Great works of literature from the past can provide opportunities to reflect on our circumstances in the present. With the Wuhan virus upon us, no work is better suited than Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 drama, An Enemy of the People, with its laser-sharp focus on the core questions of power and corruption, science, and mass deception.
Sure, there are other classics that explore the ramifications of disease: from Albert Camus’ The Plague where sickness becomes a political allegory, to Death in Venice, in which Thomas Mann explores the intermingling of infection and moral corruption.
Yet it is Ibsen more than anyone else whose distant 19th-century drama reminds us of the original sin of today’s global pandemic: the moment when a heroic Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, tried to warn the world about the pending threat, only to encounter the repressive power of the Chinese state and its ruling Communist Party. It is that confrontation, when science tried to speak truth to power, that Ibsen helps us to understand.
Before turning to Ibsen, let us remember what transpired at the beginning, not long ago, when the virus remained as yet only a local event. The first likely case appeared in China’s Hubei province on November 17. By the end of December, there were around 200 patients concentrated in Wuhan. It was then that Li posted to his medical school alumni group that a new pneumonia, akin to SARS, was spreading and had led to quarantining. Because of painful memories of the 2002 SARS epidemic in China, the message spread quickly.
In response, instead of declaring a medical emergency, the authorities accused Dr. Li of spreading rumors, which wasted several precious weeks in the fight against the virus, especially due to the official denials of evidence of human-to-human contact. Only after millions of people had left Wuhan for Lunar New Year celebrations did the authorities concede a public health emergency and put the city on lockdown. By then the infection had been carried far and wide. On February 1, Li tested positive for the virus, and on February 7 he succumbed to it.
In China and around the world, Li Wenliang has become a symbol of the importance of free speech and scientific inquiry, just as his fate has highlighted the repressive character of the Communist regime. He has become the equivalent of the “tank man,” the brave Chinese man captured in a photograph blocking a column of People’s Liberation Army tanks before they crushed the pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Li also stands for the time lost, when the spread of the disease might have been stalled, which could have allowed other countries time to better prepare. In a remarkable open letter, leading Chinese intellectuals have called Li “a victim of speech suppression,” while asserting that “the Chinese have been made to surrender their freedom in exchange for safety, and now they fall prey to a public health crisis and are less safe than ever.” Their conclusion is unambiguous: “Where there is no free speech, there is no safety.”
It is the Communist dictatorship in China that bequeathed the pandemic to the world. What does Ibsen have to add?
Set in a small Norwegian town, the An Enemy of the People centers around Dr. Thomas Stockmann, a long-time proponent of opening a health spa, promising extensive economic benefits for the local inhabitants. Yet in the play’s first act, Stockmann learns that the spa’s water source is contaminated, which could lead to dangerous infections unless costly repairs are undertaken. He wants to alert the public, believing that he will be lauded as a hero for saving the town from a disaster. Instead, he faces insurmountable opposition from the mayor—his brother, Peter—who is concerned only with protecting the investments in the spa and the anticipated profits from the project.
Thanks to ubiquitous opportunism, the hypocrisy of the press, and the unthinking conformism of the “compact majority”—the pensée unique of the populace—the truth is suppressed and Stockmann is denounced as an enemy of the people.
In the course of his conflict with the powers-that-be, Stockmann learns a lot. Like Li Wenliang, he discovers a grievous threat to public health and tries to make it known, only to face official stonewalling. He also gains insight into the nature of the repressive order Ibsen illustrates for his audience.
Eerily reminiscent of the current dictatorship in Beijing, the situation sparks “the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.” Ibsen’s prophetic power and contemporary relevance are even more pointed when Stockmann declares, “It is the party leaders that must be exterminated. A party leader is like a wolf—like a voracious wolf.”
Stockmann briefly considers searching for a free life in America but concludes instead that an oppressive conformism is likely to prevail everywhere. Instead, he finds his strength in a radical individualism mixed with social pessimism: “the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.” Such is the outcome for a libertarian with a Nietzschean streak.
In 1989, Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray directed “Ganashatru,” an adaption of Enemy of the People set in Bengal. It follows the Norwegian original extensively, except the contaminated health spa is replaced by a Hindu temple, leading to a clash between science and religion. More important for today, in contrast to Ibsen’s dark conclusion, Ray’s version ends on a hopeful note when young supporters of the doctor rally around him, looking ahead to a better future and a victory over the forces of oppression.
Even in these dark days of the pandemic, Ray’s optimism mirrors the news from China: millions of Chinese registered their support for Dr. Li, despite the heavily censored and monitored internet, and news reports of disaffection with the Chinese Communist Party are circulating widely. Even as Beijing is scrambling to save face from the virus debacle, it stands condemned by its own heavy-handed treatment of whistleblowers.
Their tragic inability to meet public health needs and its consistent mendacity has led many in China and around the world to the ineluctable conclusion that Xi Jinping and his Central Committee are the real enemies of the people.