A Chinese scholar has been detained by the authorities after writing an open letter to the country’s legislature ripping the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and calling for freedom of speech.
Zhang Xuezhong was removed from his Shanghai home on Sunday night, The South China Morning Post reported, citing multiple sources. Zhang’s letter, posted on WeChat on Saturday and addressed to the National People’s Congress, was circulated online as the Chinese Communist Party prepares to convene crucial parliamentary sessions in less than two weeks’ time.
“He was taken away on Sunday night. Three police cars came to his house,” Wen Kejian, a political analyst and a close friend of Zhang, told the website.
Another of Zhang’s pals also confirmed that Zhang had been taken.
“He is mentally prepared after his open letter,” the friend said.
Zhang, 43, wrote alongside his attached letter: “The best way to fight for freedom of expression is for everyone to speak as if we already have freedom of speech.”
Calls from the Morning Post to the Shanghai cops went unanswered.
Zhang – a well-known critic of China’s political and legal system – said in the letter that in the absence of a modern constitution, China’s communist governance was backward, and “the outbreak and spread of the Covid-19 epidemic is a good illustration of the problem.”
Since first being reported in Wuhan in late December, the coronavirus has infected over 4.1 million people globally, killing more than 282,000.
Dr. Li WenliangAP
There were earlier calls for freedom of speech in February following the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, who had alerted colleagues in December about the pneumonia-like illness in Wuhan, and who was one of eight people slammed by the communist country’s police for “spreading rumors.”
Li, who was required to sign a document vowing he would “keep in line in thought and action” with the Communist Party, later died from the coronavirus.
Zhang said in his letter: “Twenty-two days before the [lockdown to contain the outbreak] in the city, Wuhan was still investigating and punishing citizens who had disclosed the epidemic, including Dr Li Wenliang … showing how tight and arbitrary the government’s suppression of society is.”
China has dismissed claims from President Trump and others that it mishandled the outbreak, and argued against accusations that it had withheld information and allowed the outbreak to escalate.
Zhang argued that China did share information with the US beginning in early January — but didn’t share that information with its own citizens.
“Since January 3, 2020, the foreign ministry had been regularly notifying the US government about the epidemic, but the disease control department was not notifying the people of [China] at the same time. Such an irresponsible attitude towards their people’s safety is rare,” Zhang wrote.