During the Spring Festival, I received a sign of life from the highly respected surgeon Jiang Yanyong. (蒋彦永). The world has his courageous actions and medical ethos to thank for the early disclosure and stopping of Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), the lung disease precursor to COVID-19, in 2003 before it could develop into a pandemic. Because Jiang was also no longer willing to keep quiet about what he saw as chief medical officer during the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, he was imprisoned for the first time. Jiang is one of the heroes Beijing wants to make people forget existed.
For the first time, there is a recent photo from the house arrest where he has been living locked up since April 2019. It shows Jiang and his wife Hua Zhongwei in their Beijing apartment, with the doctor holding a stuffed animal ox, the animal symbol of the Chinese New Year that began in February. His face looks puffy. He is said, I learned from one of his closest friends last year, to have been “sedated” with “medication” in Beijing’s Army Hospital 301 and to have suffered from “memory loss” ever since. Jiang worked from 1957, most recently as head of surgery for the celebrity hospital, which also treats China’s top party officials.
The recording was shared on Chinese WeChat. It seems authentic. I know his apartment, where I met him several times in the spring of 2019. On the last visit, the then 87-year-old biked to meet me, picked me up at the entrance to the gated apartment block and passed me off as his patient. In late March, he still came to see me in the Sanlitun diplomatic quarter. On the way, he could have shaken off his tail. He said he was not afraid because “I don’t break laws,” but he would no longer remain silent when people were arbitrarily killed, as he witnessed on the night of June 4, 1989. “As a doctor, I know how precious every single life is.” The day before authorities locked him in political lockdown, he texted, “Now it’s impossible for me to go out. Let’s wait and see. I hope you are doing well! Doctor Jiang.”
Yearning for freedom of expression is censored
Then it became quiet about him. But in 2021, on the first anniversary of the death of the courageous Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang (李文亮) , who warned of the covered-up new COVID epidemic in early 2020 and died of it on February 7, bloggers suddenly recalled his “great” predecessor Jiang, who did the same 18 years ago. Li’s protest cry: A healthy society needs more than one voice. (一个健康的社会，不该只有一种声音) had also been Jiang Yanyong’s credo. The censors quickly deleted such posts.
Unlike in the case of 34-year-old Li, China and the world listened to what Jiang had to say to them in 2003. Horrified, he had watched on television on April 3, 2003, as then Health Minister Zhang Wenkang downplayed the Sars epidemic that had spread from Guangdong to Beijing. Everything was under control. Only 12 people had fallen ill, and three had died.
Jiang’s civil courage disgraces the CCP
Jiang knew then of at least seven dead and 207 infected people being treated in secret in Beijing. He informed state broadcaster CCTV and Phoenix TV on April 5 how dangerous the infection really was. But his warning call was ignored. On April 8, Jiang relayed the news to the correspondent of the US Time magazine. That put the World Health Organization (WHO) on notice and forced China’s leaders to act. On April 20, it fired the health minister and another official and mobilized the entire country to fight Sars. Beijing halted the epidemic until August before it became a pandemic. Worldwide, Sars claimed 8422 infected people and 919 lives, mostly in the People’s Republic, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
China’s public celebrated Jiang for his moral courage to the displeasure of the party, which did not forgive him for its loss of face. Authorities cracked down on him when he first reported on the night of June 4, 1989, in February 2004. Jiang’s 301 Military Hospital was on the invasion route of the rampaging troops to the student-occupied Tiananmen Square of Tiananmen, and between 10 p.m. and midnight, 89 wounded people were brought in with horrible gunshot wounds. As chief surgeon, Jiang operated with three groups of doctors until morning. He was unable to save seven people.
Breaking the taboo around Tiananmen
In June 2004, the authorities detained the veteran party member, who joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1952, for six weeks before placing him under house arrest for a further eight months. Jiang remained unbending. In 2019, he wrote to Party leader Xi Jinping that he saw the 1989 army deployment as the “worst mistake” and the “worst crime” committed by the state leadership. He said the Party must overcome its fear that chaos will erupt in China if it allows events to be reassessed. “This is my fifth letter to Xi,” Jiang told me at the time. “I have never received a reply.”
He was again placed under house arrest. Jiang’s name is taboo, as is the June 4 massacre. Writer Yan Lianke calls the constant distortion of what really happened and the party’s attempts to make it forgotten “state-sponsored amnesia”. It “trumps memory in today’s China”.
With massive propaganda campaigns, Beijing has declared itself the victor not only over Sars 2003 but also over COVID. It has learned nothing from its mistakes. Otherwise China’s leadership would probably have been able to stop the Corona epidemic early enough, before it became a pandemic. And the soon to be 90-year-old Jiang would not be sitting under house arrest today.