Does freedom of speech save lives?
March 19, 2020

At the beginning of January, China was dealing with a novel pathogen that was unknown to humankind. Towards the middle of February, China had implemented public policy measures that successfully stabilized a very dire situation in Wuhan, and also limited the further spread of the virus to other parts of the country.

Indeed there was mishandling of the initial response. There was a crucial two-week period in January when the local government of Wuhan set such stringent conditions for testing that it became effectively impossible to get people tested for the virus. Criticism is warranted, however, this has been held up and repeatedly touted in the Anglophone media as a glaring flaw of China’s authoritarian system, with the not so subtle implication that the acclaimed liberal democratic system (in which the vast majority of these organizations operated) was inherently superior.

Each coin has two sides. The same Chinese government also coordinated a comprehensive response to turn the tide in Wuhan and effectively contain the outbreak. Sadly, much of this effort is simply reported by the Anglophone media as a “lockdown”, often modified by the adjective “draconian”, which hints at their subjective attitudes.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, touts its success at containing a situation that threatened to spiral out of control as validation of its top-down centralized power structure. The Anglophone media decidedly rejects this narrative, preferring to focus on China’s initial failings.

To me, it seemed like the Anglophone media was implying that had China been more transparent about information in the beginning, it would have avoided the situation of Wuhan in the first place, ergo China’s comprehensive efforts are invalidated because it was essentially climbing out of a hole it dug for itself. It is also implied that such a disastrous situation would never come to pass in liberal democracies. However, to me it seems that the supposed “transparency” has not really materialized in the liberal democracies of Western Europe and North America. So it seems to me that the advantage of liberal democracies (“transparency”) did not truly prevent the situation from deteriorating to where Wuhan was in late January. Whereas the liberal democracies are ill-equipped to execute the measures that China took that have been proven effective (in absence of an effective drug or vaccine).

Throughout this time, coverage of China’s response in the Anglophone media was extremely selective, and highly politicized. And I believe as a consequence the threat of the novel Coronavirus was severely underestimated: China was having problems because it had an inferior political system. Surely the more superior liberal democracies would never let a situation like Wuhan happen. Nobody (at least not the people in positions of power) bothered to take a closer look at how the virus actually spread, or what China actually did to fight against it.

So here is an honest question to ask: Does freedom of speech save lives?