It came as a strange coincidence: At last Monday’s first live press conference in Beijing, China’s newly elected Premier Li Qiang pretended that the journalist had somehow asked a wrong question. He asked him whether foreign doubts about China’s long and extremely tough COVID-19 measures were justified. “Our strategies and methods were absolutely right,” Li proclaimed, not going into how he ordered the lockdown of 25 million people for two months in early 2022 as the then Party chief of Shanghai. Like Party leader Xi Jinping before him, the Premier praised the Party’s “great decisive victory” over the pandemic (取得重大决定性胜利). Because “for the past 3 years, we have always put the people and their lives above everything else.” (三年多来，我们始终坚持人民至上、生命至上.)
Simultaneously, state censors scoured China’s internet for any news regarding the death of legendary doctor Jiang Yanyong, who throughout his life placed the lives of his fellow human beings above all else – even against the will of the party. The former chief surgeon passed away on Saturday from pneumonia at the same Beijing Military and VIP Hospital 301 where he started working as a physician in 1957.
The first online news of his death spread on Weixin (WeChat) Monday morning at 6:23 a.m.: “China’s doctor Jiang Yanyong has died. He once saved the lives of countless Chinese with a sentence of truth. Everyone should mourn.” Censors deleted the message and replaced it with their typical ban symbol: a white exclamation mark inside a red sphere with a warning about banned content.
Anonymous bloggers protested the news blackout on Tuesday: “I mourn! Eternity for Doctor Jiang Yanyong! He died yesterday. But those who search the net cannot find this person.” (悼！蒋彦永医生千古！昨日去世，全网查无此人.) The censorship crackdown was so massive that no official media reported Jiang’s death until Thursday. His family was only allowed to pay their respects on Wednesday with a simple ceremony in the funeral hall of Hospital 301. All wreaths for Jiang had to be inspected in advance.
Leading civil rights activists took to the forbidden platform Twitter to express their grief. Like the courageous former lawyer Pu Zhijiang 浦志强, who had his medical license revoked and jailed by Beijing. Pu wrote: “Before Covid broke out, I could still meet with doctor Jiang every year. I had to register my car number at the apartment block to be let through. In recent years, neither I nor fellow lawyers Zhang Zuhua, Mo Shaoping and Shang Baojun were allowed to see him. I heard that even his students were subjected to strict controls if they wanted to visit the old man. There was nothing they could do. There are people who fear him.” (没办法, 有人怕他.)
This was referring to China’s party leaders of the past 20 years, who had him isolated after Jiang publicly revealed in March 2003 how Beijing attempted to cover up the SARS outbreak. But he became a persecuted troublemaker a year later when he broke his silence in 2004 about the former party-ordered “criminal army operation” against student protests that led to the Tiananmen massacre of 4 June 1989. In a harrowing letter, Jiang called on the party leadership to finally face up to its responsibility and reappraise the events.
With it, he not only provoked the rulers of the time, but also Xi Jinping, who had just been elected party leader in 2012. In several letters, Jiang urged him, first within the party and then publicly, to finally absolve the Tiananmen protests of the accusation of counterrevolution.
In his final letter to Xi, dated Oct. 10, 2018, and addressed to the People’s Congress in March 2019, he wrote that the party needs to overcome its fear that chaos will erupt in China as it reassesses events. By doing so, it will “absolutely not endanger China’s stability. On the contrary.” The 1989 army operation was its “worst crime”.
In the letter, Jiang reminded Xi about his father and politician Xi Zhongxun during China’s reform era. He said that Xi’s father himself had dared to protest Deng Xiaoping when the latter deposed the former party leader Hu Yaobang for being too liberal for his liking. His father, he said, rushed into Deng’s room, and he “banged on the table and insulted him.” But how do son Xi and today’s leaders behave? “Do they also have that much courage to stand up for a just cause?”
Jiang publicly revealed sensitive details about the events of 1989
When I had the opportunity to meet Jiang on several occasions in Beijing in early summer 2019, he told me, “I have written five such letters to Xi. I have not received replies to any of them.” His last letter was particularly explosive. That was because Jiang, who held the rank of major general and was a Party veteran who had been a member of the CP since July 1952, knew many Chinese leaders personally. He revealed how controversial the bloody June 4 crackdown commanded by Deng Xiaoping was within the party leadership. Then-incumbent President Yang Shangkun, under Deng’s orders, had declared a state of emergency over Beijing in May 1989, along with Premier Li Peng. This allowed the military troops to enter the capital. Ten years later, when military doctor Jiang went to see Yang Shangkun at his home, he confessed: “June Fourth was the most serious mistake in our party history.” It was not correctable now, he said but would be in the future. Jiang also heard such late insights from other influential figures.
He once told me that his first letter about the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, which he sent to the then-Beijing leadership in February 2004, was the first time he dared to publicly address Beijing’s biggest taboo. All these years, he was tormented by what he witnessed as chief surgeon on the night of June 4. Jiang’s 301 Military Hospital was on the invasion route of the rampaging troops advancing toward the student-occupied Tiananmen Square. By midnight, 89 wounded people with horrific wounds had been brought there. The soldiers had fired internationally banned lead ammunition, which splintered on impact.
He said that the night changed him and inspired his one-man crusade, first against the lies about SARS and then for the rehabilitation of the events and victims of June 4. After Jiang’s letter became public, authorities detained him and his wife for 45 days on June 1, 2004, and then placed them under house arrest for eight months. China’s party leadership insisted in 2004, as it does today under Xi Jinping, that the 1989 crackdown on the democracy movement was justified. It would never re-open this past.
A loyal patriot, Jiang, who came from a distinguished Hangzhou banking family and had relatives in Taiwan, had always adhered to CP discipline. He kept silent about what he had endured during the Cultural Revolution. He was brutally persecuted as a counterrevolutionary and spent five years as a horse herder in an army penal camp on the Tibetan plateau of Qinghai until 1971. Then his services as a surgeon required him to return.
But as a doctor, he became furious when he watched on television on April 3, 2003, how then Minister of Health, Zhang Wenkang, played down and lied about the mysterious SARS epidemic that had spread from Guangdong to Beijing: Except for a few isolated cases, the situation was “under control,” he said.
Jiang had followed with concern how more and more newly infected people were being brought in every day and secretly divided between Beijing military hospitals. He sent urgent letters to the state broadcaster CCTV and the pro-Chinese Hong Kong cable channel Phoenix TV. Both ignored him. He then dared to inform Beijing correspondent Susan Jakes of the US Time magazine on April 8. Together with Karl Greenfeld, the editor-in-chief of the magazine’s Asia branch, who years later published a book on the matter (China Syndrome: The True Story of the 21st Century’s First Great Epidemic), the journalists wrote a report that alarmed the World Health Organization (WTO). On April 20, the Beijing leadership held a press conference admitting to 339 SARS cases and many deaths in Beijing alone. This resulted in the firing of the Minister of Health and another senior official.
Beijing then mobilized the country against SARS. By mid-August, the pandemic threat had been averted. Thanks to cooperation with China, the WHO counted only 8,422 infected individuals and 919 deaths worldwide. More than 800 people died in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Jiang was hailed as a hero for three months. China’s government enacted new rules for transparency and full disclosure of medical information in high-risk cases. It introduced mandatory reporting of epidemics and emergencies in 2006.
15 years later, with the Covid outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020, everything was again forgotten, covered up, lied about and manipulated. The former whistleblower Jiang sat with his wife Hua Zhongwei under house arrest and could only watch helplessly.