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.”
“Zhang Wenhong leads a magical existence in China,” wrote Zhu Xuedong, the former editor in chief of the liberal-leaning magazine Nanfengchuang, on WeChat’s social media timeline.
“He uses rational, scientific and civilized words to gently resist all the arrogance, greed and brazenness in this premodern society,” Mr. Zhu wrote. “He gives us warmth, consolation and hope.”
Dr. Zhang did not respond to requests for comment.
In today’s China, getting ahead often means speaking in the language of the Communist Party. Those who refuse to ride the ideological tide keep their independence by keeping quiet.
By contrast, Dr. Zhang has earned an ability to speak freely. Shanghai, a city of 24 million people, has had only 371 local infections and seven deaths. It managed those numbers with fewer restrictions than the city of Beijing, with 21 million residents, 828 local infections and nine deaths.
His forecasts — delivered in his characteristic rapid-fire Mandarin, tinged with a soft Shanghai accent — have been on the mark. He predicted early on that the pandemic could last at least one to two years. A year ago this month, when China was still virtually shut down, he said China had left its darkest hours behind.
Journalists began to seek him out. Some of his responses became internet memes. A few examples:
“Influenza is not a cold, just like a tiger is not a cat.”
“You’re bored to death at home, so the virus will be bored to death, too.”
“Stay away from fire, thieves and your colleagues.”
His Weibo social media account, which he started in the middle of last year, has 3.6 million followers. Many of his videos have been viewed tens of millions of times. An article he co-wrote on the pandemic’s global prospects last March, when Europe and the United States were exploding with infections, was viewed more than 860 million times on his department’s official WeChat account alone.
Maintaining a high profile in China often requires discretion. Late last year, Jack Ma, the technology billionaire, publicly criticized regulators. The authorities quickly swooped down on his business empire.
Dr. Zhang doesn’t challenge the government, but neither does he always toe the official line. Late last year, some Chinese officials pointed to findings that the virus had been found on the packaging of imported food, suggesting that the coronavirus may have been brought to China from overseas. Dr. Zhang has told his audience not to worry about it: “The chance of catching the virus from imported goods,” he said, “is lower than dying in a plane crash.”
“I’m not going to hide the information because I’m worried that I could say something wrong and cause some controversies,” he said over the summer. “We always share what we know.”
Dr. Zhang, 51, was born in Rui’an, a small town by Chinese standards 300 miles south of Shanghai. He attended Shanghai Medical University, now part of Fudan University, and trained at hospitals affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Hong Kong University. He heads the infectious disease department at Huashan Hospital of Fudan, sees patients two half-days a week and teaches classes as a professor.
His self-deprecating humor stands in contrast to China’s stern, self-important officials. He calls himself a “country bumpkin.” His gym membership often goes unused. When he is tired, he says, he likes to watch stupid television shows.
His nicknames bestowed by his online fans include “the most courageous doctor” and “Daddy Zhang.” Roughly translated, some middle-age women call him their “Mr. Perfect.”
Dr. Zhang’s comments have sometimes drawn criticism from Chinese nationalists who increasingly drive public opinion in the country. They called him a traitor who worships the Western lifestyle when he told parents to feed their children eggs and milk in the morning instead of congee, the traditional Chinese breakfast. He responded that protein helps build the immune system.
Still, he has kept a high profile without drawing major ire from the government or sustained criticism from the nationalists. Some of that stems from China’s pride in quickly containing the coronavirus. Dr. Zhang, who played a role in that, has won a number of awards from official groups.
In watching his speeches, I found another key to his sustained appeal. In his impromptu speech at a national teaching award ceremony in September, he said the essence of education is acknowledging human dignity. Mr. Zhang appeals to the humanity of his audience and, by admitting his own foibles, shows the authorities and the public that he is merely human, too.
In one speech, he mentioned that some victims of avian flu had caught it from taking care of their infected loved ones, and that female patients were more likely to infect their doting mothers than their absent husbands. “At that moment,” he told the audience, “I lost faith in romantic love.”
When he rolled up his sleeve to get a second vaccine injection, he told journalists that he hadn’t expected cameras to be there. “Otherwise,” he said, “I would have worked on my deltoid.”
In an interview last June, a reporter asked him whether anybody had reminded him to be mindful of his status as an expert and the head of an expert government panel.
“People are smart,” he responded. “They know whether you’re telling them truth or lies.”
When he gets public accolades, he often uses the occasion to highlight his causes, like more funding for infectious-disease research and for increasing the public awareness of tuberculosis and hepatitis B, two of the most common infectious diseases in China.
He also talks about people who deserved more attention, like the women among the pandemic responders whose role has often taken a back seat to the men’s in the media. “Men are on camera more,” he said at a forum on the subject, “but women did more work.”
Then he turned to the female medical workers, and bowed.