Chinese SARS whistleblower Jiang Yanyon has died at the age of 91


BEIJING — Chinese military doctor Jiang Yanyong, who uncovered the full extent of the 2003 SARS outbreak and was later placed under house arrest for his political outspokenness, has died, a longtime acquaintance and a Hong Kong newspaper said Tuesday.

Human rights activist Hu Jia and the South China Morning Post reported that Jian was 91 and died of pneumonia on Saturday in Beijing.

News of Jiang’s death and even his name were censored in China, underscoring how he remained a politically sensitive figure even late in life.

Jiang was the chief surgeon of the People’s Liberation Army General Hospital 301 in Beijing when the army fought in the city to end student-led pro-democracy protests centered on Tiananmen Square that left hundreds, possibly thousands, dead. civilians.

In April 2003, as the ruling Communist Party suppressed news of an outbreak of highly contagious acute respiratory syndrome, Jian wrote an 800-word letter claiming that SARS cases were far higher than officially reported by the country’s health minister.

Jiang sent the letter to state broadcaster CCTV and Hong Kong’s Beijing-friendly Phoenix TV channel, both of which ignored it. The letter was then leaked to Western media, who published it in full, along with reports about the true extent of the outbreak and official Chinese efforts to cover it up.

The letter, along with the death of a Finnish UN staff member and statements by renowned doctor Zhong Nanshan, prompted a government crackdown that led to the resignations of both the health minister and the mayor of Beijing. Strict containment measures were imposed almost overnight, helping to contain the spread of the virus, which had already begun to appear overseas.

In total, more than 8,000 people from 29 countries and territories were infected with SARS, resulting in at least 774 deaths.

“Jian first had the conscience of a doctor for patients. He saved so many lives with that letter without thinking about the consequences,” Hu told The Associated Press.

Chinese authorities later tried to block media access to Jiang, who had retired with the rank of major general. He declined an interview with The Associated Press, saying he had been unable to obtain the necessary authorization from the Defense Department.

Since 2004, Jiang and his wife have been regularly placed under house arrest to appeal to communist leaders for a reassessment of the 1989 protests, which remains a taboo subject. It recalled Jiang’s earlier experiences when he was persecuted as a rightist under Mao Zedong in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

In 2004, Gianni was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service of the Philippines, considered by some to be the Asian version of the Nobel Peace Prize. In the citation, he was praised for “breaking China’s habit of silence and revealing the truth about SARS.”

Jiang was not allowed to leave the country and his daughter collected the award on his behalf.

Three years later, he won the Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights Scientists Award from the New York Academy of Sciences, but was again barred from traveling.

Jiang’s experience echoed China’s approach to the initial outbreak of COVID-19, which was first identified in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, was arrested and threatened by police for allegedly spreading rumors on social media after trying to alert others to a “SARS-like” virus. Li’s death on February 7, 2020 sparked widespread outrage against China’s censorship system. Users would post criticism for hours before the censor began deleting posts.

An outpouring of sympathy and anger at the treatment of Lee and other whistleblowers prompted the government to reverse course and declare him and 13 others martyrs.

COVID-19 has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide, including about 1.5 million in China, whose government has been accused of massively undercounting the true death toll.

According to the South China Morning Post, Jiang is survived by his wife Hua Zhongwei, a son and a daughter.

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