John Derbyshire: Still 90% Chance Coronavirus Not Catastrophic—But Chinese (And Western) Censors Aren’t Helping
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Adapted from the latest Radio Derb, available exclusively at

Earlier by John Derbyshire: America Catches Coronavirus Panic

I'm going to bring you right in to the Derb household, actually Tuesday evening in the quiet lull after dinner.

Mrs. Derbyshire is sitting in her favorite armchair fiddling with her smartphone. She has an account at WeChat, which is a mainland-Chinese social medium. Her relatives in China, and her high-school and college classmates, now middle-class or retired fifty- and sixty-somethings, are all on WeChat. She likes to keep up with them.

I'm in the adjacent study with my door open, sitting at my computer trying to catch up on email.

Mrs. D calls out to me: "I'm sending you a link by email. Would you print it out for me right away, please?"

I leap to obey. For reasons I have never inquired into, my lady's smartphone can't send stuff to our printer. I open the email, click on the link, and print.

The durn thing is 13 pages, all in Chinese. To spare myself a brain aneurism trying to read the Chinese, I hit the Google "Translate" button. Headline:

Professor Tsinghua Xu Zhangrun posts: Angry people are no longer afraid.

A little shaky on the word order there, Google, but I get the idea. Xu Zhangrun—surname first, of course—is a law professor at Tsinghua University, a big and prestigious institution in Peking. These 13 pages are an essay he's just published; a long angry diatribe against the ChiCom system of government and media control:

The political system has collapsed under the tyranny, and a governance system [made up] of bureaucrats, which has taken [the party] more than 30 years to build has floundered … The mess in Hubei [that's the center of the coronavirus outbreak] is only the tip of the iceberg and it's the same with every province … All chances of public discussions have been smothered, and so was the original alarm mechanism in society … The anger of the people has erupted like a volcano, and the angry people will no longer be afraid. 

Chinese scholar blames Xi Jinping, Communist Party for not controlling coronavirus outbreak, by Jun Mai and Mimi Lau, February 6, 2020

I lifted the English there from the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper in Hong Kong. I don't agree with "floundered" as a translation of 终结. I suppose they mean "foundered," but I don't even agree with that. 终结 just means "come to an end" … all right, I'm being pedantic.

Professor Xu is a brave man. He was suspended from teaching at his university back in 2018, after he publicly criticized Xi Jinping's move to make himself President-for-Life. A law professor having classes suspended for Political IncorrectnessAmy Wax at U. Penn. might have a comment on that.

With all proper respect to Prof. Wax, though, the political environment in China is still somewhat harsher than ours. Along with losing his classes, Prof. Xu was forbidden to leave China. Now, after this latest essay, his friends fear he will be disappeared.

Oh, I forgot to explain why Mrs. Derbyshire was in such a hurry to get the essay printed off. Dissident opinions like that on Chinese-language outlets get taken down as soon as the ChiCom authorities notice them. The editors at YouTube and Twitter could explain how it's done.

Prof. Xu's essay, as it happens, was published on an overseas-Chinese platform, so it's harder for the censors to put the screws on, although they generally manage to sooner or later by making threats. "Nice little offshore website you've got there. Be a shame if anything happened to it …"

Well, that was Tuesday. Forward to Thursday. We're in the Derb family living-room after dinner again. I'm crossing the room to get something from the kitchen. Passing Mrs. Derb in her armchair, from her smartphone I hear a bagpipe band playing "Amazing Grace."

"What's that," I ask, "a cop funeral?"

No, says my lady, it's someone on WeChat mourning the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor in Wuhan who sounded the alarm over coronavirus back in December. He was arrested for his trouble and forced to sign a statement confessing he had made "false comments" that "disturbed the social order."

Dr Li died on Wednesday or Thursday from exposure to the coronavirus. He leaves behind a pregnant wife and a young child. He is being dramatically mourned on social media sites, faster than the censors can scrub them. [Widespread Outcry in China Over Death of Coronavirus Doctor, by Li Yuan,  NYT, February 7, 2020] There have even been demands he be given a state funeral.

That bagpipe band playing "Amazing Grace" that I heard while crossing my living-room was a popular nonverbal way to mourn. The censors rely on keywords in text; it takes them longer to figure out nonverbal protests.

So there is real, widespread public anger in China against the authorities.

Will it come to anything? I wish it would. I'm bound to say, though, as I enter my sixth decade of amateur China-watching, I doubt it. is not a neoliberal website; so when I quote The Economist magazine at you, please understand that I read the damn thing so you don't have to.

Even neoliberals get things right once in a while, though. In this case I agree with The Economist's pseudonymous China correspondent "Chaguan":

Mr. Xi's China is two things at once. It is a secretive, techno-authoritarian one-party state, ruled by grey men in unaccountable councils and secretive committees. It also claims to be a nation-sized family headed by a patriarch of unique wisdom and virtue, in a secular, 21st-century version of the mandate of Heaven. If forced to choose between those competing models, bet on cold, bureaucratic control to win out. For Mr. Xi and his team learned their own lesson from the Soviet Union's fall, five years after the Chernobyl disaster. Expressions of public love for Mr. Xi, the "People's Leader", are all very well. But keeping power is what counts.


Xi Jinping wants to be both feared and loved by China’s people | The coronavirus may change that, January 30, 2020

As a footnote to that, let me direct your attention to our own Lance Welton's very striking article here at last weekend, putting some race-realist spin on the coronavirus scare.

Lance noted that, so far as he could tell at that point, all the victims of the virus were East Asian—including the cases outside China. As Lance wrote, from the point of view of evolutionary biology, it is entirely possible that the coronavirus is race-specific:

Because [different races] were exposed to different pathogens in prehistory, there are very likely to be race differences in susceptibility to the pathogens and in how well the immune system can fight them.

The No-Such-Thing-As-Race crowd are all swooning and clutching their pearls at that. But Lance references serious studies, and there is nothing scientifically implausible in what he's saying.

Lance admits of course that at this point he doesn't know the virus is race-specific, and it may well not be. The Black Death, back in the 14th century, had no trouble crossing from Asia to Europe.

His point is only that our absurd neurosis about race—our refusal to admit that such an obvious feature of the natural world is real—hinders us from thinking about coronavirus in ways that might help us deal with it … Or with the next new infection that comes along.

And reduce panic. Panic about AIDs sharply reduced after it became clear it would not break massively into the heterosexual community.

Willful stupidity has a price.

As a thoughtful race realist, well-educated in the sciences, and with a Chinese spouse, am I worried about coronavirus?

I still say no. It is of course difficult to know the numbers of those infected in China. The ChiComs have been putting out lots of numbers, to be sure; but given that every word they say is a lie, including "and" and "the," their numbers mean nothing.

So far as I can judge from the on-site stories coming through Mrs. Derbyshire's WeChat account, this is more a phenomenon of mass hysteria than of mass infection—more a social crisis than an epidemiological one.

Much of the hysteria has, as Prof. Xu says in his essay, been caused by the cack-handed responses and clumsy misinformation of the ChiCom authorities.

That could be all wrong, though. Mother Nature is not mocked, and she has some nasty tricks up her sleeves. There is a nonzero possibility, down at the ten percent level, that we are facing a worldwide medical crisis.

I have bought a pack of surgical face masks in case the stores run out.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.

For years he’s been podcasting at Radio Derb, now available at for no charge. His writings are archived at

Readers who wish to donate (tax deductible) funds specifically earmarked for John Derbyshire's writings at can do so here.


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