Was China's three-minute silence enough to comfort its people?

On 4 April, the Chinese people observed a three-minute silence for the thousands of lives lost to the pandemic. However, Beijing correspondent Yu Zeyuan notes that accountability checks triggered by the Li Wenliang incident have not fully subsided and may possibly create a new political hoo-ha within and outside of China.
The Chinese national flag flies at half mast at a ceremony mourning those who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus as China holds a nationwide mourning on the Qingming Festival, in Wuhan, China, on 4 April 2020. (China Daily via Reuters)
The Chinese national flag flies at half mast at a ceremony mourning those who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus as China holds a nationwide mourning on the Qingming Festival, in Wuhan, China, on 4 April 2020. (China Daily via Reuters)

4 April, 10 am. China flew its national flag at half-mast across the country and sounded the sirens, stopping people dead in their tracks. The country mourned for the thousands who died as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Reuters aptly said that “China came to a halt for three minutes”.  

Although the virus has largely been contained in China, the pandemic’s spread to the rest of the world makes it impossible for China to dissociate itself from the situation.

This is the first time that China has held a nationwide moment of silence due to a major public health incident. The national mourning took place during the Qingming Festival, a time when people would traditionally visit their ancestors’ graves to pay their respects. Such a gesture not only demonstrates a nation’s tradition of respecting lives, but also gives comfort to the families of those who have perished and those who are still living in the shadow of this tragedy.   

Over the past two months and more, the sudden Covid-19 outbreak disrupted the lives of every Chinese citizen. Although the virus has largely been contained in China, the pandemic’s spread to the rest of the world makes it impossible for China to dissociate itself from the situation. Nobody knows when they can rid themselves of the impact of the pandemic and return to their normal lives — or if returning to normal life is even possible. The economic and mental strain from the pandemic has already led to many people crumbling under the immense pressure. People need to be comforted and consoled, and to feel hopeful about the future again.    

People observe a moment of silence outside Hankou Customs House where the Chinese national flag flies at half mast, in Wuhan, Hubei province, on 4 April 2020. (CNS photo via Reuters)
People observe a moment of silence outside Hankou Customs House where the Chinese national flag flies at half mast, in Wuhan, Hubei province, on 4 April 2020. (CNS photo via Reuters)

Politically speaking, this national mourning can be said to have struck a chord within and outside of China. Based on current public sentiment, most of the policies that China has implemented have been met with much opposition, with the exception of the national mourning held on Saturday. There was no internal opposition, and even embassies of the UK, the Netherlands, and other Western countries followed suit and flew their flags at half-mast.   

A Weibo post of the Embassy of Japan in China read: “On the occasion of the Qingming Festival, we would like to honour all frontline workers who are bravely fighting the pandemic in China, Japan, and the rest of the world. May those who passed away rest in peace, and may the living work alongside one another to conquer the pandemic as soon as possible.”   

Hubei’s Wuhan city, the epicentre of the outbreak, has also fully utilised the day of national mourning to comfort its residents. The three main towns that form modern-day Wuhan — Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang — sounded the sirens at 10am on 4 April, turning all traffic lights red, and halting all traffic for three minutes. At the same time, the Wuhan Metro came to a standstill for three minutes with all commuters standing up and observing a moment of silence.    

On 4 April at 10am, traffic halted in Ürümqi and a traffic police removed his cap to observe a moment of silence. (CNS)
On 4 April at 10am, traffic halted in Ürümqi and a traffic police removed his cap to observe a moment of silence. (CNS)

Hubei and Wuhan top officials have also visited the family members of the late Dr Li Wenliang, in a bid to repair its damaged reputation from the Li Wenliang incident that resulted in Dr Li being reprimanded for sounding an alarm in the early days of the outbreak.   

"We need to work together to uphold the good work that martyr Li had started, and carry on martyr Li’s spirit of serving the people. We need to protect the glorious image of the martyrs." - Hubei Communist Party Secretary Ying Yong

Li passed away on 7 February from the coronavirus, triggering a tsunami of public ire as a result. Chinese top officials deployed an investigation team to vindicate him and named him a “martyr” prior to the Qingming Festival. He thus became honoured as one of the 14 martyrs of the Covid-19 pandemic by the Hubei local government.   

According to a report by Hubei TV, Hubei Communist Party Secretary Ying Yong and Wuhan Communist Party Chief Wang Zhonglin visited the family members of Li and two other martyrs last Saturday.   

During the visit to Li’s parents, Ying said that Li had disregarded his personal safety when he was alive and firmly remained in his position as a frontline medical staff, showing he had a doctor’s heart and was fearless in his mission of saving lives.

Ying said, “It is all thanks to the efforts of medical staff including martyr Li, officials, and the public that the outbreak could have achieved interim results. I believe that our heroic city and heroic people will eventually emerge from the shadow of this tragedy and stand firm once more. We need to work together to uphold the good work that martyr Li had started, and carry on martyr Li’s spirit of serving the people. We need to protect the glorious image of the martyrs.”   

Last week, some US senators even proposed a public health accountability act to be named after Li, while others suggested that US President Donald Trump bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon Li.   

Ying’s high praise of Li not just vindicates Li but goes much further to the extent of honouring him as a “heroic model” endorsed by the officials. His proposal of “protecting the glorious image” of Li also implies that others are not allowed to make use of the Li Wenliang incident to attack the officials anymore.    

Chinese students and their supporters hold a memorial for Dr Li Wenliang outside the UCLA campus in Westwood, California, on 15 February 2020. (Mark Ralston/AFP)
Chinese students and their supporters hold a memorial for Dr Li Wenliang outside the UCLA campus in Westwood, California, on 15 February 2020. (Mark Ralston/AFP)

As one of the earliest Wuhan doctors to sound the alarm of the coronavirus online, Li had initially been punished by Wuhan police, and then lost his life as a result of the coronavirus. To some people within and outside of China, he became an iconic figure that highlighted the officials’ tardy response and even intentional concealment of the outbreak. Last week, some US senators even proposed a public health accountability act to be named after Li, while others suggested that US President Donald Trump bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Li.    

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying harshly criticised these senators “who have been doing everything but fulfilling their own duties”. She said that their political manipulation of Li’s passing is an utter disrespect and insult to Li and his family, with total indifference to morality.  

Clearly, accountability checks triggered by the Li Wenliang incident have not fully subsided and may possibly create a new political hoo-ha within and outside of China. The reason for Li’s high praise from top officials of Hubei and Wuhan on the day of national mourning was also to prevent others from using the incident as a weapon against China any longer.      

Related: Chinese netizens: Is this how the Li Wenliang story should end? | Why the political fallout from Covid-19 is more serious than SARS