Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes

Hong Kong political commentator Leung Man-tao reflects on the dearth of truth in mainland Chinese society as he grieves the passing of Dr Li Wenliang. He remembers the men and women who have gallantly pursued truth in the face of adversity and believes that we can all learn to do the same.
Li Wenliang sounded the alarm about Covid-19, but paid with his life. (Internet)
Li Wenliang sounded the alarm about Covid-19, but paid with his life. (Internet)

I believe many people were as sleepless as I was on the night of 6 February. Was it out of grief and anger? No, I did not feel any anger, just grief.

I am grieving because we forget too easily.

Here is a Weibo post from Dr Li Wenliang, who passed away in the early hours of 7 February.

On 1 August 2011, Dr Li wrote that CCTV producer Wang Qinglei was fired for not toeing the government line when reporting on the Wenzhou train collision, expressing anger at the country and commenting that the trains should not have been buried so quickly. He said Wang was a responsible media person and called on Weibo users to sign a petition to reinstate Wang, and to share or comment to show support. (NB: On 23 July 2011, two high-speed trains on the Yongtaiwen railway line collided on a viaduct in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, killing 40 and injuring at least 192. Officials hastily concluded rescue operations and ordered the burial of the derailed cars, eliciting strong criticism from Chinese media and online communities. In response, the government issued directives to restrict media coverage.) (Screen capture from Weibo)

​This post from nine years ago refers to the Wenzhou train collision of 2011. Do you remember it? Or Wang Qinglei? If you have forgotten them, or think they have little to do with what is happening today, let’s look at SARS in 2003 instead.

On 3 April 2003, the Chinese Health Minister at the time claimed at a press conference that Beijing had only 12 SARS cases with three deaths, and that SARS was under control in China. But a doctor at the 301 Hospital felt that the firsthand information he had was far from straightforward. He wrote down everything he knew and contacted the Chinese media, adding a line at the end that whatever material he provided was true and he would take full responsibility for it. A few days went by, but his voice went unheeded.

It was not until the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine got wind of it and interviewed him, that the truth about SARS was exposed and went on to grab the world’s attention. Subsequent investigations by the World Health Organisation bore out what the doctor said. That doctor’s name was Jiang Yanyong (蒋彦永). Today, few in China remember him, and online information on him is scarce.

jiang yanyong
Jiang Yanyong spread the word about SARS in 2003. (Internet)

​In 2004, CCTV dubbed another doctor one of “Ten People Who Touched China in 2003”. For years, this doctor investigated the AIDS situation in Henan, and she encountered many setbacks and difficulties along the way. Former Chinese vice premier Wu Yi asked to meet her, to understand what was missing from the official newspapers, and how she had touched so many people. The doctor’s name was Gao Yaojie (高耀洁). She was eventually forced to leave China, and now lives literally an ocean away.

gao yaojie
Gao Yaojie investigated the AIDS situation in Henan. She now lives in the US. (Internet)

​I grieve, because of the price of “speaking the truth”.

Ba Jin (巴金, 1904 - 2005)'s work, A Collection of Truths (《真话集》), made waves when it was first published in 1983.

It is a collection of the memories of this master in Chinese literary history, who decided in his later years to speak the truths that he could. Nearly 40 years ago, people already shared a mutual sentiment  — it was time to speak the truth.

Isn’t speaking the truth what we are taught to do from young and a basic human instinct and behaviour?

But after so many years, each time someone is praised for daring to speak the truth, each time I see official propaganda asking everyone to “speak the truth”, I find it ridiculous.

Isn’t speaking the truth what we are taught to do from young and a basic human instinct and behaviour? Why is it that up until today, we still have to publicly praise someone for the rare act of speaking the truth, and encourage everyone to “dare” to speak the truth? Isn’t it ridiculous and strange that such things are happening today?

Another reason for my grief is that many people see Dr Li Wenliang as a hero.

Undeniably, in a sense, Dr Li was a hero. In many interviews, he said that no matter what happened, he wanted to be on the frontline saving lives and working with his colleagues to fight this fierce epidemic.

But amid these voices, there are points to note. Dr Li was not a heaven-sent “hero”. He was just an ordinary person. He did not even spread news to the public, he was alerting people around him as an ordinary person would do.

Some people question why Dr Li did not go on the news but spread information privately. It is not that he didn’t go on the news. I invite everyone to read an interview that Dr Li had with Caixin, which mentions that he found clear evidence of human-to-human transmission early on. Around 8 January, he treated a patient with the virus and later found that the patient’s family members, including one of her daughters, were also running fevers — clear human-to-human transmission. They immediately reported it to higher authorities, so it was not that he failed to do so.

Speaking of which, after SARS in 2003, China did set up an epidemic reporting system, which on paper was highly efficient. On 17 November 2016, it was reported at the 3rd World Internet Conference that “in public health, China has built the world’s largest online reporting system for epidemics and sudden public health incidents. The time from discovery of an epidemic to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention receiving the information will be reduced from five days to four hours, in a rapid network for information gathering”. So, why did this system fail?

Dr Li was not a heaven-sent “hero”. He was just an ordinary person.

What is it that we are grieving?

Over ten years ago, we witnessed successive groups of brave doctors doing all they could to tell everyone the truth or what they knew about the SARS epidemic. But now? Even when alerting relatives and friends in private communications, our doctors could be seen as “rumour-mongers” endangering public safety.

Back then, there were at least a few media or institutions that would make sure information was disseminated as quickly as possible, or at least the doctors did not have to be extra careful or live in apprehension for sharing their opinions and warnings of the situation.

So was Dr Li a hero? If he was, what kind of a hero was he, and if not, what does that mean?

On my Youtube series Thousand and One Nights, I once introduced the classic play Life of Galileo by German playwright Bertolt Brecht. I think a part of it fits into this discussion.

Galileo realised the truth about the earth orbiting the sun, but chose to recant rather than face punishment from the Inquisition. (Wikipedia)

​Many of you have probably heard the story of Galileo Galilei. He offended the church and was put on trial by the Inquisition. Faced with the prospect of being burned or tortured, he recanted instead of heroically standing firm to the end like a true scientist.

Brecht does not portray Galileo as a tragic hero who opposes the church for the sake of truth, but a complex and conflicted person with flaws.

Galileo’s student Andrea Sarti believes in Galileo’s teaching that a scientist should dedicate himself to the truth, and is thus disgusted by how his teacher surrenders to the church. He tells Galileo that he could have been a hero, but he has chosen not to be: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!”

But Galileo replies: “No. Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” (NB: Translation by Mark Ravenhill.)

I also see that many friends have been sharing the words of Lu Xun (鲁迅, 1881 - 1936). We know that in the preface to his collection Call to Arms (《呐喊》), he mentions an incident during his medical studies in Japan that left a deep impression on him.

It was the Russo-Japanese War. Lu Xun came across a newsreel slide, and saw in it images of his Chinese compatriots whom he missed. “... one of them was bound and the rest were standing around him. They were all sturdy fellows but appeared completely apathetic.” In other words, when a Chinese person was about to be punished or tortured, those crowding around to “enjoy the spectacle” were also Chinese, but they were already emotionally immune.

He continues, “Before the term was over I had left for Tokyo, because this slide convinced me that medical science was not so important after all. The people of a weak and backward country, however strong and healthy they might be, could only serve to be examples or witnesses of such futile spectacles; and it was not necessarily deplorable if many of them died of illness.” (NB: Translation adapted from Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang.)

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​Lu Xun's pessimistic world view showed in his writing. (Wikipedia)

These are Lu Xun’s words. In today’s context, many have shared and agreed with Lu Xun when he said “learning medicine cannot save the Chinese”. Why? Because we see so many doctors and nurses at the front line fighting the epidemic, working around the clock, determined to save the people even with scarce supplies, battling the spread of the epidemic for humanity’s sake. But before the epidemic broke and as it progressed, we still saw violence against doctors who were killed and attacked. Is this how our doctors should live and what they should put up with?

Going back to Lu Xun’s works, I have to say I really like them. His works are deep and they sting, and are sometimes too painful to read.

But he is too pessimistic. On that, I cannot fully agree with him. 

What is the source of that pessimism? It comes from the premise hidden in all his writings. He believed that the Chinese have a fundamental nationalistic character or minzu character (民族性) that is incorrigible.

... history will not be forever fixed. I believe that given our agency as individuals, it can be changed.

But in my view, there is no such thing as an unchanging “fundamental minzu character”. Minzu is a connotation formed over time and history, as are its characters. (NB: Minzu is a complex concept with various definitions depending on context; it could mean a community, an ethnic group, a people, or a nation.)

Minzu evolves, and so does the fundamental minzu character. It changes with the environment; it is not destiny, we do not surrender ourselves to its rule.

But I still believe that although very often we see history repeating itself, and many things grieve me as it does today, history will not be forever fixed. I believe that given our agency as individuals, it can be changed.

Where will change happen? What kind of change, and to what extent? When? Frankly, I don’t know. But if we don’t believe in this, what else can we do?

Do we just accept things as they are? Sorry, I will not.