News of Jiang’s death and even his name were censored in China, underlining how he remained a politically sensitive figure even in later life.
Jiang had been chief surgeon at the People’s Liberation Army’s main 301 hospital in Beijing when the army forced its way through the city to end weeks of student-led pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square, which saw hundreds – possibly thousands – were killed. citizens.
In April 2003, as the ruling Communist Party suppressed news of the outbreak of the highly contagious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Jiang wrote an 800-word letter stating that there were far more SARS cases than officially reported by the Health Minister of the country.
Jiang emailed the letter to state broadcaster CCTV and Hong Kong’s Beijing-friendly Phoenix Channel, both of which ignored the letter. The letter was then leaked to Western media outlets who published it in its entirety, 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 United Nations staffer and statements by famed physician Zhong Nanshan, forced the government to lift the crackdown, leading to the resignations of both the health minister and the mayor of Beijing . Strict containment measures were imposed virtually overnight, curbing the spread of the virus that had already begun abroad.
In total, more than 8,000 people from 29 countries and territories became infected with SARS, resulting in at least 774 deaths.
“Jiang had the conscience of a doctor to populate the patients first. 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 retired with the rank of major general. He turned down an interview with The Associated Press, saying he had been unable to get the necessary clearance from the Department of Defense.
Beginning in 2004, Jiang and his wife were periodically placed under house arrest for appealing to communist leaders for a reevaluation of the 1989 protests, which remain a taboo subject. This was reminiscent of Jiang’s earlier experiences when he was persecuted as a rightist under Mao Zedong in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
In 2004, Jiang received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service from the Philippines, considered by some to be an Asian version of the Nobel Peace Prize. The quote praised him for “breaking China’s habit of silence and forcing the truth about SARS out.”
Jiang was not allowed to leave the country and the award was accepted by his daughter on his behalf.
Three years later, he won the Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights of Scientists Award, given by the New York Academy of Sciences, but was again banned from traveling.
Echoes of Jiang’s experience were heard in China’s approach to the initial outbreak of COVID-19, first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
A Wuhan ophthalmologist, Li Wenliang, was detained and threatened by police for allegedly spreading rumors on social media after attempting to warn others about a “SARS-like” virus. Li’s death on February 7, 2020 sparked widespread outrage over China’s censorship system. Users posted criticism for hours before censorship moved to delete posts.
Sympathy and the outburst of anger at the treatment of Li and other whistleblowers prompted the government to reverse course and declare him and 13 others a martyr.
COVID-19 has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide, including an estimated 1.5 million in China, the government of which has been accused of massively underestimating the true number of deaths.
Jiang is survived by his wife, Hua Zhongwei, a son and a daughter, according to the South China Morning Post.