Coronavirus: The information heroes China silenced
Three months after the first reports of coronavirus cases were posted on Chinese social media and began circulating within civil society, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) looks back at the way the Chinese state, in its obsession with complete control over information, has cracked down relentlessly on all independent information outlets.
As journalistic freedom has been reduced to the barest minimum within China’s traditional media, it is ordinary citizens who usually step into the breach in such cases. In this case, the first was Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, where the first coronavirus cases were seen in November, although no one understood the nature of the illness at the time. Li was the first to blow the whistle on the possibility of a coronavirus pandemic.
“Dr. Li was like many within the Chinese population who want to report the reality of what is going on and alert their fellow citizens about government negligence,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “The coronavirus crisis has drawn attention to the deep thirst for reliable information within Chinese society, which is saturated with propaganda. Xi Jinping’s government has responded with deadly brutality.”
Armed with the photo of a test, Li spoke about the ongoing epidemic for the first time on 30 December with former faculty of medicine students in a private discussion group on the messaging service WeChat. The alarm was sounded. His messages were shared very widely on the microblogging website Weibo.
But they were also seen by the authorities. Two days later, on 1 January, Li and seven other doctors were questioned. Li was grilled for several hours and, on 3 January, the police forced him to sign a statement recognizing that he had “spread false rumours.”
After testing positive for Covid-19 on 1 February, the young doctor died in the early hours of 7 February. Online posts announcing his death received more than 1.5 billion views on Weibo. A photo of him wearing a face mask went around the Chinese blogosphere with a hashtag indicative of the Chinese population’s mood and its feeling of being gagged. Used in more than 2 million posts before being censored, the hashtag was #WomenYaoYanlunZiyou – “We want freedom of expression.”
From the time of the first alert, there were people who became absorbed by the crisis. They included Chen Qiushi, a lawyer from the far northeast province of Heilongjiang who had made a name for himself in the Chinese blogosphere with videos of the demonstrations in Hong Kong that he had shot a few months earlier. He boarded a train to Wuhan on 23 January in order to get his information at the source.
“What kind of journalist would you be if you didn’t dare go to the front line?” he asked in a video shot outside Wuhan’s Hankou station. In the following days, Chen went around the city’s hospitals covering the chaos, interviewed the families of victims and visited an exhibition centre turned into a quarantine zone. His videos were viewed by hundreds of thousands of people despite being quickly censored on Weibo and WeChat.
Thirst for reliable information
Fang Bin, an ordinary textile businessman living in Wuhan, never regarded himself as a journalist until he, too, felt the need to inform his fellow citizens about the real situation in the city behind the images supplied by the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine.
In his first video report on 25 January, he documented the saturation of the hospitals. It showed bodies of coronavirus victims inside buses that had been turned into improvised hearses. You can hear Fang count: “Five, six, seven eight... Eight bodies in five minutes (...) So many dead!” The video also registered hundreds of thousands of views before the censors took it down.
The attention that the reports by these two video-bloggers elicited in China reflects the deep interest in reliable and independently-reported information felt by Chinese citizens, who are drowning in state propaganda. The need is more than justified, given that just before these initial videos, in a speech on 20 January, President Xi had urged officials to “reinforce public opinion management.”
In other words, this independent reporting by Chinese citizens turned journalists was regarded by the Chinese state apparatus as intolerable. The vice was inexorably tightening. Chen expressed his fears in a 30 January video that RSF reposted together with some background information: “I’m afraid,” he said. “Before me, there’s the virus. And behind me, the legal and administrative power of the Chinese state.”
In his last video, broadcast live on 4 February, Chen interviewed a Wuhan resident whose father had succumbed to the coronavirus. His Weibo account was deleted two days later. On 7 February, his parents were told that he was “in quarantine.” His family has received no news of him since then.
Fang, the textile businessman turned reporter, had meanwhile reported in a video posted on 2 February that the police had confiscated his laptop and had interrogated him at length. Two days later, he reported in a live video from his home that it was surrounded by plainclothes policemen.
He continued to report mounting harassment by the security forces until his last 12-second video on 9 February, which simply showed a roll of paper on which eight characters had been calligraphed. They said: “Let all citizens resist! Power to the people!” Nothing more has been heard from Fang since then.
The fate suffered by Fang and Chen served as a warning. A new set of even more draconian regulations that took effect on 1 March allowed Beijing to tighten the vice even more on social media. More than 450 Internet users have been detained since January for sharing information about the coronavirus that the authorities regard as “false rumours.”
Toe the line
Anyone trying to transmit a message or information deviating from the line set by the Party leadership was to be stopped. The official press was given orders. Toe the line. Two famous political commentators, Guo Quan and Xu Zhiyong, were detained in February. A third, Xu Zhangrun, was put under house arrest. The latest issue of the magazine Ren Wu, a sister publication of People’s Daily, was pulled from newsstands on 10 March because of an interview in which the head of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, Ai Fen, criticized the censorship imposed on doctors.
Around the same time, complying with the latest propaganda department directives saying the virus’s Chinese origins should be questioned, the English-language China Daily newspaper censored an article published on 28 February in which the famous epidemiologist Zhang Wenhong voiced doubt about the theory that the virus could have been imported from abroad.
Attacks on foreign media
On 12 March, it was reported that Ren Zhiqiang, a political commentator and Chinese Communist Party member, had disappeared after criticizing the regime’s failings. His family said he was being held near Beijing.
While throttling domestic dissent, the regime also set about trying to control the information circulating internationally by harassing China-based foreign correspondents. On 18 March, the Chinese foreign ministry announced that the government was expelling at least 13 US journalists working for the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
After getting their hands on the list of fixers and other Chinese employees working for these newspapers, and for Time and Voice of America, the Chinese authorities said on 20 March that it had given orders for the contracts of at least seven of these employees to be rescinded.
With everything tidied up both at home and abroad, Beijing now just has to deploy its massive propaganda and disinformation apparatus with the aim of making everyone forget that it was in the centre of China that the virus first got out of control and that three deadly weeks went by before Beijing listened to the whistleblowers.
China is ranked 177th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.