If we learn anything from the spread of COVID-19 around the world, it should be the importance of freedom of speech.

The Chinese Communist Party’s decision to silence discussion of the emerging disease and punish doctors who raised the alarm created an ideal environment for this virus to spread throughout Wuhan, then across China, and eventually around the world.

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File photo: GovHK.

As this virus continues to spread, infecting hundreds of thousands and killing tens of thousands, why would there be pressure in Hong Kong and beyond 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, Mingpao published an opinion piece entitled “This pandemic originated in Wuhan, the lessons of seventeen years ago have been completely forgotten.” The authors Dr. Kwok-Yung Yuen and Dr. David Lung are unrivalled experts in their field. Dr. Yuen is a microbiologist whose SARS study group discovered the role of the coronavirus in the SARS epidemic in early 2003. Dr. Lung is also a microbiologist who has recently published on the detection of COVID-19 via saliva samples.

In their article, the authors offer practical advice on understanding the virus for the general reader. First, they explain how the World Health Organization and the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses name viruses, while also acknowledging that the colloquial use of “Wuhan pneumonia” is understandably more straightforward than COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 and thus does not need to be condemned.

Second, Yuen and Lung explain that genetic sequencing has shown the virus likely originated in horseshoe bats before spreading to an intermediate host in the Wuhan Seafood Market (most likely endangered pangolin), which then served as an amplification epicentre spreading from animals to humans, before mutating to enable human-to-human transmission.

Yuen Kwok-yung.
Yuen Kwok-yung. File Photo: TVB screenshot.

Third, the authors point out that China’s state-sponsored conspiracy theory tracing the origins of the virus the United States is completely baseless. The real source of this virus is China’s wildlife trade, which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) failed to halt seventeen years after SARS spread from civet cats to humans. If this trade continues, the authors assert, “in another decade or so, we will inevitably face SARS 3.0.”

A frank discussion of the origins of this virus and the need to prevent another pandemic, written by two experts in microbiology who have been on the frontlines in researching and battling both SARS and COVID-19: this would appear to be precisely the type of opinion piece that we need at this moment.

Yet Yuen and Lung’s article produced a storm of angry controversy on Chinese social media. Within a day, the authors had publicly retracted their piece. Yuen and Lung did not explain what pressures led them to this decision, but anyone who cares about increasingly fragile academic freedoms in Hong Kong should be deeply concerned by such developments.

Two types of stigma

The third section of Yuen and Lung’s article discussing China’s wildlife trade is undoubtedly the most controversial. The authors assert: “the Wuhan coronavirus is a product of the poor culture of the Chinese people, recklessly capturing and eating wild game, treating animals inhumanely, disrespecting life, and continuing even today to eat wild game to satisfy their desires. The Chinese people’s deep-rooted bad habits are the source of this virus. If this remains unchanged, in another decade or so, we will inevitably face SARS 3.0.”

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File photo: GovHK.

It would be unfair, of course, to stigmatise the people of China as a whole for China’s wet markets. It would also be unfair to denounce Chinese culture as a whole on account of the wildlife trade. This is not, however, what Lung and Yuen are doing.

It is not only fair, but indeed necessary, to stigmatise the wildlife trade and wet markets in China that have now produced two major illnesses (SARS and COVID-19) that have killed tens of thousands around the world.

It is not only fair, but indeed necessary, to stigmatise unscientific practices in Traditional Chinese Medicine that encourage the consumption of civet cats to nourish your qi or pangolin scales to treat male impotence. These are not, we must note, the beginning and the end of Chinese culinary or medicinal culture, but they are indeed components of these cultures that need to be confronted for the sake of global health.

It is not only fair, but also necessary, to stigmatise the political culture that has enabled the perpetuation of this wildlife trade despite obvious evidence of the risks involved. The CCP exercises extensive monitoring and control over so many aspects of life in China today, to the point that it can imprison civilians for random comments in private chats. Yet despite this power and control, the CCP has proactively chosen not to act against the wildlife trade for nearly two decades after SARS, facilitating the emergence of Covid-19.

Transmission of Coronaviruses
Intra- and Inter-species Transmission of Coronaviruses. Source: Su et al. (June 2016). “Epidemiology, Genetic Recombination, and Pathogenesis of Coronaviruses.” Trends in Microbiology 24(6), 490-502.

It is also fair, and indeed necessary, to stigmatise the political culture of secrecy and suppression of “bad news” that has facilitated the spread of both SARS and COVID-19. The decision to reprimand Dr. Li Wenliang for comments on COVID-19 in a private chat among doctors shows both the Party-state’s reach and its horrid misuse of this reach.

These trends do not, of course, represent Chinese culture as a whole: there are other possibilities. These trends are, however, real components of the political culture in the People’s Republic of China today which, just like the viruses they have covered over, cannot be simply denied away.

Political correctness facilitating political regression

If this story had ended with Lung and Yuen’s retraction of their article, this affair would have been just one more sad sign of CCP orthodoxies exerting pressure on academic freedom in Hong Kong. Yet on March 20th, Professor Jon Solomon of the Université Jean Moulin in Lyon launched a petition on change.org addressed to Zhang Xiang, the current vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, pressuring Zhang to fire Kwok-yung Yuen. There is a counter-letter here.

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Photo: Facebook.

In this petition, Solomon claims that Yuen and Lung’s article “resurrect[s] the vocabulary of historical racism” and has “done grave damage to the University of Hong as well as Hong Kong and global civil society.” He then asks Zhang to provide 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,” asks that the university “reconsider its appointment of Dr. Yuen.”

In Solomon’s curious eagerness to draw attention to the colonial legacies behind the University of Hong Kong, legacies of which all are aware, he ignores two far more relevant legacies.

The first is the legacy of critical intellectual work which extends, despite a parallel legacy of repression, from the origins of political writing in China to the present. While Solomon undoubtedly envisions himself as a valiant warrior struggling against Orientalism, it is in fact oddly Orientalizing to assume that a critical discussion of cultural practices must be rooted in “colonial racism,” as if the people of China were simply sitting around for a few millennia failing to recognize the potential for critical reflection, and as if any critical discussion of culture since then is shaped by “colonial racism.”

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Jon Solomon. Photo: The Jean Moulin University Lyon 3.

This spectre of the colonising white devil who haunts cultural critique, however, serves a crucial role in this narrative by recasting Solomon as white savior. Yet we must ask, from what exactly is Solomon rescuing the people of China: an article in Mingpao that called on people to be honest about the origins of the virus? One hundred years after the May Fourth Movement, is eating pangolin now off-limits for critical discussion?

The second legacy that Solomon ignores yet also ironically enables is the CCP’s increasingly obvious deployment of political correctness to protect its own political regression. With its typical essentialism, the Party is redeploying vigilance against stigmatising people as a protection against the urgently necessary stigmatisation of dangerous practices and political secrecy. The laudatory ideal of protecting people from stigmatisation then ironically serves the purpose of protecting from criticism the powers and practices that put the Chinese people and the entire world at the greatest risk.

If Solomon disagreed with Yuen and Lung’s article, there is no clear reason why he could not write an article in Mingpao articulating his disagreement and explaining his own understanding of the emergence of COVID-19. To instead publicly write to one of the author’s vice-chancellors demanding an “explanation” and “reconsider[eration]” of his appointment is a clear threat to academic freedom, operating on the level of the thugs who have repeatedly rallied for the University of Hong Kong to fire Benny Tai.

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Pro-Beijing demonstrators at a rally calling for Benny Tai to be sacked from HKU.

What actual benefit would there be for Hong Kong if Yuen was in any way reprimanded for his reflections? And what real risks could there be for the world if Hong Kong’s leading specialists in coronavirus research grow afraid to speak frankly?

Such suppression of academic freedom would be worthy of condemnation in any context. In the context of Hong Kong today, where both academic freedom and freedom of speech are under increasingly grave threat from a Party-state pushing the same line as Solomon, such suppression is doubly deserving of condemnation. And when such suppression of free speech got us into this mess twice and is likely to do so again, repeating this mistake is nothing short of dangerous.

Kevin Carrico is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University. He is the author of The Great Han- Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today, and the translator of Tsering Woeser’s Tibet on Fire. He is currently researching the emergence and implications of the idea of Hong Kong independence. Wen Wei Po reporters love his work so much that they literally follow him around Hong Kong.