Speaking April 14 at COVIDCon, an online Oslo Freedom Forum event presented by the Human Rights Foundation, exiled Chinese dissident Yang Jianli of the DC-based Citizen Power Initiatives for China charged that the death toll for Wuhan, the city where the COVID-19 outbreak began, was massively under-counted by authorities. In a talk entitled “The Chinese Communist Party: Savior or Culprit?,” Yang portrayed a far-reaching cover-up by the Beijing regime. Citing his monitoring of social media, Yang said that as Xi Jinping visited Wuhan on March 10, “endless Wuhan residents pleaded for help online, saying hospitals were overflowing and their family members were turned away and left to die at home. Nobody knows how many people died before managing to get to hospitals.”
“During that time, photos circulated on the internet, showing people lying in the streets in Wuhan, dead or fainted,” Yang related. “Photos also showed that those who violated quarantine orders or showed symptoms were forcibly removed by local police from homes, or forcibly imprisoned inside their homes. Those who did not wear masks in public, were shamed publicly or beaten up.”
Yang noted the widespread claims that the number of families reported to have collected remains of loved ones throws the official death toll into question. “There are obvious clues that he Chinese government is concealing the extent of the virus outbreak, and the casualties in China,” Yang said. “On March 23, the government authorized family members to collect the ashes of the dead in Wuhan. For 12 days…3,500 urns were handed out each day. Totaling 42,000 deaths. The number is a shocking discrepancy with the official Wuhan death tally of 2,524. More than 15 times more people died than officially admitted.”
Yang did not give a source for these figures, but they appear to be extrapolated from media coverage based on social media posts from Wuhan.
“The first recorded case in Wuhan was Nov. 17, 2019. The authorities waited more than two months to shut down the city on Jan. 23, 2020,” Yang noted. He asserts that authorities “demanded destruction of lab samples” of the virus on Jan. 1. “Despite multiple cases of transmission, they denied human-to-human transmission until three weeks later.”
Yang portrays the cover-up as enabled by the closed nature of the Chinese system and state control of the mass media.
“A state-run journal revealed that Xi Jinping knew about the epidemic on Jan. 7. And on that day at the Politburo meeting, Xi Jinping gave a comprehensive order for the government’s response. We don’t know exactly what the order was. But from the government’s actions in the next two weeks, we can deduce that at the core of the order was an extensive cover-up for the sake of stability.” The name of the journal was not identified.
“On Jan. 23, the day the lockdown was declared, the People’s Daily newspaper did not mention the lockdown, but instead headlined the news that Xi Jinping hosted a grand New Year party, at which he did not mention a word about Wuhan or the virus outbreak.”
The cover-up was also effected through quick repression of any dissenting voices. Among “heroes who emerged to challenge the regime,” Yang named, first and foremost, the martyred physician Li Wenliang.
“On Dec. 31, the eye doctor Li Wenliang and seven other doctors, all from Wuhan Central Hospital, started blowing the whistle. They were quickly reprimanded by the authorities for propagating rumors. The state-controlled media doubled down by publicly humiliating them, claiming the doctors were stirring up trouble… Dr Li Wenliang died of the virus on Feb. 7.”
“The second whistle-blower, Dr. Mei Zhongming, died of the virus on March 1. We have been unable to determine the fate of the other six whistle-blowers.”
Yang went on to name others. Ai Fen, the head of the emergency room at Wuhan Central Hospital, “went public saying authorities has stopped her and her colleagues from warning the world about the virus outbreak. She has disappeared.”
Xu Zhangrun, a Tsinghua University law professor, was put under house arrest after posting online an article entitled “The Angry People are No Longer Afraid,” in which he “declared that the coronavirus has exposed the bankruptcy of China’s rulers.”
Xu Zhiyong, a leader of China’s dissident New Citizens’ Movement, “was arrested after calling for Xi Jinping to step down.” Yang also named Chen Qiushi, a lawyer and “citizen journalist” who had covered the 2019 Hong Kong protests. “He disappeared after documenting and reporting the true situation in Wuhan.”
The last entry of disappeared dissidents is perhaps the least likely one—Ren Zhiqiang, identified by Yang as a “property tycoon.” wrote that Xi Jinping is a power-hungry clown, and that his strict limits on free speech had exacerbated the epidemic. He is detained along with his assistant and his son.”
In an implicit reference to official Chinese attempts to spin the response to COVID-19 as a victory, first nationally and now internationally, Yang concluded: “It is undeniable that China’s government prioritized covering up the virus instead of addressing it immediately. Its dangerous and selfish behavior has led the controllable outbreak to become a global pandemic, killing hundreds of thousands and plunging the entire world into a total catastrophe… The Chinese regime and its leader Xi Jinping are not saviors in this pandemic. They are the culprits. They put power and control above human lives.”
By World Health Organization figures, the global death toll of COVID-19 now stands at 123,010.
Photo of shopping queue in Wuhan: Wikimedia Commons