In recent days, Chinese citizens who seem energized by Dr. Li’s example and deeply disgruntled—not only by the serious shortcomings in the state’s public health response to the coronavirus, but also by its lack of transparency and accountability—have taken matters into their own hands. Many have recorded impassioned statements about their own suffering and poor treatment during the crisis. Some who are doing this seem to have posterity in mind, planning ahead for a time when the state inevitably tries to rewrite the history of this epidemic as a massive triumph of the system. Others, slightly edgier, though, are playing cat and mouse with the country’s aggressive censors as they seek ways to push out their aggrieved messages online, however quickly they are blocked or erased.
This all points to a potentially bigger crisis, but one that has received less attention so far, in part because it has no visible heroes like Dr. Li. It involves the crisis of journalism in China. The coronavirus outbreak has made it clearer than ever before that going forward, a society as large, complex and dynamic as China will not be amenable to good governance over the long haul without much more space for its press. There will always be so-called black swan events—just as, with authoritarianism, there will always be a political and bureaucratic temptation to hush them up. In fact, even though it is now doubling down on Orwellian and ever more technologically sophisticated systems of control, Beijing will eventually face a choice between trying to manage a distrusting population that can only lash out when it finds no outlet for its feelings, or allowing much more room for media accountability.