Doctor who exposed China’s cover-up of Sars crisis dies aged 91
A military surgeon who exposed the Chinese government’s cover-up of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic 20 years ago and lived for years under intermittent house arrest has died in Beijing. He was 91.
Dr Jiang Yanyong died of pneumonia and other illnesses on Saturday, according to two of his friends. One said Jiang had contracted the virus in January in a wave that swept across China after zero-Covid curbs were lifted, although it was unclear if his death was directly caused by the virus.
A person who answered the phone at Jiang’s home confirmed his death but declined to talk further. Jiang had been in ill health in the past few years.
Jiang, who had been the chief surgeon at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army general hospital before he retired, became a national hero by exposing the government’s cover-up of the extent of the Sars epidemic in 2003. He initially discovered that at one Beijing hospital alone 60 Sars patients had been admitted, of whom seven had died, before finding many more cases across Beijing. He was incensed that the then minister of health said there were only 12 cases, of whom three had died.
He wrote a statement on the true situation, which was ignored by Chinese state media but obtained by the international press. He told Time magazine in April that year that “a failure to disclose accurate statistics about the illness will only lead to more deaths”.
In the following months, Jiang wrote another letter to senior Chinese leaders denouncing the bloody crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement – a move that led him to being detained and forced to undergo daily “brainwashing” sessions. Since then, he had been held under intermittent house arrest, and his name became taboo in China. Most of the posts about Jiang’s death appeared to have been censored on state-controlled social media.
“Some people choose to let themselves get burned and pay a heavy price. Dr Jiang was such a person,” said Hu Jia, a friend of Jiang and a dissident who has been under house arrest for over a year. “His dignity has saved numerous lives … everyone should be grateful to him.”
Jiang, a Communist party member, had pleaded more than once with the authorities to reappraise the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. In 2019, the 30th anniversary of the crackdown, Jiang again wrote to the top leadership asking for its vindication. For more than a month from April that year, the doctor, who had pneumonia and was being treated in the military hospital where he used to work, was heavily guarded and banned from being visited by his family, the Guardian revealed at the time. The authorities had cut off Jiang’s contact with the outside world and restricted his movements since.
“Errors committed by our party should be resolved by the party,” Jiang wrote in 2004, the 15th anniversary of the military crackdown.
Jiang’s experience was in some ways repeated during the initial outbreak of Covid-19, when another doctor, Li Wenliang, and several other medical professionals were detained by police for allegedly “spreading rumours” on social media following an attempt to alert others about a “Sars-like” virus in late 2019. When Li died in February 2020, there was an outpouring of grief and wide condemnation of the official cover-ups.
Since then, the World Health Organization has repeatedly urged China to be transparent in sharing data and to conduct the necessary investigations about the origins of Covid-19, after claims that a Chinese lab leak was behind the disease were furiously denied by Beijing. The first infections from coronavirus were recorded in late 2019 in the city Wuhan, which hosts a virus research laboratory.
Born to a banking family in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Jiang studied medicine at the missionary-run Yenching University from 1949. He began working for the People’s Liberation Army general hospital after his graduation in 1957. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to the countryside for hard labour for several years and returned to the hospital in 1972.
“He was pure-hearted idealist and still harboured hopes for the Communist party,” said Zhang Lifan, a friend of Jiang’s and an independent scholar.