Chinese epidemiologist Zhang Wenhong divides public opinion. To some he is a straight-talking expert who eschews politics and tells it like it is – often with a dash of earthy humour (see WiC495 for an earlier profile). For others he is a “traitor”, a “capitulator” and someone who “fawns” over the West because he lacks pride in his own culture.
Zhang leads the medical response to Covid in Shanghai, where the death toll from the pandemic is well below that of capital city Beijing. But his employer Fudan University is now investigating him after he suggested that the official government policy of wholly eradicating Covid is misguided.
“Most virologists recognise that this is a now a resident virus and that we must learn to co-exist with it,” he said in a July 29 post on his Sina Weibo account. “The way China chooses in the future must ensure a community with a shared future and intercommunication with the world,” he added.
The timing of the post was in some ways counterintuitive – coming amid China’s largest reported outbreak of Covid since people began falling sick in Wuhan in late 2019. But his point was that the disease has long evaded full control by the authorities and that attempts to annihilate it completely are likely to fail, despite impinging on many other aspects of everyday life.
Zhang had already embittered nationalist netizens in suggesting that eggs and milk made for a more nutritious breakfast – and helped to build a better immune system response to infection – than China’s traditional morning meal of congee. But patriotic netizens took further umbrage at his apparent repudiation of official policy, seeing it as criticism of their national approach.
In revenge some dug out a copy of Zhang’s doctoral thesis, alleging that it contained large chunks of others’ work. On August 15, after the People’s Daily also ran a commentary disparaging Zhang’s call for “co-existence” with the virus, his university announced it was launching an investigation into the accusations.
Since then Zhang has largely stayed quiet, despite critics taking aim at his earlier stance. “Strict prevention and control must be adhered to, and the idea of ‘coexisting with the virus’ must be dispelled,” demanded former health minster Gao Qiang in the People’s Daily this month.
China’s leaders championed the success in countering the initial outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan when it celebrated the centenary of the founding of the country’s Communist Party earlier this year. However, since late April, smaller outbreaks of the Delta variant of the virus have been appearing – the largest of which has been traced back to Nanjing’s airport and a flight that arrived from Russia on July 10.
Thus far some 400 new cases have been reported in China – leading to renewed travel restrictions, mini-lockdowns and another round of mass testing in cities including Nanjing and Wuhan. Feng Jun, the chairman of the company that manages the airport in Nanjing is also under investigation for failing to do more to prevent the outbreak. Delta variant outbreaks in at least 11 provinces can be traced back to failures of anti-contamination measures at the airport in Jiangsu’s provincial capital, the local press has reported.
China battled the spread of the virus with strict lockdowns and curtailing international arrivals. A mass vaccination programme followed that has administered 1.8 billion doses so far, according to Reuters.
Borders are unlikely to reopen significantly before the Winter Olympics in February 2022, experts say. And they may stay shut long after that, given that China’s leaders seem unwilling to relinquish the idea that they can defeat Covid entirely. Questioning the zero-tolerance policy is inadvisable: this week a teacher from Jiangxi was detained for 15 days for suggesting that China learn to “coexist with the virus” too.
Fellow academics have tried to support Zhang, arguing that the plagiarism accusations are politically motivated. A few have lamented a climate in which scientists cannot voice ideas without fear of retaliation too.
“Who will dare to speak out and act according to their professional judgment in the future?” Yan Feng, from Fudan’s Chinese literature department, asked on weibo.
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