The Chinese doctor who exposed China’s Sars cover-up dies

Military surgeon Jiang Yanyong
Jiang Yanyong

Jiang Yanyong, a former military surgeon who blew the whistle on the Chinese authorities’ cover-up of the 2003 Sars epidemic has died aged 91.

He died of pneumonia on Saturday in Beijing, family friends and Chinese-language media in Hong Kong reported.

Dr Jiang was praised for saving lives after writing a letter in the early stage of the Sars crisis which revealed officials were playing down the threat.

But he endured house arrest at one point for his unwavering outspokenness.

The senior doctor had been working in a Beijing hospital in April 2003, when he was alarmed to hear the Chinese health minister telling the public there were only a handful of cases of a new deadly respiratory disease.

Dr Jiang said he knew of more than 100 people with Sars in military hospitals alone.

He sent a letter exposing the lies in the official narrative to Chinese state broadcasters, who ignored it. But the letter was then leaked to foreign media who published his account in full.

His revelations forced the Chinese government to acknowledge it had provided false information about the epidemic, and spurred the the World Health Organization into action.

Strict containment measures were imposed overnight, which helped contain the spread of the virus.

His actions also led to the sacking of China’s health minister and Beijing’s mayor at the time.

“I felt I had to reveal what was happening, not just to save China, but to save the world,” he said about his actions.

The following year, with his newfound national fame, he again challenged Beijing.

He called on the Chinese Communist Party leaders to acknowledge its 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protesters had been wrong – and hundreds- possibly thousands- of civilians had been killed.

He wrote about how he had been the chief surgeon at the army’s main Beijing hospital that night when the tanks rolled into the square and soldiers shot into the crowd.

In a letter he recalled the bloody details of that night. But he was detained shortly after it was made public – and he and his wife, Hua Zhongwei, were taken into custody.

Jiang however remained for years undeterred on the topic. He wrote a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019, again denouncing the Tiananmen Square crackdown. He was reportedly placed under de facto house arrest after that.

He was born on 4 October 1931 in the eastern city of Hangzhou to a wealthy banking family and went into medicine after seeing his aunt die of tuberculosis.

Over his lifetime he received several civil honours recognising his stand for truth. In 2004, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. “He broke China’s habit of silence and forced the truth of Sars into the open,” the award citation read.

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