China’s Second Wave of Coronavirus Censorship Is Here
After a brief period of praising whistleblowers, Beijing is targeting medical staff and COVID-19 victims again.
My Weibo account was blocked on May 19. I had been using this account on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter for more than nine years, published thousands of posts, and accumulated around 90,000 followers. On the same day, five of my friends who are writers and influencers also lost their Weibo accounts. We were all familiar with China’s growing censorship and had avoided using words and phrases that the Chinese government didn’t like—but we fell victim to an expanding system anyway.
We certainly weren’t alone. A wave of new censorship has grown during the coronavirus pandemic, most of it focused on covering up the stories around COVID-19 itself. Since January, I have worked as an independent reporter in the United States writing coronavirus-related articles, and I also organized a volunteer group in Austin, Texas, to ship donations of medical gear to hospitals in Wuhan, China. While I helped dozens of doctors, nurses, and patients in recent months, I also tried to use my limited power to reveal the truth—and found myself repeatedly shut down by the authorities.
After the lockdown on Jan. 23, the situation in Wuhan was chaotic and horrific. I was told by Li, a doctor at Wuhan No. 4 Hospital, that “there’s insufficient manpower, limited treatment, and scarce [personal protective equipment].” In a Weibo group named “COVID-19 patients pleading for help,” there were more than 150,000 people—mostly patients and their families—asking for assistance. (I am providing only pseudonymous surnames in order to protect sources.] A lot of these patients were untested and untreated due to a shortage of medical resources.
My friend Qian was sent by a Shanghai-based Chinese digital media outlet to report from the epidemic center in Wuhan. She saw patients collapsing while waiting outside hospitals and their families kneeling at doctors’ feet begging for help. We decided to do something together. I would contact people in the Weibo group, gather their information, and pass that on to Qian. She would push local government to find hospital beds for these people when she attended press conferences or interviewed government officials. We weren’t sure how effective this would be, but we were pleased to hear that a lot of the people we contacted were approached by community officers and were eventually diagnosed and hospitalized.
On Jan. 31, Qian received a phone call from the Wuhan Propaganda Department—one of the thousands of such bodies run by the Chinese Communist Party. The local government was annoyed by her behavior and worried about the brief spike in media power. Qian was threatened, but she kept speaking out. “I don’t want to remain silent,” she said, though she was aware that what she did might destroy her career. Luckily, the leader of her media outlet was supportive, and she was able to keep being a journalist.
There were many journalists thinking like Qian. Through brave reporting, independent media outlets like Caixin published articles highlighting whistleblowers and government malfeasance. They talked about the Chinese Red Cross’s inefficiency in handling donations of protective equipment, a serious shortage of test kits, and how doctors had to charge toward the front line of the pandemic without proper protection. According to research done by SupChina, for a short period of time, the media environment was relatively free. That had positive results. When these articles were shared again and again, the government was forced to act more effectively and efficiently.
The clampdowns came fast. According to Wong, an editor for the Paper (one of China’s leading digital media outlets), on Feb. 2, media outlets were told to not publish negative coronavirus-related articles. A good number of influential articles were deleted. Every night, around 2 a.m., thousands of posts from the “COVID-19 patients pleading for help” Weibo group disappeared. The government sent dozens of journalists to Wuhan to shape the narrative around the virus.
But there was still an eagerness to publish the truth. In March, Renwu magazine published an interview with Ai Fen, a doctor who heads the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital. She told the magazine that the outbreak began unfolding in December and doctors who tried to share information about the virus were told to stop. The story was deleted within hours of being published, yet Chinese internet users rapidly came up with various ways to preserve and share the article in a show of defiance against the censors. Some wrote the story backward, some used emoji instead of words, and some translated the story into other languages. While the various versions of the story were also deleted, this was a brief demonstration of the feeling of an empowered public.
Yet this empowerment didn’t last long. As outbreaks in Europe and the United States worsened, the online conversation began to be dominated by nationalism. China’s media started to be filled with articles glorifying the government’s response to the epidemic. There started to be a backlash about award-winning author Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary, a personal account of the early days of the pandemic. Although most of her writing complimented the hard work done by medical workers and volunteers, she also criticized local government for trying to cover up the COVID-19 outbreak in early January, prompting attacks against her.
Beyond Fang Fang, many voices from Wuhan have been silenced. As life in China gradually goes back to normal, it has become more and more difficult to interview medical workers, patients, and their families. The government wants to portray itself as a responsible regime that has successfully contained the virus and is leading the world. More and more people are getting into trouble, whether ordinary members of the public or journalists. After Southern Weekend, a popular and historically liberal paper, published an article about the extensive corruption at Wuhan Central Hospital, it was criticized by the propaganda department and was told not to publish any more coronavirus-related articles other than official Xinhua copy. According to their journalists, a few coronavirus-related in-depth investigative articles never get the chance to be published.
People who lost their loved ones to COVID-19 are demanding answers and accountability from local officials, especially those who lost family to infections picked up in hospitals when they were there to be treated for another condition.
Zhang Hai’s father, Zhang Lifa, was hospitalized in People’s Liberation Army General Hospital (Central District) in Wuhan for a leg surgery on Jan. 17. He and his father were living in Shenzhen until his father broke his leg on Jan. 15. Zhang Hai was on a tight budget, and Zhang Lifa, who had served in the army and worked on nuclear bomb development and testing in the 1960s, could receive free medical treatment in Wuhan, so he decided to drive his dad to Wuhan. Zhang explained to me that his dad was a Wuhan local resident and could receive free treatment only in Wuhan. Neither Zhang had heard of any outbreak. His father tested positive for the coronavirus on Jan. 23 and died on Feb. 1.
Zhang Hai and others who lost family gathered in a WeChat group—and promptly found themselves closely monitored by the security services. Zhang Hai received various phone calls from the police, and he was forced to visit the police station twice. He later wrote on Weibo that he found a policeman standing outside his apartment—and most of his Weibo posts themselves were deleted within hours of being posted. The last time he spoke to me, he told me that he was hiding. He also informed me that he filed a lawsuit seeking compensation and an apology from the Wuhan government, but security authorities told him to drop the case.
When I was working on a BBC documentary, Yang, another doctor whose warnings about the coronavirus were silenced in December, agreed to be interviewed. He had reported his mistreatment to a whistleblower line set up by the State Council, and he was willing to share with us the documents he had sent to the council. The interview was scheduled for 6 p.m. on a Saturday. However, around 5 p.m., the hospital’s leaders visited his apartment and gave him a warning for contacting foreign media. The interview was canceled.
Medical staff were particularly targeted as part of the post-virus crackdown. I obtained an official document issued by Fangshan No.1 Hospital in Shiyan (a city less than 300 miles away from Wuhan, in the same province), dated February 14, that warns hospital employees that sharing information about the coronavirus situation in their hospital could result in firing, loss of their status as civil servants, or expulsion from the Chinese Communist Party. Through my conversations with medical workers from various hospitals, they reassured me that this was a common practice and said many similar efforts happened across the country.
Beyond government propaganda efforts, there are also a fair number of genuinely nationalist people posting online. In order to learn more about them, I joined a fan group started by a pro-government social media influencer, where people in their early 20s posted positive stories and called for attacks on medical workers and patients who posted “negative content.” They also attempted to report teachers and students who violated the political line. This generation of young people grew up in a very censored environment with limited access to foreign media, and they say they care more about China’s economic growth than freedom and democracy.
One day, people in the group were discussing whether China had freedom of speech. The discussion drew the attention of censors, and the group was deleted.