Chinese President Xi Jinping is facing a major challenge to his vast system of censorship and information control, but history does not bode well for those arrayed against him.

Following revelations that authorities in Wuhan downplayed news of the coronavirus outbreak in December and silenced whistleblowers, there have been numerous calls for freedom of speech and a relaxation of censorship.

Whistleblower doctor: These calls only increased after the death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan whistleblower doctor who had been targeted by police. Li passed away in hospital last week from the virus, after belatedly being praised by Chinese authorities.

Following his death, hundreds of thousands of people posted demands for free speech online — that were themselves quickly scrubbed by the censors.

As the outrage threatened to boil over, Beijing quickly dispatched an anti-corruption task force to Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province — the epicenter of the outbreak, with the clear implication that they would come back with some scalps to assuage public anger. At the same time, state media ramped up positive stories about efforts to rein in the outbreak, and Xi himself made his first public appearance related to the virus.

Xi steps in: Xi’s reappearance after weeks of being away allowed propaganda authorities to ensure that he could be cast as the nation’s protector, and avoid any of the blame for the myriad missteps by authorities in Hubei and elsewhere. On Thursday it was announced that a key Xi ally had been appointed to run Hubei, while other Xi proteges have been dispatched to Wuhan to help clean up the political mess there.

There are signs, however, that the lid will not be so easily put back on the Pandora’s box that Li’s death has opened.

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