The following censorship instructions, issued to the media by government authorities, have been leaked and distributed online. The name of the issuing body has been omitted to protect the source.
The article, archived at CDT Chinese, was a written interview by the Beijing Youth Daily with an anonymous Wuhan doctor, one of eight disciplined in early January for spreading rumors about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Wuhan authorities had trumpeted their punishment of eight then-unidentified rumormongers, but the revelation this week that they were all medical personnel has helped fuel a public backlash at official handling of the outbreak. In the Beijing Youth Daily interview, the doctor says that he had warned a WeChat group of former medical school classmates about seven patients from a local wet market, suffering from what he at first described erroneously as SARS. Despite his requests for discretion, screenshots were reposted on social media, and the doctor was summoned to a police station and forced to confess his error and pledge not to repeat it. Soon afterwards, he fell ill after treating an infected patient, and was admitted to an isolation ward, where he awaited test results to support a formal diagnosis. He described his own symptoms, the situation in the hospital, and his parents’ less severe infections.
At least one doctor treating victims of the infection has died after contracting the disease himself. At CNN, Julia Hollingsworth, Yuli Yang and Natalie Thomas examined the strain on Wuhan’s overwhelmed medics:
Over the past few days, CNN has spoken to patients, medical staff and experts who have told of delays in testing for the virus, in telling the public the true nature of the virus’ spread, and of an already overburdened health system creaking under the enormous weight of a rapidly expanding outbreak.
[…] According to a nurse in Wuhan who asked not to be identified for fear of professional repercussions, staff are overwhelmed, resources are running low, and there are no beds. There are so few hazmat suits that staff disinfect them at the end of their shift to wear again the next day, she said. Around 30 of the 500 medical staff at her hospital are now sick and admitted to hospital, and others — including her — have self-quarantined at home.
“There really are a lot of people who can’t get admitted, but there’s no point in blaming the nurses. There are no beds, no resources. Are we supposed to just fight this battle bare-handed?” she said. “Right now, loads of medical staff are at breaking point … I see my sisters charging toward the front line and I feel so powerless.” [Source]
South China Morning Post’s Tracy Qu highlighted the Beijing Youth Daily article’s deletion on Tuesday, noting widespread criticism of local authorities’ handling of the outbreak, and quoting one Weibo response to the interview: “how lucky is this society to have such a good doctor! How terrible is this society to put such a good doctor in such a situation!” Elsewhere, SCMP’s Jun Mai reported criticism of the eight doctors’ treatment endorsed by central judicial authorities:
In an article published on the Supreme People’s Court’s social media account, a Beijing-based judge said that while the information shared in the group was not accurate, it should have been tolerated.
“It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumour’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitisation measures, and avoid the wild animal market,” the judge said, referring to a market believed to be the source of the outbreak in Wuhan.
[…] “To punish any information not totally accurate is neither legally necessary nor technically possible.
“It … undermines the credibility of the government and chips away at public support for the Communist Party. It could even be used by hostile overseas forces as an excuse to criticise us.”
The court also acknowledged that the country’s judicial system had no say over punishments by local police, but it felt obliged to share its thinking of “rumours”. [Source]
In an op-ed at The New York Times on Thursday, Ian Johnson wrote that the identification of the accused rumormongers as medical staff had indeed helped undermine public trust in the authorities, as the Supreme People’s Court article warned. Johnson argued that officials’ awareness of this broader trust deficit was the driving force behind the “dramatic action” previously critiqued this week by Da Shiji at China Media Project.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders reports that punishments like those condemned by the Supreme People’s Court article have been widespread:
[…] CHRD has documented 254 cases of netizens penalized by authorities for “spreading rumours” about the coronavirus emergency between January 22-28 (full list in Chinese only). These cases have been reported on by Chinese media, including from local authorities’ announcements, but not independently verified. The majority of the individuals involved in these cases reportedly received administrative detentions ranging between 3-15 days. Some also received fines, verbal warnings, forced “education,” and forced confessions. Shandong Provincial authorities announced on January 27 that they had investigated and punished 123 individuals for sending “malicious rumours,” in an indication of the scale of police operations outside Hubei.
[…] China’s invasive digital surveillance system has been deployed by police to silence netizens and reinforce information controls. On social media sites, netizens reported being visited, detained, or penalized by police for “spreading rumours” after they posted comments on the outbreak, and in some cases, for volunteering in distributing face masks and other supplies. Several human rights defenders have reported being visited by police and threatened with criminal sanctions unless they stopped sharing international news reporting or tweeting information about the outbreak. […]
[…] Police across the country have visited activists and lawyers to threaten them into silence about the government’s handling of the virus outbreak. Guangzhou-based disbarred lawyer Sui Muqing received threats from police for posting information online; artist Wang Zang and his family have been harassed by police in Yunnan; Hunan activist Chen Siming reported being hauled into a police station and forced to delete tweets and promise to stop tweeting; and Changsha police seized Fan Junyi for sharing foreign media reports. Reportedly, Hubei resident Gao Fei has gone missing after posting a video message about police closing in on him and about ways to contact and help local residents in need of assistance. Gao had reported about the outbreak first-hand on social media and distributed face masks in local communities. [Source]
The case of the doctor in the Beijing Youth Daily interview has revived scrutiny of the supposed privacy of closed WeChat groups, which operator Tencent has previously claimed it has “neither the authority nor reason to look at.”
Veteran journo Wang Zhian doubts that other doctors would have dobbed them in.
So who reported them? How did the cops know what was posted in private WeChat groups?https://t.co/nwudqinn5U
— 💯Fergus Ryan (@fryan) January 30, 2020
Also on Twitter, The University of Chicago’s Dali Yang wrote that the treatment of the eight doctors showed “the costs of stability at all costs”:
[…] Official news reports of the time say that the Wuhan police wanted to remind people it would be unrelenting in dealing with those who concoct and spread rumors […]. This news item was prominently carried on China Central TV and major outlets as well as online. It had a chilling effect on those who saw the early signs of a then emerging epidemic. This crackdown was clearly part of a coordinated effort by the Wuhan leadership. [….] Imagine the Wuhan authorities had acted on the information from these professional doctors to contain the emerging epidemic rather than punishing them. Alas, this is one more example of the growing costs of the Chinese leadership’s preoccupation with stability maintenance. For background on this: Dali L. Yang, “China’s Troubled Quest for Order: Leadership, Organization and the Contradictions of the Stability Maintenance Regime.” [Source]
Hosting a discussion on how “the pitfalls of normalizing China’s shortcomings” in the Chinese Storytellers newsletter this week, Caixin’s Dave Yin highlighted Chinese media’s achievements in reporting on the outbreak in the face of strict official controls.
Besides the rising infection numbers and death tolls, Chinese media have managed to publish pieces on fears raised by SARS experts; city-wide quarantines; disputes over origins of the virus; evacuation measures by foreign governments; the deaths of officials due to infection; authorities seemingly breaking ranks to deflect blame; medical supply shortages; ensuing government acknowledgment, and more.
And of course, who could forget the fact that reporters have found ways to document ground zero, namely Wuhan, Hubei province, a city under quarantine?
It’s uncommon for so much critical coverage to be available to the Chinese audience. Some observers have taken this as an indication that the Chinese government has allowed transparent discussions of this latest crisis.
But what these observers ignore is that authorities also detained those who first discussed the then-mysterious disease for “spreading rumors,” and censor their views even now. [Wuhan authorities now say that the eight were not detained, merely “educated and reprimanded.”] State media, a key source of information for many in China, continue to downplay the story well after its impact was established. Some say this delay in public awareness aided the spread of 2019-nCoV.
What is “transparent” for China is not very transparent at all. [Source]
Another directive obtained by CDT this week ordered websites to “delete the Sanlian Life Week article ‘How will China’s Economy be Impacted if the WHO Gets Involved With the Coronavirus Epidemic?’ Do not continue republishing commentary.” The WHO did formally declare the outbreak a “global emergency” on Thursday.
Since directives are sometimes communicated orally to journalists and editors, who then leak them online, the wording published here may not be exact. Some instructions are issued by local authorities or to specific sectors, and may not apply universally across China. The date given may indicate when the directive was leaked, rather than when it was issued. CDT does its utmost to verify dates and wording, but also takes precautions to protect the source. See CDT’s collection of Directives from the Ministry of Truth since 2011.