Beijing’s whistle-blowing physician deserves kudos

TAIPEI, Taiwan, The China Post Editorial

A 73-year-old physician in mainland China has won this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service. But the recipient, Jiang Yanyong of the 301 Military Hospital in Beijing, said he will not go to the Philippines to receive the award, often called Asia’s Nobel Peace Prize. The military surgeon, who blew the whistle last year on Beijing’s cover-up of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), was reticent about why he did not want to accept the honor in person. Nor did he want to comment on the award, telling reporters “I’m not at liberty to talk about this subject” News about Jiang winning the coveted award came shortly after the outspoken doctor was freed from detention following his open petition to Beijing to reverse the official verdict on the 1989 pro-democracy protests that ended in a massacre. Jiang, a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), wanted to clear the names of the protesters, mostly students, who he says were patriots instead of anti-government rioters as his party described them. The world in general, and Asia in particular, owes Jiang a word of gratitude for his courage to tell the truth about SARS, which first broke out in southern China in the winter of 2002. By March 2003, when the epidemic was spreading like wildfire in China, Jiang broke silence to tell Time magazine what was happening in China. His revelation had saved innumerable lives. In announcing the 2004 Magsaysay award, the organizers said, “a small dose of truth can sometimes make all the difference, especially in societies where speaking out is not the norm.” Yes, that small dose of truth did make a big difference here in Taiwan, where the death toll was 84, compared with more than 600 in mainland China and Hong Kong. Had Jiang refrained from speaking out, the epidemic would have killed many more people not only in China, but also the rest of the world. It goes without saying that Beijing was not thankful for the whistle blown by Jiang. A year later, the feisty doctor spoke out again to hit Beijing’s most sensitive spot by appealing to his party to reappraise the 1989 massacre. This time, he was “disciplined” by the CCP for his “wrong thinking,” and was given “help” by the party to rethink the issue in a “correct” way. The Magsaysay award will give Jiang greater protection of his right to speak out. He has become a hero in the eyes of the people. Beijing now has to tolerate this stubborn doctor, thanks to the award. When telling the truth is not a norm in mainland China, people can expect some abnormality from Dr. Jiang now and then, now that he has become the laureate of the Asian equivalent of Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing would be wise to let Jiang travel to Manila to receive the award. Why keep him at home? It would be an open admission to the world that human rights are suppressed in China.

So far, Beijing has had no official reaction to Jiang’s winning the award. The silence is deafening. The outside world is watching developments with keen interest. Beijing has a chance to shake off its stereotype image of a totalitarian state that abuses human rights and tolerates no dissent. Beijing’s new leadership should know that its emergence as a world power would not win the country dignity if its neighbors do not accept it as a free country.