Jiang Yanyong, a former military surgeon who criticized the Chinese government’s cover-up of the SARS epidemic in 2003, has died at the age of 91.
He died of pneumonia on Saturday in Beijing, family friends and Chinese-language media in Hong Kong said.
Dr Jiang has been praised for saving lives after writing a letter early in the SARS crisis that found officials downplaying the threat.
But at one point he endured house arrest for his unwavering candor.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2003, SARS infected more than 8,000 people worldwide. Of them, 774 died.
Dr. Jiang was working at a Beijing hospital in April 2003 when he was alarmed to hear the Chinese health minister tell the public that there were only a few cases of a new deadly respiratory disease.
A senior doctor said that he knows that only in the wards of the military hospital, more than 100 people are sick with SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome.
He sent a letter to China’s state broadcasters exposing the lies in the official narrative, but they ignored him. But the letter was later leaked to foreign media, which published its full transcript.
His revelations forced the Chinese government to admit that it had provided false information and spurred the WHO into action.
Strict containment measures were put in place overnight to help slow the spread of the virus.
His actions also led to the dismissal of China’s health minister and the mayor of Beijing.
“I felt I had to reveal what was going on, not just to save China, but to save the world,” he said of his actions.
The following year, Dr. Jiang challenged Beijing again. He called on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to admit that its crackdown on Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989 was wrong – and that hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians had been killed.
He wrote about his experience as a surgeon in Beijing that night. In the letter he told how the authorities “acted frantically, using tanks, machine guns and other weapons to suppress completely unarmed students and citizens.”
He said ordinary Chinese would be “increasingly frustrated and angry” because of the CCP’s view of the protests as a counter-revolutionary rebellion. “Our party must correct the mistake it made,” he wrote.
He and his wife Hua Zhongwei were later detained, but Dr. Jiang remained steadfast on the subject for years. In 2019, he wrote a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping condemning the Tiananmen Square crackdown as a “crime.”
Dr. Jiang was born in 1931 in the eastern city of Hangzhou into a wealthy banking family and began practicing medicine after seeing his aunt die of tuberculosis. According to the South China Morning Post, he is survived by his wife, son and daughter.
During his lifetime, he received several civilian awards that recognized his public positions, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 2004.
“He broke the Chinese habit of silence and forced the truth about SARS to be revealed,” the award citation said.
Dr. Jiang’s experience provides a comparison to China’s initial approach to the Covid-19 outbreak.