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China #1 “Cult-Buster” vs. China’s #1 Doctor: Who Will Win?

“Hero of atheism” and anti-cultist Sima Nan vilifies Zhang Wenhong, the chief of the anti-COVID Shanghai Medical Treatment Expert Group.

By Hu Zimo

December 30, 2022

Sima Nan is an Internet celebrity with millions of followers in China, proud of his award as “Hero of Atheism,” which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gave to him in 1999. A journalist who had studied traditional medicine, he was virtually unknown until that year, when he emerged as a prominent member of the atheistic coterie that denounced Falun Gong, at that time popular with many CCP cadres, as a religious “cult” disguised under the mask of allegedly secular Qigong. Sima and his group managed to launch a national anti-Falun-Gong campaign in national media. Falun Gong reacted with unauthorized and massive public protests, which persuaded the CCP Central Committee that it should be banned and eradicated.

Sima, a comparatively obscure member of the CCP, then became a full-time anti-Falun-Gong propagandist used by the Party in China and abroad, including in the United States, and increasingly promoted an “anti-cult” rhetoric extended to other groups. Not everybody in the West understood that Sima was also an indefatigable propagandist of atheism and part of the “leftist,” neo-Maoist wing of the CCP that insisted on the centrality of the anti-religious element in the Marxist worldview.

Sima is also a ferocious critic of Western democracy and the United States. However, he had to admit he invested part of the profits he made as an Internet influencer to buy a house in California, where reportedly his wife lives.

When COVID-19 came, Sima became a staunch defender of the Zero-COVID Policy, based on Marxist ideological rather than medical arguments. Until the end of 2022, this was also the position of Ma Xiaowei, the head of the National Health Commission, China’s highest health authority.

Sima Nan visiting Voice of America in Washington DC in 2012. Credits.

One doctor and CCP member who became extremely popular during the COVID-19 crisis was Shanghai’s Zhang Wenhong. He is the chief of the anti-COVID Shanghai Medical Treatment Expert Group, and the Director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Fudan University’s Huashan Hospital. Zhang and his team’s work to fight COVID in Shanghai was hailed by the CCP as nothing less than heroic, and he also became a popular Internet and television figure. Zhang and another doctor, Zhong Nanshan, are both sometimes called “China’s Anthony Fauci.”

Zhang offered the theoretical bases for the end of the Zero COVID policy, publishing studies and explaining publicly that the mortality ratio of the new Omicron variants was low enough to allow a coexistence with the virus rather than a rigid lockdown. At the same time, Zhang enraged some nationalists by stating that he believes the virus originated in Wuhan rather than abroad, and implying that the Pfizer vaccines are more effective than the Chinese Sinovac, although what he mostly suggested to introduce in China was Pfizer’s oral anti-viral drug Paxlovid (some of his more controversial social media postings were later deleted).

A TV appearance of Zhang Wenhong. Screenshot.

In the last few months, Sima Nan has attacked Zhang as weak in his support of the Central Committee and President Xi Jinping, fascinated by Western ideas, and incapable to understand that how China deals with COVID should be governed by ideological Marxist principles rather than by a purely medical analysis. He has used the words “Shanghai Spring” for Zhang’s activities, fully knowing that they are ideologically loaded and allude to the “Arab Springs” that the CCP equates with “color revolutions” as Western plots to overthrow anti-Western regimes.

Sima’s blog has a fictional character, “Grandma Wang next door,” who represents the wisdom of the common people as opposed to the Western-leaning rich Chinese and intellectuals. “Granma Wang next door” has suggested that Zhang may be a paid agent of Pfizer in China.

Sima’s extremism is unleashed against xie jiao and “cults,” but on other matters he should be more careful. This Summer, his social media accounts were blocked for a few weeks, a warning against his abrasive tone that also coincided with criticism about his house in California and a broader crackdown against the “neo-Maoist” left before the CCP 20th National Congress.

Sima could freely attack Zhang when the irreversibility of Zero COVID was a dogma proclaimed daily by the CCP. Now, however, Zhang’s position has been officially adopted by the CCP itself, and the Zero COVID policy has been lifted. Sima’s criticism of Zhang may now appear as criticism of Xi Jinping himself.


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