Chinese journalism ‘coronavirus crisis hero’ comes under attack online

Jun Mai

A reporter who wrote a story dismissing the risk of human-to-human transmission in the early stages of the coronavirus epidemic has come in for criticism online after being held up as a coronavirus hero.

The online backlash began after Liao Jun, from state news agency Xinhua, was invited to speak about the role of women in the crisis at a press conference organised in Wuhan, the centre of the epidemic, by the State Council for International Women’s Day on March 8.

Liao took the stage as a representative of the media, alongside two women frontline medical personnel, an NGO worker, a women’s federation official and a cleaner – all described as heroes in the battle against coronavirus.

“We must use our pens and cameras as weapons to tell stories about China’s morale and power out loud to the world,” Liao said.

Angry Chinese netizens later pointed out that Liao wrote a much-discussed story in January about eight people being reprimanded by local police for “spreading rumours” about the virus. Like many other stories by Chinese state media, it only cited official sources, including the local police, which were quoted as warning the public against “spreading rumours”.

The article repeated the official line from health authorities that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

The eight whistle-blowers were later revealed to be doctors who were silenced in the early days of an outbreak that has ballooned into a pandemic, sickening more than 130,000 people around the world and claiming over 5,000 lives.

Mainland media have since quoted whistle-blower doctors as saying they knew there was human-to-human transmission as early as December but were gagged by their supervisors or the police. It was only until January 20 that the government confirmed that human-to-human transmission had occurred.

Public anger over the failure of the authorities to heed the early warning reached a peak on February 7 when Dr Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded for a cautious alert about a possible virus sent a private chat group, died of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Millions of people paid tribute to Li online and vented anger over the initial cover-up.

The public sentiment was so high that the morning after Li’s death the Communist Party’s top anti-corruption body announced it would send a team of investigators to look into official misconduct in relation to the case.

A month after his death, Li remains a symbol of courage in speaking the truth in the public interest.

His social media account has also attracted more than 1.4 million followers and a flood of comments critical of the central government’s response to the crisis.

While articles in official mouthpieces are seen as government dispatches, many internet users criticised the decision to hold Liao up as a hero.

“What a disgrace to journalism … that you are being praised is an insult to Li Wenliang!” one commenter wrote on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

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