Even in the times of crisis, the Communist Party of China is acting vindictively and muzzling dissent. The novel Coronavirus has exposed the skeletons of the Chinese government and with its reputation at stake, it has become increasingly vindictive of free speech. The mysterious disappearance of two Citizen journalists, Chen Quishi and Fang Bin has created a stir. Their only crime was that they unmasked the true face of the Chinese government as they exposed the government’s inability to tackle the virus at its epicentre in Wuhan.
The Chinese government has a history of curbing dissent especially at the times of crisis case in point being the SARS outbreak in 2003, Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, Wenzhou train crash in 2011 and Tianjin chemical explosion in 2015. The Chinese government refuses to learn from their experiences and continue to ignore the fact that freedom of information, transparency and the respect for human rights facilitate disease control.
Citizen journalist Chen Qiushi who dared to travel to Wuhan and uncover the truth despite the threat of the Chinese Communist Party has mysteriously gone missing. Chen built his reputation by covering the Hong Kong protests in August. Though he was harassed and silenced by Chinese authorities after his trip to Hong Kong, he continued speaking out using Twitter and YouTube.
In one of Chen’s videos, he expressed his worries about human-to-human transmission inside the hospital as all the patients shared the same ward. Chen noted that the hygiene outside the hospital was also pretty bad — used masks, gloves, and vomit were everywhere. When Chen visited the Wuhan No 5 hospital, a nurse broke down and screamed out in the hospital car park as she was infected at the hospital but could not get a bed in any hospital. Rumours spread online saying that the hospital had a number of medical workers infected but doctors were ordered not to talk to media. Chen’s colleague and journalist Fang Bin secretly filmed 8 bodies in 5 minutes in 1 Wuhan hospital ward and he was immediately arrested the same night by the Chinese authorities.
There was a huge outcry when the news of Quishi’s disappearance trickled in and in a brazen display of ignorance, the Chinese government has now disappeared Quishi’s colleague Fang Bin. Citizen journalist Fang Bin who was reporting from the epidemic epicentre in Wuhan has also disappeared, according to his friends and activists. The clothing seller turned journalist stopped posting videos or responding to calls and messages on February 9, 2020, according to activists Gao Fei and Hua Yong, citing Fang’s friends.
If the government had allowed free flow of information, then there’s every chance that the deadly virus would have been nipped in the bud. Chinese doctor Wenliang was one of the first whistleblower to raise the alarm over Coronavirus but the Communist party true to its characteristics, muzzled his concerns. When Wenliang on December 30, sent a message to fellow doctors in a chat group warning them to wear protective clothing to avoid infection, four days later he was summoned to the Public Security Bureau where he was told to sign a letter. In the letter, he was accused of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order”. He was one of eight people who police said were being investigated for “spreading rumours”. Local authorities later apologised to Dr Li. In his Weibo post he describes how on 10 January he started coughing, the next day he had a fever and two days later he was in the hospital. He was diagnosed with the Coronavirus on 30 January.
Even in his death, Wenliang was disrespected by the Chinese government as to when he was initially declared dead at 21:30 local time, the news triggered a huge wave of popular reaction on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. The top two trending hashtags on the website were “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang and apology” and “We want freedom of speech” which were of course quickly censored by the government. Wenliang’s death saw the Global Times and People’s Daily contradict each other. The People’s Daily sent out a tweet saying Dr Li’s death had sparked “national grief”.
However, Global Times then said he had been given a treatment known as ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) which keeps a person’s heart pumping and keeps their blood oxygenated without it going through their lungs. Global Times said he was in a critical condition. Journalists and doctors at the scene, who do not want their names used, told the BBC and other media that government officials had intervened. Official media outlets had been told to change their reports to say the doctor was still being treated.
Instead of confronting the Coronavirus and seeking help from other countries, China is resorting to bizarre measures. The province of Hubei, where the impact of the virus is the most severe, has switched off lifts in high-rise buildings to discourage residents from going outside while Beijing has banned group dining for events such as birthdays and weddings while cities such as Hangzhou and Nanchang are limiting how many family members can leave home each day.
Despite the full-blown epidemic, the Chinese leaders are more worried about the optics and are working overtime to muzzle every dissenting voice. Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a nonprofit organization with extensive contacts in China, has already tracked more than 300 cases of internet users who were penalized for sharing unofficial information on social media. While Quishi and Bin’s account have been completely scrubbed off the Chinese web space, the government is now resorting to penalise those who dared to share their posts.
Internet platforms have removed a range of articles that suggest shortcomings in the Chinese government’s response or are otherwise negative about the outbreak. In a country where independent media barely exists, and where state media controls all narratives, paranoia and confusion is not surprising and this has been seen in Chinese chat rooms. However, the crackdown on communication with regards to the Coronavirus has made the country and the world highly reliant on China’s state media. This is why suspicions and anger are rapidly rising.
According to the New York Times, both the state-run news media and more commercially minded outlets have been told to focus on positive stories about virus relief efforts, according to three people at Chinese news organizations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal directives and a look through the Twitter pages of The People’s Daily and Global Times proves this. Global Times have pinned a tweet of their Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin explaining how there is light at the end of the tunnel and the cases are reducing which is so not the case. Their pages are full of positive and manufactured stories on how the authorities are working overtime to save China as they scramble to protect Xi Jinping’s reputation. Children have also been used by the Chinese government propaganda machines as their cute drawings have been used as a propaganda to save Jinping’s reputation. Contrary to the claims of the publications, people in Wuhan have been left to die. While the Chinese government was successfully able to fool the world over how it built a hospital in 10 days, turns out, it’s not a hospital but a quarantine where infected people can go and just die.
Chinese people are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel in their fight against the novel #coronavirus epidemic. Meanwhile, there will be a long process before the previous vitality of China’s cities is restored: Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin #HuSays pic.twitter.com/RJMz6d1vIz
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) February 16, 2020
When medics and volunteers learned that 5-year-old Yaoyao was in dire need of care and company, following the hospitalization of her parents and grandparents due to #COVID19 infection, they rushed to take the initiative. Photos: Cui Meng/GT https://t.co/0vbdXAJELl pic.twitter.com/r1mQwHSK1V
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) February 18, 2020
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) February 18, 2020
Nicholas Kristof writing for The New York Times perfectly summed up the situation as in his opinion piece, he wrote: “China’s mishandling of the Coronavirus outbreak has imperiled itself and the world because it is a land of 21st-century science and 19th-century politics.” The longer the Chinese government tries to suppress the dissenting voices, the more deadly the Coronavirus will get.