From Chernobyl to the coronavirus

Fear of Chernobyl had overcome fear of the state, and nothing was the same ever again. A dictatorship built on coercion and lies faces existential risks when it’s confronted with something scarier than its machinery of repression. In the summer of 1986, Ukrainians started openly talking about ecology and nuclear safety, and those conversations rapidly morphed into an independence movement that rejected both Communism and Moscow’s rule…

Parallels with Chernobyl can only go so far, of course. Unlike the stagnant U.S.S.R. of 1986, China is a robustly growing economy. President Xi Jinping, unlike the Soviet Union’s last leader, the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev, has intensified the Communist party’s authority and repression of dissent since coming to power in 2012. On Thursday, Mr. Xi ousted the two top party officials in Wuhan and the surrounding region, replacing them with loyalists.

Yet even China is unable to fully control public opinion, as evidenced by the government’s decision to posthumously glorify Li Wenliang, one of Wuhan’s early whisteblowers. Dr. Li has become a folk hero of sorts after dying from the virus he tried to warn people about. The Wuhan outbreak, which led to a weekslong shutdown of vast parts of the country and a disruption of China’s transport links with the outside world, has exposed the huge economic and human cost of the secretive, top-down approach at the heart of the Chinese party-state system.