During a trip to China in 2018, we were watching BBC News in our hotel room. When the anchorman started to talk about something going on in the country’s western provinces, the screen went blank. After a minute or so, the picture returned. The newscaster had moved on to the next story.
The next day, we mentioned the interruption to one of our tour guides. “The government wants us to be happy,” the guide said with a wry, tight-lipped smile. “So they try not to show us things that would make us unhappy.”
I recalled that exchange last week when I heard about the fate of Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who tried to sound the alarm about the new virus now spreading around the world.
Li was a 34-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. On Dec. 30, he took to WeChat to warn fellow doctors that several patients from a local market had come down with an illness resembling SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).
Soviets downplayed Chernobyl
Like the Soviet authorities who downplayed the severity of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, local Chinese officials sought to keep the lid on Li’s information. The doctor was accused of rumor-mongering. Security police forced him to sign a letter that accused him of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.”
After returning to work at Wuhan Central Hospital, he contracted the coronavirus from a patient who saw him for glaucoma on Jan. 10. “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better,” he texted The New York Times from his hospital bed. “There should be more openness and transparency.”
Dr. Li died last Friday, one of more than 1,000 victims of the coronavirus so far. He left behind a pregnant wife and child.
Li’s tragic story isn’t just a faraway tale of the damage that can be done when communist authorities try to suppress bad news, imperiling their own citizens and those of other nations. It’s also a warning to Americans about the consequences of discrediting people who attempt to call out wrongdoing or danger.
Think such a thing couldn’t happen here in the USA, where laws protect whistleblowers from retribution? Don’t be so certain.
U.S. whistleblower under attack
Last summer, after an unidentified National Security Council aide raised alarms through proper channels on President Donald Trump’s arms-for-dirt deal with Ukraine, the administration tried to suppress the complaint. Failing that, it assailed the whistleblower.
Never mind that subsequent testimony thoroughly confirmed the whistleblower’s allegations. And never mind that Republican members of Congress used to be big champions of whistleblower protections.
Trump attacked the whistleblower on Twitter and retweeted articles that purported to reveal the person’s identity. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., tried to expose the identity during the question-and-answer portion of the impeachment trial. Wisely thwarted by Chief Justice John Roberts, Paul went ahead later and publicly disclosed the name anyway. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., plans an investigation — not of Paul’s actions, but those of the alleged whistleblower.
“If they carry out this threat of state-sponsored retaliation, whistleblowing as we know it may be over,” Walter Shaub, a former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, warned in The Washington Post. “That would be a disastrous blow to government integrity.”
As the sad case of Dr. Li shows, it would also be a threat to your health and safety. Contrary to what certain leaders here and abroad might want you to believe, ignorance is not bliss.
Bill Sternberg is editor of the editorial page. Follow him on Twitter: @bsternbe