Coronavirus

China's Censorship Helped Start a Pandemic. Can Free Speech End It?

The contagious spread of information is in a race against the contagious spread of coronavirus.

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Li Wenliang…died at 2:58 on February 7, 2020…We deeply regret and mourn this.

When Wuhan Central Hospital announced the death of the 34-year-old ophthalmologist on the social media site Weibo, there was an outpouring of sadness and anger in China.

It was one of the first signs that something far more troubling was happening in the city of Wuhan than the Chinese government was letting on.

When Li had tried to alert his colleagues via WeChat that he was witnessing an alarming spike in respiratory illnesses, the local government forced him and eight other people to sign apologetic admissions of "rumor-mongering." It was the beginning of a disinformation campaign that would help turn a crisis into a global pandemic.

Chinese officials later assured the public that they'd found no human-to-human transmissions of the viral pneumonia Li had posted about and that the disease was "preventable and controllable."

In January, government officials shut down the food market where they suspected the disease had originated. Nine days later, a 61-year-old man who regularly shopped at the market became the virus's first known fatality. But what government officials failed to tell the public was that his wife—who had never visited the market—also caught the virus, meaning that it was transmittable among human beings.

As the hospital ward filled and workers began to fall ill, China's politicians still refused to acknowledge for weeks that human-to-human transmission was happening, even staging a 40,000-family potluck in Wuhan and instructing hospitals not to use the words "viral pneumonia" on lung scan reports.

As the death toll in China climbed, the national government pointed its fingers at local authorities; Wuhan's mayor said his hands were tied by a national law requiring approval from central authorities before declaring an epidemic.

In late January, Li texted a New York Times reporter from his hospital bed: "If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency."

Concern for the need to better guide public opinion on the issue turned out to be part of President Xi's rationale for refusing to disclose human-to-human transmission for several weeks.

In February, authorities jailed an activist who dared criticize Xi's handling of the crisis. A journalist reporting stories from Wuhan that were critical of the government's response disappeared, as did a wealthy tycoon who publicly blamed the Communist Party's speech restrictions for worsening the spread. 

As the first U.S. patients began testing positive, the Trump administration downplayed the threat.

"Is [COVID-19] real? Yes, but the flu is real," White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 28, before claiming that media were only beginning to pay attention to the outbreak because "they think this is going to be what brings down the president."

Trump had recently told the press that COVID-19 cases in the U.S. would likely be "close to zero" in a few days, and he later claimed the outbreak was "very well under control." In response to a reporter's question about the lack of early CDC testing for the virus on March 13, Trump replied: "I don't take any responsibility at all."

U.S. officials' attempts to downplay the crisis likely worsened the spread by slowing the reaction times. But there's an enormous difference between a country that jails dissenting voices and a country with strong First Amendment protections. 

The media and political class have derided Twitter and Facebook for lacking adequate gatekeepers, but it was through these platforms that medical professionals, technologists, epidemiologists, and everyday citizens bypassed the mainstream media and the government to implore their fellow citizens to act. 

A Seattle-based medical team defied the CDC to run tests and discovered an outbreak in the city and sequenced the genome, and a member of that team wrote a Twitter thread that  got the word out about the value of "social distancing" long before the federal government did. 

Yale social scientist and physician Nicholas Christakis explained the science of disease spread and promoted social distancing in threads shared thousands of times. 

On January 30, technologist and venture capitalist Balaji Srinivasin asked on Twitter, "What if this coronavirus is the pandemic that public health people have been warning about for years?" Then he began encouraging the cancellation of events, pleading for more early testing, and warning about the lack of reliable information coming out of China.

He was critical of early media coverage that often downplayed the threat of the outbreak with facile comparisons to the flu, and he criticized flippant dismissals of Silicon Valley companies that began taking precautions early.

"Of course this non-issue turned out to be very much an issue," he told Reason's Nick Gillespie. "And they weren't simply getting the story wrong, but they were actively attempting to shame and silence the people getting the story right. And some of them, you know, later insincerely apologized, others wrote columns about how they got the story wrong, this slightly more insincere way. And then once Trump started adopting their early talking points about how the virus was just the flu, several of them have reversed themselves and pretended, you know, they'd been taking it seriously all along." 

As the government continues to stumble, the decentralized response has been forthcoming, with individuals voluntarily self-isolating after the "flatten the curve" chart was circulated widely on social media.  Doctors in Seattle defied the federal government to test for COVID-19; states like Colorado implemented their own drive-thru testing stations; and mayors and governors began taking measures to protect the spread within dense city centers. 

But to keep the decentralized response going, information channels will need to remain as open as possible. To this day, dissenters in China are being muzzled or worse. And the Trump administration has classified several top-level coronavirus meetings. 

American social media is chaotic, confusing, and full of bad actors and misinformation. Wild speculation abounds. But that wild, freewheeling conversation keeps us safer than a censored press, or even a free press controlled by professionals.

The contagious spread of information is in a race against the contagious spread of the disease. It is a powerful weapon in this global emergency.

Written by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Lex Villena.

Music credits: "Cendres," by Kai Engel. "Fifteen," by Lex Villena. 

Photo Credits: Li/Ropi/ZUMA Press/Newscom, EPN Newscom, SHI ZHI FEATURE CHINA Newscom, YUAN ZHENG/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, YUAN ZHENG/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, Ling/Ropi/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Phoenix7777 Data source: 疫情通报 Outbreak notification, Yonhap News/YNA/Newscom, Agencia de Noticias ANDES Xi Jin Ping, ID 62507210 © Shannon Fagan | Dreamstime.com, NIAID Coronavirus, Shen Bohan Xinhua News Agency/Newscom, CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom, CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom, Fei Maohua Xinhua News Agency/Newscom, LI KE/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, LI KE/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, LI KE/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, LI KE/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, Xie Huanchi Xinhua News Agency/Newscom, SHEPHERD ZHOU/FEATURECHINA/Newscom, Ju Peng Xinhua News Agency/Newscom, Kyodo/Newscom, Kevin Dietsch—Pool via CNP/Newscom, ID 161497307 © Paulus Rusyanto | Dreamstime.com, Marco Alpozzi/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Michael Candelori/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Michael Candelori/Sipa USA/Newscom, Joe Russo / MEGA / Newscom, Samuel Boivin/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Ipa/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Mairo Cinquetti/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Zikri Maulana/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Fryeri by Kai Engelw, CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom

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  1. You are as free here as you are in China to blame it on Trump.

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  2. “Yale social scientist and physician Nicholas Christakis explained the science of disease spread and promoted social distancing in threads shared thousands of times. ”

    How dare you quite unwoke Christakis. His wife said colleges shouldn’t tell adults how to dress for hollywood. He has been censored!!!

    1. Hooray for Halloween That screwy ballyhooey Halloween Where any office boy or young mechanic Can be a panic

      1. Agile cyborg?

  3. China’s Censorship Helped Start a Pandemic. Can Free Speech End It?

    It doesn’t seem like it’s going that way. The dictatorship of the proletariat was basically able to stop it at 80,000. What’s the number in the US? 45,000 and no end in sight on a log curve? Listen: I’m not one to crow about free markets and all the things it doesn’t do well in the face of misery and death, but in this case you have to say something about a society that it able to order itself and put all the dick and gun-wavers somewhere someplace for a while until the public threat is over.

    1. Wow. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the AmSoc sock in use.

    2. “…was basically able to stop it at 80,000.”

      It being reporting the number of infections, and the number of deaths. They certainly did stop reporting it. The disease has been continuing to ravage China it’s just that the Chinese Communist dictatorship has a lock on communication and can easily stop others reporting on their failures. Even a dumb sock like you can figure that one out.

      1. Wait… you believe this government’s numbers?

        1. You believe China’s numbers. You shouldn’t talk.

          1. I’m a libertarian so I don’t believe anyone’s numbers.

            1. You’re not a libertarian.

              You’re an idiot.

            2. “I’m a libertarian so I don’t believe anyone’s numbers.”
              You are a lying piece of shit. Grow up and pay your mortgage, asshole

    3. You’re an idiot.

    4. fuck off slaver

      1. and take China’s dick out of your mouth while you’re at it.

        1. You better try Sextreffen and chat with some nice sexy girls

    5. Putting people “somewhere someplace for a while…”

      Gulags? Haha. Fun!

    6. China’s crime rate, like most totalitarian states, is also low, because the government is not constrained by respect for human rights. E Germany, USSR, Cuba, etc all had low crime rates (not including political ‘crimes’).

      Do we want such a state merely to limit the spread of disease? A disease that appears to not impact countries with high incidence of malaria.

  4. What a dick…

    https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theatlantic.com/amp/article/608593/

    The senator from Kentucky was worried enough about being exposed to the virus that he got a still-hard-to-obtain test for it. But while he was waiting for the results, he decided to keep showing up to the Senate. He went to group lunches with his Republican colleagues, took the Capitol elevators, talked with reporters, and worked out in the somehow-still-open Senate gym. Yesterday morning, he was doing laps in the pool there.

    By yesterday afternoon, Paul had announced that he had tested positive. Graciously, he said that he would start self-quarantining.

    1. But enough about you.

    2. OK so you like Rand’s dick. We get it.

    3. Am Soc returns under his/her original handle to prove once again how pathetically stupid a ‘socialist’ can be.
      Fuck off, you piece if shit. Pay your mortgage so the rest of us don’t have to clean up after your slimy ass.

  5. A Seattle-based medical team defied the CDC to run tests and discovered an outbreak in the city and sequenced the genome, and a member of that team wrote a Twitter thread that got the word out about the value of “social distancing” long before the federal government did.

    Doctors in Seattle defied the federal government to test for COVID-19;

    I was suspicious that the majority of the Seattle medical community were sympathizers with Communist China prior to the outbreak. When forced to choose between Seattle Doctors, The US Government, and The Chinese Government, I’m compelled to admit that there are no good options and, potentially, the US Government is the least bad option.

  6. China is a dictatorship. That’s all it is at the end of the day.

    It won’t change.

    What can change is how we interact economically with China.

    Time to ween of that tit. They can’t be trusted. This pandemic is hurting people across the globe and they must account for it.

    Either stop doing stupid things like eating bats and killing cats and dogs like barbarians and abusing human rights or fuck straight off.

    1. Somehow I got an image of a bunch of Chinese peasants suddenly in the middle or upper class, and it made me ponder what happens when the family in the double-wide at the end of the trailer park wins the lottery.

    2. Turns out the Chinese will eat anything that moves. Once we eliminate factory farms we’ll probably do the same. No more cute baby kitten videos unless they’re in a stir fry.

    3. But Rufus, think of the shekels!

  7. “The media and political class have derided Twitter and Facebook for lacking adequate gatekeepers, but it was through these platforms that medical professionals, technologists, epidemiologists, and everyday citizens bypassed the mainstream media and the government to implore their fellow citizens to act.”
    Yeah but all of that social media hyperventilating is a big reason why we are where we are today with millions out of work, trillions in wealth extinguished, businesses closed by government diktat and millions imprisoned in their own homes. This for a disease far less lethal than ebola, SARS or MERS. When the death toll from the Chinese virus turns out to be .02 as was the case with H1N1 will any of these bloviating assholes apologize for the destruction left in their wake? Or will it just be another round of virtue signalling.

    1. They’ll all dislocate their arms patting themselves on the back about how they saved millions of lives by destroying the economy.

    2. I agree with your analysis. Morons finally have a voice. It’s society’s job to learn how to ignore them. Again…

      1. If only these platforms could be sued for the lies they knowingly distribute and the damage that they know those lies will do…

  8. The decentralized response of business people in adequately-free commerce has provided tests, therapies, and vaccine candidates.

    The barely-decentralized response of media people, though, dominated by Progressives, has strongly influenced government people to shut down commerce. The remaining media people have had a hard time getting out the message that we need to stop the FDA from blocking, throttling, and delaying the sale of tests, therapies, and vaccines.

    When the national, state, and local governments are monstrously big, the more-decentralized response of the remaining media—constitutionalists and libertarians—needs to take advantage of its unique assets: larger networks of the subject-matter experts who have the most common sense, faster response, and customers’ extraordinary interest and skill at finding better info faster.

    The jury’s out on free speech’s impact on this virus. I think the most-compelling voices have included the medical researchers and rapid publications, MedCram, Reason, Mises, and John Cochrane. These efforts are impressive starts.

    Let’s keep building better ever-richer feeder networks and stronger analyses that influence the receptive politicians. There are more there now than we generally think, and every primary there can be still more. Voters are more than ready. Constitutionalist and libertarian politicians need help with messages, and need help getting their word out.

    1. “Let’s keep building better ever-richer feeder networks and stronger analyses that influence the receptive politicians. There are more there now than we generally think, and every primary there can be still more. Voters are more than ready. Constitutionalist and libertarian politicians need help with messages, and need help getting their word out.”

      See below; I’m convinced that dis-intermediating the teachers unions would go a long way to help.

  9. Free speech can certainly help correct the lies of the chicken littles, but most of them have spent years being indoctrinated by government ‘schools’.
    Perhaps it’s time to correct the indoctrination and allow free speech to be accepted as such.

  10. Eliminating the teachers’ unions is taking a step in rolling back the Progressives’ estate. I don’t think that this step can be made, and make to hold, while both major parties are Progressive.

    I think that what can work is to create a distinctly-different major party. The party design needed is simple. It simply would limit the party’s power, keeping the grassroots in charge, by taking the same structure that’s designed to limit the government’s power using the Constitution, and adapting the same features to limit the party government’s power. The party government would have separated party powers, enumerated party powers, and offsetting party powers. The party government would be limited when party government people use their party constitutional powers against other party government people. The government would then be limited when the party government’s people use their constitutional powers against other government people.

    To build a major party the same way our past major parties were built will require that the party must have a believable ability to limit government. Voters love freedom, and the structure described above will be something clearly new and promising. The votes still have to be built up in the face of incumbent party advantages and money. Historically, our major parties have been started by the determined actions of both activists and media people. Perceived money requirements can be overcome by voter-information meetings, which eventually become the new party’s caucuses. Historically, caucuses have delivered information, votes, and exceptionally-high voter turnouts without media buys and therefore without substantial money.

    The networks and media collaboration I described above in my March 24 2020, 12:06 am comment can be the starting point for developing the activists and media required to build a major party.

    I describe the good party structure and the party development approach that are above in my book The Constitution Needs a Good Party: Good Government Comes from Good Boundaries. If it sounds interesting, please have a look at it on Amazon, or you can get your bookstore or library to order a copy from Ingram, one of their usual distributors.

    1. This is a golden opportunity for libertarians to take a massive swipe at teachers unions. You all are going to miss it though.

      While everyone is being forced to keep their kids home, this would be a great opportunity to press for the funding given to public schools per diem to be given to families keeping and teaching their own children. But that would be socialism or something. Gotta tell everyone to keep going out and not change any behavior

      1. This would absolutely destroy public schools, and be a great step forward. You’re not going to abolish schooling altogether, but this is achievable. And the economic effect would be insane. The rural school district next to me gets almost $400 per kid per diem.

  11. Sevo, eliminating the teachers’ unions is taking a step in rolling back the Progressives’ estate. I don’t think that this step can be made, and make to hold, while both major parties are Progressive.

    I think that what can work is to create a distinctly-different major party. The party design needed is simple. It simply would limit the party’s power, keeping the grassroots in charge, by taking the same structure that’s designed to limit the government’s power using the Constitution, and adapting the same features to limit the party government’s power. The party government would have separated party powers, enumerated party powers, and offsetting party powers. The party government would be limited when party government people use their party constitutional powers against other party government people. The government would then be limited when the party government’s people use their constitutional powers against other government people.

    To build a major party the same way our past major parties were built will require that the party must have a believable ability to limit government. Voters love freedom, and the structure described above will be something clearly new and promising. The votes still have to be built up in the face of incumbent party advantages and money. Historically, our major parties have been started by the determined actions of both activists and media people. Perceived money requirements can be overcome by voter-information meetings, which eventually become the new party’s caucuses. Historically, caucuses have delivered information, votes, and exceptionally-high voter turnouts without media buys and therefore without substantial money.

    The networks and media collaboration I described above in my March 24 2020, 12:06 am comment can be the starting point for developing the activists and media required to build a major party.

    I describe the good party structure and the party development approach that are above in my book The Constitution Needs a Good Party: Good Government Comes from Good Boundaries. If it sounds interesting, please have a look at it on Amazon, or you can get your bookstore or library to order a copy from Ingram, one of their usual distributors.

    1. Your idea about parties made me wonder; given how the founders warned against the formation of parties, why didn’t they think to develop any checks and balances specifically for parties? I know the govt itself has such controls, and perhaps this was lack of foresight on part of the founders, but we’ve all seen firsthand how a committed, organized party can erode our civil liberties, even when said party is not in power.

      I don’t blame the founders for not foreseeing an entrenched class of wealthy elites raised by Soviet propaganda working to undermine the Constitution until the day they die, but it’s clear that parties have too much influence today and must be curtailed before they cause any more damage. The long-term effects of a society that is perpetually at war with itself to protect freedom does not bode well for the future of our nation.

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  14. A re-evaluation of the relationship with China is in order. It is clear the Chinese government obfuscated and lied about the Wuhan coronavirus. Their actions have directly lead to the deaths of many Americans. That cannot go unanswered.

    Given their actions, how can we trust the Chinese government to uphold any agreement? They have a lengthy and repeated track record of being liars. The evidence is plain, and incontrovertible.

    It is high time to build another Great Wall (digital, economic, diplomatic and military) around China….to keep those communist bastards penned up. Until their duplicitous behavior changes, they should be shunned and isolated.

    1. They are not the only country in the world that has cheap labor. I am quite sure places like India or Brazil would happily accept the low wage production that is currently located in China. What the hell are we getting out of trading with China other than a new pandemic every decade, industrial espionage, and a belligerent power that is a threat to all of East Asia?

  15. Now, the censorship helped along what was already a pandemic virus. What really started the pandemic was the fact that the Chinese are barbaric, primitive bastards who eat bats and have “wet markets” where they kill the animals right there.

    This is either the third or the fourth time this century a virus like this has made the jump from animals to humans. Each time the jump has occurred in China and has been the result of their hygiene and culinary habits. The entire world needs to tell China that they can either stop these practices or no longer be allowed to trade or have any interaction with the modern world.

  16. But that wild, freewheeling conversation keeps us safer than a censored press, or even a free press controlled by professionals.

    At this point, “what difference does it make?”

  17. For anyone interested in the rules for CCP propaganda, someone has translated the latest Cyberspace Administration rules:

    https://twitter.com/jenniferatntd/status/1238076579466674178

    Click on the English language page on the right for a readable version. This should be required reading for every citizen of the west.

  18. Does anyone have a contact at Reason? The memo needs to get widely publicized across the media universe:

    https://twitter.com/jenniferatntd/status/1238076579466674178

  19. Great Video

    When looking at China, it really shows why the only media regulation needed is a complete Free Market

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