Chinese SARS whistleblower Jiang Yanyong dies at 91
BEIJING — Jiang Yanyong, a Chinese military doctor who exposed the full extent of the 2003 SARS outbreak and was later placed under house arrest for his political outspokenness, has died, a longtime acquaintance and a Hong Kong newspaper.
Jiang was 91 and died of pneumonia on Saturday in Beijing, according to human rights activist Hu Jia and the South China Morning Post.
News of Jiang’s death and even his name were censored in China, highlighting how he remained a politically sensitive figure even late in life.
Jiang had been chief surgeon at the People’s Liberation Army 301 Main Hospital in Beijing when the military swept through the city to end weeks of student-led pro-democracy protests. centered on Tiananmen Square, causing the deaths of hundreds – if not thousands – of civilians.
In April 2003, as the ruling Communist Party suppressed information about the highly contagious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, Jiang wrote an 800-word letter stating that there were far more cases of SARS than were known. officially reported by the country’s Minister of Health.
Jiang emailed the letter to state broadcaster CCTV and Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Phoenix Channel, both of which ignored it. The letter was later leaked to Western media who published it in full, along with reports on the true extent of the outbreak and official Chinese efforts to hide it.
The letter, along with the death of a Finnish UN worker and statements by renowned doctor Zhong Nanshan, forced the lifting of government repression, leading to the resignation of Beijing’s health minister and mayor. Strict containment measures were imposed almost overnight, helping to limit the spread of the virus which had already started to appear abroad.
In total, more than 8,000 people from 29 countries and territories have been infected with SARS, resulting in at least 774 deaths.
“Jiang had a doctor’s conscience to populate patients first. He saved so many lives with this letter, without thinking of the consequences,” Hu told The Associated Press.
Chinese authorities then sought to block media access to Jiang, who retired with the rank of major general. He declined an interview with The Associated Press, saying he was unable to obtain the necessary clearance from the Department of Defense.
Beginning in 2004, Jiang and his wife were periodically placed under house arrest for calling on communist leaders to reevaluate the 1989 protests which remain a taboo subject. It brought to mind Jiang’s earlier experiences when he was persecuted as a right-hander under Mao Zedong in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
In 2004, Jiang received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service from the Philippines, considered by some to be an Asian version of the Nobel Peace Prize. In the citation, he was praised for breaking “China’s habit of silence and forcing the truth about SARS out into the open.”
Jiang was prevented from leaving the country, and the prize was collected by his daughter on his behalf.
Three years later, he won the Heinz R. Pagels Prize for the Human Rights of Scientists from the New York Academy of Sciences, but was again barred from travelling.
Echoes of Jiang’s experience have been heard in China’s approach to the initial outbreak of COVID-19, first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
A Wuhan eye doctor, Li Wenliang, has been arrested and threatened by police for allegedly spreading rumors on social media following an attempt to alert others to a “SARS-like” virus. Li’s death on February 7, 2020 sparked widespread outrage against China’s censorship system. Users posted reviews for hours before censors deleted the posts.
The sympathy and outpouring of anger over the treatment of Li and other whistleblowers prompted the government to change course and declare him and 13 others a martyr.
COVID-19 has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide, including about 1.5 million in China, whose government has been accused of massively understating the true death toll.
Jiang is survived by his wife, Hua Zhongwei, a son and a daughter, according to the South China Morning Post.
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