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Thirty-One Years After Tiananmen, China's Recklessness Harms Global Citizens Too

June 4, 2020
Jianli Yang
5 min read
"When a regime rides roughshod over its own people, it will sooner or later bring disasters beyond its borders"
"When a regime rides roughshod over its own people, it will sooner or later bring disasters beyond its borders"

Jianli Yang, a mathematician and human rights activist, survived China's Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, after which he left China for the United States. He returned in 2002 and was jailed between 2002 and 2007 for supporting the country's labor movement. He was intermittently held in solitary confinement for a total of 15 months – as detailed in a previous IranWire interview – and returned to the US after his release.

In a weekly series for IranWire, Jianli Yang analyses Chinese disinformation around the origin of coronavirus and its handling to date.


As the worst pandemic in modern history continues to ravage the world, we once again observe the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China.

On this day, I have been thinking about the connection between the two seemingly isolated tragedies, 31 years apart.

The brave students in Tiananmen Square demanded political reforms to make the government more transparent, clean and responsible. The hope was that China might go on the right trajectory, leading to a democracy that respects the value of life and protects human rights.

But the Chinese communist regime responded with machine guns and rolling tanks. As a result, many young lives were lost, the hope of a whole generation was shattered, and political reform was stopped in its tracks. With checks and balances taken away, the Chinese government has since become even more brazen in its repression and corruption.

Since he took power in 2012, Xi Jinping has struck fear into intellectuals, journalists, and private businesspeople alike. The message is clear and simple: be loyal or face punishment.

Censorship was once fragmented across government agencies, with cracks that nimble journalists and citizens could squeeze into and exploit in order to circulate important information. Now, the space for free speech and civil society has been squeezed almost to nothing, turning back to the time of the Cultural Revolution.

Inside the Party, officials are told to show absolute loyalty to Xi Jinping and never question his policies. This keeps the government in line and at the same time cripples its ability to govern. There are no incentives to blow the whistle on anything wrong. This creates the perfect storm for a pandemic. As a result, when coronavirus first broke out, no one in the government would dare suggest, against Xi Jinping’s will, that he must act immediately and with urgency.

By now it is a well-established fact that if, when the coronavirus first broke out in Wuhan, there had been any space in society and government to sound the alarm, and if the government had not suppressed the truth and misled the world, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved.   

By the same token, if the Communist Party, instead of slaughtering the Tiananmen protesters, had accepted their requests for political reform, the world would not have been plunged into the catastrophe we are experiencing today.

China’s dramatically rising power and influence on the global stage in the past 31 years have been accompanied by numerous grievous errors. Will the world once again give China a free pass on this pandemic?

More and more studies and reports have confirmed China’s culpability despite its persistent and aggressive efforts to impede independent international investigations into the origin of the virus and “pass the buck” on to others (or more literally, shuai guo, or “to throw the pot,” which has become such a widespread piece of internet slang that it is now used on the most straight-laced of Chinese programming).

A 15-page document, which was drawn up by the “Five Eyes” global security alliance of the United States, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, was leaked to the Australian press last week. It notes the existence of evidence to confirm the following vital facts:

1.     By December 6, 2019 China had found a case of person-to-person transmission but did not officially confirm that risk until January 20, 2020;

2.     In early January, China ordered all evidence of COVID-19 be destroyed, including lab samples;

3.     Coronavirus was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

These three findings, already sufficient to indict China on the world stage, will undoubtedly lead to further inquiry into other questions such as how the virus was leaked, by negligence or on purpose, and whether it is natural or man-made.

A few days ago, AP also disclosed the recordings of the World Health Organization’s internal meetings on the pandemic. The documents reveal that China sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for weeks in January after three different government labs had fully decoded the information. The WHO was struggling to get the information from China even as it publicly praised China for its speedy response, transparency and honest cooperation.

It is evident now that China’s communist government launched an assault on international transparency in its attempts to cover-up the pandemic and mislead the world.

When a regime rides roughshod over its own people, it will sooner or later bring disasters beyond its borders, one way or another. Today, everyone should be reminded of this lesson: the difference made by freedom and democracy is not just whether we have a life of dignity and individual fulfilment. Very often, it is the difference between life and death.


Also in this series: 

Missing Data, Mud-Slinging and “Miracle Cures”: Why Disinformation Is Bad For Your Health

Iranian Online Network Still Peddling Coronavirus Disinformation

Putin’s Domestic Problems Eclipse Russian Disinformation Campaigns

China's Campaign to Protect President Xi against Coronavirus Criticism

Chinese Embassies Work Overtime to Diffuse International Fury Over Coronavirus

Russia Bans Coronavirus "Fake News" and Slams US Over Press Freedom

China Blocks Investigations Amid Refusal to Shut Down Wet Markets

From Coronavirus to the Second World War: On the Frontlines of the Russian Disinformation Battle

Russia Blames West for Propaganda While Reporting Unlikely Number of Covid-19 Deaths

As Criticism of China Falters, Time for a NATO for Human Rights?

Guest Post From Russia: How do You Put the Brakes on a Fake News Machine?

Has China Really Given Assent to a Global Coronavirus Review?

Russian Disinformation Back to Targeting Ukraine as Putin Declares Covid-19 Peak has Passed

Will the Post-Coronavirus World Stand Up to China's Bullying Business Tactics?


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