Jiang Yanyong, doctor who exposed China's SARS cover-up, has passed away

Jiang Yanyong, a former military surgeon who exposed the Chinese government's cover-up of the 2003 SARS epidemic, has passed away at the age of 91.

Saturday in Beijing, he died of pneumonia, according to family members and Chinese-language media in Hong Kong. Dr. Jiang was lauded for saving lives after writing a letter at the onset of the SARS outbreak that revealed officials were downplaying the threat.

At one point, he was placed under house arrest for his unwavering outspokenness. 

In 2003, more than 8,000 people were infected with SARS worldwide. In April 2003, while working in a Beijing hospital, Dr. Jiang was alarmed to hear the Chinese health minister state that there were only a few cases of a new, fatal respiratory disease.

The senior physician stated that he was aware of more than 100 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in military hospital wards alone. He sent a letter to Chinese state broadcasters exposing the lies in the official narrative, but they ignored it. The letter was then leaked to foreign media outlets, which published his entire account. His disclosures compelled the Chinese government to admit that it had provided false information and prompted the WHO to act. 

Overnight, stringent containment measures were implemented, which slowed the spread of the virus. Additionally, his actions led to the dismissal of China's health minister and Beijing's mayor at the time. "I felt compelled to reveal what was going on, not only to save China, but to save the world," he said of his actions.

The following year, Dr. Jiang challenged Beijing once more. He demanded that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) admit that its 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square was unjustified and that hundreds or thousands of civilians were killed. That night, he wrote about his experience working as a surgeon in Beijing. In a letter, he described how the authorities "acted frantically, using tanks, machine guns, and other weapons to suppress the unarmed students and citizens."

He stated that the CCP's characterization of the protests as a counterrevolutionary riot would lead to "increasing disappointment and anger" among ordinary Chinese. He wrote, "Our party must address the error it has made." Later, he and his wife, Hua Zhongwei, were detained, but Dr. Jiang remained unmoved on the subject for years.

In 2019, he sent a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping condemning the Tiananmen Square repression as a "crime." Dr. Jiang was born to a wealthy banking family in the eastern city of Hangzhou in 1931. He entered the medical field after witnessing his aunt's death from tuberculosis. In 2004 he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, one of several honors bestowed upon him for his public stances. 

According to the award citation, he broke China's habit of silence and exposed the truth about SARS. The experience of Dr. Jiang has been compared to China's initial response to the Covid-19 outbreak. In December 2019, Wuhan eye doctor Li Wenliang was investigated by police for "spreading rumors" after warning of a "SARS-like virus." After contracting Covid himself, Dr. Li questioned on Chinese social media why authorities claimed no medical personnel had been infected. Dr. Li passed away from the virus in February 2020.