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Thursday 13 June, 2024
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Dr Jiang Yanyong Dead at 91, Cause of Death

BY Anas Shah Mar 14, 2023. 11:04 pm UPDATED: Mar 14, 2023. 11:04 pm

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A military surgeon who exposed the Chinese government’s cover-up of the SARS epidemic 20 years ago and lived under intermittent house arrest for years has died in Beijing. He was 91.

According to two of his friends, Dr. Jiang Yanyong died on Saturday from pneumonia and other illnesses. An answering machine at his house confirmed his death but declined to comment further. Jiang had been in poor health for several years.

Jiang, who was the chief surgeon at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army general hospital before retiring, became a national hero in 2003 when he exposed the government’s cover-up of the scope of the Sars epidemic. He first discovered 60 Sars patients admitted to one Beijing hospital alone, seven of whom died, before discovering many more cases throughout Beijing. He was enraged when the then-minister of health stated that there were only 12 cases, three of which had died.

“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.”

He penned a statement about the true situation, which was ignored by Chinese state media but obtained by international media. 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 months that followed, Jiang wrote another letter to senior Chinese leaders condemning the bloody crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement, which led to his detention and daily “brainwashing” sessions. He had been held under intermittent house arrest since then, and his name had become a taboo in China. On state-controlled social media, the majority of posts about Jiang’s death appeared to have been censored.

Jiang, a Communist Party member, had pleaded with the authorities several times to reconsider the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement. On the 30th anniversary of the crackdown, Jiang wrote to the top leadership again, pleading for its vindication. The doctor, who had pneumonia and was being treated in the military hospital where he used to work, was heavily guarded and barred from seeing his family for more than a month beginning in April of that year, according to the Guardian at the time. Jiang’s contact with the outside world had been cut off, and his movements had been restricted 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 echoed in some ways during the initial Covid-19 outbreak, when police detained another doctor, Li Wenliang, and several other medical professionals 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 widespread mourning and condemnation of the official cover-ups.

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Since then, the World Health Organization has repeatedly urged China to be transparent in data sharing and to conduct the necessary investigations into the origins of Covid-19, despite Beijing’s vehement denials that a Chinese lab leak was to blame. The first coronavirus infections were discovered in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.

Jiang, who was born into a banking family in Zhejiang’s eastern province, studied medicine at the missionary-run Yenching University beginning in 1949. After graduating in 1957, he began working for the People’s Liberation Army general hospital. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to the countryside for several years of hard labour before returning to the hospital in 1972.

“He was a pure-hearted idealist with hopes for the Communist Party,” said Zhang Lifan, Jiang’s friend and independent scholar.

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