal environment for this virus to spread throughout Wuhan, then throughout China, and finally throughout the world.
As the virus continues to spread, infecting hundreds of thousands of and killing tens of thousands, why would there be pressure in Hong Kong to silence discussion of this disease and punish doctors who are raising the alarm about its origins?
“… We will inevitably face SARS 3.0 ″
On March 18, the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao published an opinion piece entitled “This pandemic originated in Wuhan, the lessons of 17 years ago have been completely forgotten.” The authors, Dr. Kwok-Yung Yuen and Dr. David Lung, are unmatched experts in their fields. Dr. Yuen is a microbiologist whose SARS study group discovered the role of coronavirus in the SARS epidemic in early 2003. Dr. Lung is also a microbiologist who recently published on the detection of COVID-19 through saliva samples .
In their article, the authors offer practical tips for understanding the virus for the general reader. First, they explain how viruses are named by the World Health Organization and the International Committee for the Taxonomy of Viruses, while recognizing that the colloquial use of “Wuhan pneumonia” is clearly much simpler than of COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 and, therefore, it is not necessary to condemn it.
Second, Yuen and Lung explain that the genetic sequence has shown that the virus likely originated from small horseshoe bats before spreading through an intermediate host in the Wuhan fish market (most likely the threatened pangolin). ), Which then served as the epicenter of enlargement and spread from animals to humans before mutating to allow human-to-human transmission.
Third, the authors note that the Chinese state-sponsored conspiracy theory that traces the origin of the virus back to the United States has no basis. The true source of the virus is China's wild trade, which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has failed to stop 17 years after SARS spread from the agalian cat to humans. The authors claim that, if that trade continues, “in another decade or so, we will inevitably face SARS 3.0.”
A frank discussion of the origins of the virus and the need to prevent another pandemic, written by two microbiology experts who have been at the forefront of research and in the fight against SARS and COVID-19: this appears to be precisely the kind of opinion piece we need right now.
Yuen and Lung's article sparked a storm of furious controversy on Chinese social media. Within a day the authors publicly retracted their article. Yuen and Lung did not explain the pressures that led them to make that decision, but anyone concerned about the increasingly fragile academic freedoms in Hong Kong must be deeply concerned about this development.
The third session of Yuen and Lung's article discussing China's wildlife trade is arguably the most controversial. The authors state: “The Wuhan coronavirus is a product of the poor culture of the Chinese people, who recklessly capture and eat game animals, treat them inhumanely, disrespect life and continue, even today, to eat game animals. to satisfy your wishes. ” The ingrained bad habits of the Chinese people are the source of this virus. If this remains unchanged, in another decade or so, we will inevitably face SARS 3.0 ″.
Of course, it would be unfair to stigmatize all Chinese citizens for “wet” markets (N d T: this is the name of open-air food markets in China). It would also be unfair to totally denounce Chinese culture for wildlife trade. However, this is not what Lung and Yuen were doing.
Wuhan's wet market and China's wildlife trade
It is not only fair, but also necessary, to stigmatize the wildlife trade and wet markets in China that have produced two major diseases (SARS and COVID-19) that have killed tens of thousands of people worldwide.
It is not only fair, but also necessary, to stigmatize the pseudoscientific practices of traditional Chinese medicine that encourage the consumption of civet cats to nourish your “qi” or pangolin scales to treat male impotence. We should note that these are neither the beginning nor the end of China's medical or culinary culture, they are actually components of these cultures that need to be confronted for the sake of global health.
It is not only fair, but also necessary, to stigmatize the political culture that has allowed the perpetuation of this wildlife trade despite the obvious evidence of the risks involved. The CCP exercises extensive surveillance and control over many aspects of life in China, to the point that it can arrest civilians by random messages in private conversations. However, despite this power and control, the PCC has proactively chosen not to act against the wildlife trade for almost two decades after SARS, facilitating the emergence of COVID-19.
It is also fair and also necessary to stigmatize the political culture of secrecy and elimination of “bad news” that facilitated the dissemination of both SARS and COVID-19. The decision to scold Dr. Li Wenliang for his comments in a private medical chat shows the scope of the state party and its appalling misuse.
While these trends do not, of course, represent Chinese culture as a whole, they are real components of political culture in the PRC today that, unlike the CCP-covered viruses, cannot simply be denied.
Academic freedom is at stake
If this story had ended with Yuan and Lung's retraction of their article, this matter would have been just one more sad example of the CCP orthodoxies that pressures academic freedom in Hong Kong. However, on March 20, Professor Jon Solomon of Jean Moulin University in Lyon, France launched a petition on the Change.org website addressed to Zhang Xiang, current vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, to pressure him to fire Kwok-yung Yuen. There is a counter-request.
In his petition, Solomon states that Yuen and Lung's article “revives (ba) the vocabulary of historical racism” and has “caused serious harm to Hong University, as well as Hong Kong and global civil society.” He then asks Zhang to give a public explanation of the university's support for Yuen. He calls for a panel to investigate the “living history of colonial racism” at the University of Hong Kong, and “pending further investigation,” calls for the university to “reconsider Dr. Yuen's appointment.”
In Solomon's curious eagerness to draw attention to the colonial legacies behind the University of Hong Kong, legacies of which everyone is aware, he is unaware of two far more important legacies.
The first is the legacy of critical intellectual work that stretches – despite a parallel legacy of repression – from the origins of political writing in China to the present. While it is true that Solomon sees himself as a brave warrior fighting Orientalism, it is strangely guiding to assume that a critical debate of cultural practices must be based on “colonial racism”, as if the Chinese people were simply sitting for some millennia without recognizing the potential of critical reflection, and as if any critical debate on culture since then had to be shaped by “colonial racism”.
However, this ghost of the colonizing white devil who haunts cultural criticism plays a crucial role in this narrative by incarnating Solomon as the white savior. However, we must ask ourselves, what exactly is Solomon rescuing the people of China from: an article asking people to be honest about the origins of the virus? One hundred years after the May 4th Movement, is critical discussion on pangolin consumption now prohibited?
The second legacy that Solomon ignores – although he also, ironically, allows – is the increasingly evident deployment of the CCP's political correctness to protect its own political regression. With its typical essentialism, the party is again using vigilance against the stigmatization of the people as protection against the urgent stigmatization of dangerous practices and political secrecy. The laudable ideal of protecting people from stigmatization then serves ironically to protect from criticism the powers and practices that are putting the Chinese people and the entire world at greatest risk.
If Salomon disagreed with Yuen and Lung's article there is no reason not to write an article in the Ming Pao that articulates their disagreement and explains their own understanding of the emergence of COVID-19. Instead, writing publicly to the vice chancellor of one of the authors to ask for an “explanation and reconsideration (nation) of his appointment is a clear threat to academic freedom similar to that posed by thugs who have repeatedly protested that the University of Hong Kong fired Benny Tai, a key figure who led the 2014 pro-democracy protests.
What real benefit would there be to Hong Kong if Yuen were reprimanded for his reflections? There could be real risks to the world if the best coronavirus research specialists were afraid to speak frankly.
This suppression of academic freedom would be condemned in any context. In today's Hong Kong context, where both academic and freedom of expression are under increasing threat from the State Party along the same lines as Solomon, this type of suppression doubly deserves condemnation. This is the type of freedom of expression suppression that got us into this mess twice, and it's likely to happen again. Repeating this error is nothing less than dangerous.