10 min read

Brief #16: COVID, expelling journalists, scientists, reclaiming Li Wenliang

Hi all, hope you are all keeping safe as the COVID-19 pandemic continue to escalate in many parts of the world. This has been another sombering week for China news with the escalating of China-US media war, China’s attempts to shape the global narrative on COVID-19, and the cringle worthily predictable reclamation of the dead Dr Li Wenliang by the Party.

At times like this, both of us are finding solace in gardening.

- Yun and Adam

1. COVID-19 update

Towards a global response

A global threat requires a globally coordinated response. The virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit next week is an opportunity for the international community to come together. The G20 is a mechanism for international coordination with both major developed and developing countries represented.

The G20 needs to adopt an action plan that includes helping countries to prepare for the pandemic and access essential medical supplies. It should encourage cooperation in research on vaccines and treatments. In addition, sanctions for countries such as Iran should be eased to avert a humanitarian disaster.

Having the G20 lead the global response will, hopefully, shift focus away from US-China competition.

China’s priorities

China has declared a (temporary and limited) victory over COVID-19. On Friday, Chinese authorities reported no “newly confirmed” “locally transmitted” cases 新增本地确诊病例 in “31 provinces (including autonomous regions and municipalities directly under Central Government) and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps” 31个省(自治区直辖市)和新疆生产建设兵团 (have a read about the Corps if you have time). The state media reports separate figures for Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR, and the Taiwan “region”.

Doubts remain whether the numbers are correct for two reasons: 1) political motivations to keep the number at zero; and 2) strict definition of “newly confirmed”.

While hardly “mission accomplished”, it is likely that COVID-19 is contained in China, at least temporarily. The focus of the Chinese Government is now on:

  1. Preventing “imported cases” 严防输入
  2. Getting everyone back to work 复工复产
  3. Building “a community of shared future for all humankind” in health 打造人类卫生健康共同体

On the first point, many people in China are viewing returnees as possible sources of infection, with one viral video showing a Chinese-Australian woman refusing mandatory quarantine to go jogging. She was fired by her employer and kicked out of China.

On resuming production, Volvo’s production is returning to normal in China, while it is shutting down productions in the EU and the US. It appears that early commentaries about over-dependence on Chinese supply chains are imprecise. The risks appear to be more about over-dependence on one location, rather than specifically on China per se.

On the third point, China is using this opportunity to position itself as a global leader by providing assistance to other countries and promoting its own response to the pandemic.

Racist attacks on the rise

Continuing on from last week, the US and China are still bickering at each other over who is at fault for what. Blame deflection, finger-pointing, and dog-whistling at the political level have led to unfortunate consequences for many Asian people in countries such as the United States and Australia, including a Hong Kong student punched for wearing a face mask in Tasmania. Racist attacks and harassments against Asian people are on the rise. This is President Trump’s notes during a speech:


Source: Jabin Botsford, Washington Post.

In Australia, there are rumours (without evidence) that “busloads” of “Chinese” shoppers are stripping supermarkets in regional towns bare, with people calling for mob violence and for the Minister for Home Affairs to intervene.

Taiwan and WHO

Taiwanese officials said they have passed on the evidence of human-to-human transmission to the World Health Organization at the end of last year. This is three weeks before China has confirmed human-to-human transmission.

Taiwan is not a member of the WHO, due to lobbying by China. The COVID pandemic is one example where such politicking has real-life consequences.

2. Expelling journalists

The China-US media war continue to escalate this week with China expelling American journalists working for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. These three outlets along with Voice of America and The Time are now also required by Beijing to provide information about their staff, finance, operations in China. Beijing also revoked the licence of Chinese citizens working as researchers and assistants (Chinese citizens are not allowed to work as reporters for foreign news agencies).

From Beijing’s perspective, this is righteous retaliation in response to US measures against Chinese state media, including designating five outlets (Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and People’s Daily) as agents of the Chinese state. New US restrictions on these five outlets announced in late February effectively expelled 40 per cent of their staff by placing a cap on the total number of Chinese nationals that can remain in the US working for those outlets.

Beijing accuses the US government of placing “unwarranted restrictions” on China’s media outlets operating the US and subjecting them to “growing discrimination and politically-motivated oppression.”

Beijing’s hypocrisy is astonishing. To say that China’s track record on media freedom is bad is an understatement. The 2019 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, for instance, rank China 177th out of 180 countries, only ahead of Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and North Korea.

Beijing censors information, manipulates the information environment through propaganda, oppresses dissidents, arrests whistleblowers and independent journalists, harasses foreign reporters, and is all together allergic to freedom of speech and press. But, according to Beijing:

Foreign media organizations and journalists who cover stories in accordance with laws and regulations are always welcome in China, and will get continued assistance from our side. What we reject is ideological bias against China, fake news made in the name of press freedom, and breaches of ethics in journalism. We call on foreign media outlets and journalists to play a positive role in advancing the mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world.


“Ideological bias against China;” “fake news,” and  “breaches of ethics in journalism,” can encompass any reporting that reflects badly on the Chinese state, including widespread human rights abuses to Xinjiang, government corruption, and its foreign and security policy.

Truth is not the criteria; the criteria is whether it is good for the CCP or not.

But Beijing is, in fact, not wrong when it says that the US has “exposed the hypocrisy of the self-styled advocate of press freedom” by targetting Chinese state media.

Despite his incestuous relationship with media, Trump, since becoming President (we are still in the denial stage of grief), has been waging a war against media that are not on his side, labelling them “enemy of the people” and “fake news”.

To be sure, there is little comparison between press freedom in the US and in China - the difference is too huge. But sometimes let’s look in the mirror.

It’s unclear where this escalation will lead other than to less mutual understanding, and further tense relations at a time of global crisis.

3. Scientist that developed COVID test

Weihong Tan is a chemistry professor who led the team to develop a rapid detection test for COVID-19 in China. Last year, he left the University of Florida for China while he was under investigation for his participation in the Thousand Talent Plan 千人计划. He has not been charged for intellectual property theft. Before leaving the US, he has been teaching in Florida for 25 years.

Another researcher, Xifeng Wu, who twice turned down invitations to join the Thousand Talent Plan also left the US last year, while under investigation for her honorary positions at Chinese research institutions.

Recently, the US Government has started cracking down on nondisclosure of affiliations. The prosecution of a top Harvard University chemistry professor Charles Lieber has been the case in point.

The approaches by US universities in response to this issue has been inconsistent — some began investigations while others corrected the records and allowed the researchers to continue to work.

The competition for top researchers is fierce. China has been actively enticing researchers and scientists to work in China, but only with limited success — researchers still prefer to work in the US.

However, China is splashing cash when it comes to high priority research and advanced technology. And researchers who previously preferred to stay in the US but have links with China are being investigated for these links. A combination of push and pull factors could increasingly make some researchers, including Chinese-American researchers, choose China as a place for work.

Universities are also becoming more cautious. Previously, scientific research, especially in basic science, is seen as a global public good. International collaborations were encouraged. However, these days it appears the trend is going away from cross-border collaboration. If this continues, it could have negative implications for global research and scientific output.

On research collaborations with China, we noted before that:

[i]mplications for technology transfer, national security, and human rights issues are being scrutinised more closely. The core question is how to put in place safeguards to deal with these issues while not damaging the openness and international collaboration that drive innovation.

Yangyang Cheng wrote a great personal reflection on this topic.

4. Reclaiming Dr Li: no rest for the dead

The drama, theatrics and symbolism are predictable if far from pleasant, especially because it involves the party-state’s efforts to reclaim the dead Dr Li Wenliang 李文亮 for their own.

As you may remember, the 34-year-old Li was a Wuhan doctor who was censured by the authorities for spreading “rumours” about the coronavirus in late December when he tried to warn his colleagues of the outbreak of a SARS-like disease. It turned out that he was onto something…

As we noted last month after he succumbed to the virus:

The censure and censoring of Dr Li triggered massive public backslash. His death triggered an even bigger tsunami of public anger and frustration. We have NEVER seen such an outpouring of emotion on Chinese social media, and much of it was directed against the Chinese authorities.

At its core, millions and millions of Chinese people relate to Dr Li. They see him as someone that was doing the right thing amid a crisis, and the authorities gagged him and forced him into submission.

Well, now China’s National Supervisory has released an official notice (verdict) on its investigation into this saga. After recounting what happened, it concluded:

Concerning the issuing of an improper letter of reprimand by the Zhongnan Road Substation [of the Public Security Bureau] and irregular law enforcement procedures, the investigation team has already advised that Wuhan municipal supervisory authorities in Hubei province carry out supervision and correct this matter, urging public security organs to revoke the letter of reprimand and hold the relevant personnel accountable, promptly announcing the results to the public.

(English translation by David Bandurski at the awesome China Media Project)


What the Party is doing is distancing itself from the local authorities. In this case, portraying the censuring of Li as a wrongful act by incompetent individual officials, when in fact, the whole system is the true culprit. It is the pressure and norms of the system that makes such censuring occur, in fact, on a daily basis.

More interesting and significant, however, is the public messaging by Chinese state media in an effort to reclaim Li and his legacy. He is now portrayed as a selfless, hardworking party member, transmogrifying from a designated “rumourmonger,” into a splendid model and martyr of China’s “People’s War” against the coronavirus through party-state magic.

In reclaiming Li, the party made it very clear that there is only one interpretation of Li’s actions and legacy, and those offering a different set of views are hostile:

It should be recognized that certain hostile forces, in order to attack the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government, gave Dr. Li Wenliang the label of an anti-system “hero” and “awakener” (觉醒者). This is entirely against the facts. Li Wenliang is a Communist Party member, not a so-called “anti-institutional figure” (反体制人物), and those forces with ulterior motives who wish to fan the fires, deceive people and stir up emotions in society are doomed to fail.

(English translation again from David Bandurski at the China Media Project)


The party-state’s use of the dead for political purpose is nothing new, and on this occasion, entirely predictable. But this still tastes really bad.


This week, we present you with some way of looking for Chinese party and government documents. First up, SourceEngine 搜信源 (still in Beta) is a new search engine precisely designed for that. If you want the old true and trusted way though, Holly Snape at the University of Glasgow has got you covered with her useful guide.

What we really looking forward to is Ryan Manuel’s forthcoming (hurry up Oxford University Press!) China’s Rules: How Xi Jinping’s Fifth Republic is Governed, which looks at the complex system of documentation that underpins China’s political system, and how rules are made and followed.

Briefing | Analysis | Events | Media | About