In a Fearful China, Its Dr. Fauci Wins Hearts With Restraint

Zhang Wenhong has drawn a huge public following with a human touch and candid advice that sometimes runs counter to the government’s authoritarian instincts.

By Li Yuan

China has imposed some of the toughest lockdowns in the world to stop Covid-19. One city sealed apartment doors, leaving residents with dwindling food and medicine. One village tied a local to a tree after he left home to buy cigarettes. Beijing forced people to leave their pets behind when they went into quarantine.

Few officials spoke up against the excesses, given the central government’s obsession with its anti-coronavirus campaign. That hasn’t stopped Dr. Zhang Wenhong.

Dr. Zhang, an infectious-disease specialist and perhaps China’s most trusted voice on Covid-19, has spoken out publicly against excessive lockdowns, though he hasn’t criticized individual cities. Fighting the pandemic, he likes to say, is like “catching mice in a china shop.”

“We hope that our pandemic prevention measures won’t affect public life too much,” Dr. Zhang wrote on Jan. 24, after a second wave of infections prompted tough clampdowns.

“If we pursue the goal of zero infection,” he said in a video a few days later, “life would be too hard.”

Dr. Zhang may be China’s closest analogue to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the American infectious-disease specialist who became the public face of stopping the coronavirus amid the chaos of the Trump administration. A consummate technocrat, Dr. Zhang comes across as neither political nor ideological. Yet, by offering his expert opinions straight, he pushes back against the authoritarian instinct in a system that often overreacts with draconian measures.

A top academic at Fudan University in Shanghai and a member of the Communist Party, Dr. Zhang led Shanghai’s expert panel on Covid-19, giving him considerable authority over the city’s response.

Unlike Dr. Fauci, who urged the Trump administration to do more, Dr. Zhang championed a more strategic approach for a country that didn’t take coronavirus half-measures. In doing so, he spoke to the Chinese public with respect, a refreshing change from the way others in authority often carry themselves. Dr. Zhang is especially popular among professionals and technocrats who admire him for his sincerity in a society plagued by propaganda, conspiracy theories and crude nationalism.

“At this moment, rumors are more terrifying than the virus,” he said at the beginning of the outbreak. “We need to explain the epidemic to the public with rational data and professional knowledge.”

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