CDT Censorship Digest, January 2020: Wuhan Coronavirus Outbreak

In January 2020, CDT Chinese editors posted their first monthly summary of censorship, launching the CDT Censorship Digest series. The series will collect and quote from news and online speech that was censored by Chinese authorities during the previous month, as well as summarize parallel efforts to preserve and strengthen freedom of speech in Chinese society. When relevant to CDT English readers, we will translate the Chinese series in part or in full. Unless otherwise noted [in ellipses], all links in this translation are to Chinese sources. 

CDT Chinese | Chinese Censorship Digest, January 2020: Totalitarianism’s Chernobyl Moment

Wuhan pneumonia! Wuhan pneumonia! Wuhan pneumonia! On January 27, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that a new coronavirus represented a “high” level global emergency. In China, the threat level was set to “extremely high.” On January 30, The WHO declared the novel coronavirus epidemic an international public health emergency. According to China’s National Health Commission, as of January 29, the death count increased from 38 to 170. Confirmed cases surpassed 1,700. All regions of China have announced cases of Wuhan pneumonia. All are on the highest level of red alert.

In Camus’ novel, “The Plague,” he said, “There’s no heroism in any of this. This is merely a matter of honesty. The only possible way to fight the plague is honesty.”

If you want to know why Wuhan pneumonia went from controllable to uncontrolled, why it’s now an international public health emergency, there is only one reason, I’m afraid: dishonesty.

I. From Controllable to Uncontrolled: Who Held Back Wuhan?

On December 8, 2019, there were 27 patients with pneumonia in Wuhan. Their names are unknown.

On January 1, 2020, the Wuhan Public Security Bureau published a message on their official Weibo account announcing that eight people who were disseminating false information about Wuhan Pneumonia had been dealt with according to the law. The police further warned, “The internet is not outside the law. The information you post and the things you say online should comply with all laws and regulations. The police will investigate and deal with such illegal acts as fabricating and spreading false information and rumors, and disrupting social order. Such actions will not be tolerated.”

On January 21, the first article accusing officials of concealing information about the outbreak spread like wildfire online: None of the Important Information We Now Know About Wuhan Pneumonia was First Published by Wuhan Authorities.” The article points out:

Wuhan City and Hubei Province had been busy preparing for two important meetings. The thought process of some Wuhan officials, I’m afraid, was that stability was to be maintained during this meeting. Period. Don’t create havoc. This way of thinking existed from the time I graduated college in 2002 and entered the official Wuhan news apparatus. They’ve thought this way all these years, and that’s exactly how they acted—during the Two Sessions period, negative news coverage was not permitted. A harmonious atmosphere was to be fostered for the Two Sessions.

Just as they hoped, they comfortably held their meetings, and the outbreak spread, step by step.

On January 19, 2020, Wuhan finally sent out a vice mayor to introduce information regarding the epidemic. The first case of the infection appeared on December 8, 2019. [Chinese]

It was after this that media organizations finally began reporting on Wuhan Pneumonia. On January 25, China Newsweek (中国新闻周刊) published the report: “Wuhan Doctor: When The Epidemic Started ‘We Weren’t Allowed To Say Anything.’”

Tracing the spread of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, and with the identification of “super-spreaders” like Zhao Junshi [English coverage], it all seems like an inevitably.

On December 30, 2019, a document circulated online bearing a red-colored header and the official seal of the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission Medical Administration. It was an emergency notice: “Successive cases of pneumonia, causes yet unknown, have originated at the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market.”

As Wuhan Union Hospital Doctor Lin Yu recalled, when the epidemic first began, the strategy of the City of Wuhan was to give it the “cold treatment.” His hospital released a notice informing employees that, without authorization by relevant departments, they were not permitted to discuss the outbreak privately on public platforms, nor were they allowed to speak privately to the media. They weren’t just barred from discussing details from within their clinical system. Even more so, they strictly controlled information about the hospital and from the Chinese CDC. “We weren’t allowed to say anything.” At the time, the only thing doctors could do was to repeatedly remind patients—“face mask, face mask. You absolutely must buy face masks. Wear a face mask.” And, even half-jokingly, “Don’t buy stuff at Huanan Seafood Market. Things aren’t fresh over there.”

On December 31, the Wuhan government publicly announced that there were a total of 27 cases, seven of which were serious. No obvious instances of human-to-human transmission had yet to be discovered, nor had there been any infections of medical personnel. The People’s Daily published on Weibo: “The cause of the disease is not yet clear. We cannot conclude that it is in fact the SARS virus as has been discussed online.”

Wuhan public security organs conducted an investigation and verified that eight people who had illegally posted and shared false information online were arraigned and handled according to the law. Public security organs published this information on official Weibo accounts.

From January 6 to January 10, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission no longer published reports regarding this “pneumonia of unknown origin.” [Chinese]

On January 27, Caixin published an interview with Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang, “Wuhan Mayor Admits Information Not Previously Disclosed in a Timely Manner”:

Zhou Xianwang: As for this epidemic of ours, actually, everyone is very unsatisfied with how we disclosed information. On one hand, we didn’t disclose information in a timely manner, but also, we didn’t do a good enough job utilizing information to improve our work. First, with regards to not getting information out in a timely manner, everyone needs to understand—because it’s an infectious disease, there are infectious disease control laws. Information must be released according to the law. As a regional government, after I get this information, I need to get authority first before I can disclose it. So, as for this matter, at the time, I really didn’t understand [everyone’s dissatisfaction]. Later, especially after January 20, the State Council held an executive meeting identifying the disease as a Class-B infectious disease, and measures were to be implemented treating it as Class-A. They also required the local government to take responsibility. From that point on, we felt we could work much more proactively. Plus, in a lot of ways, there were some tough measures we had to take that you couldn’t take halfway. You had to make a tough call. For example, closing roads out of Wuhan, suspending our city’s subways, public buses, ferries, including long-distance busses out of Wuhan. These were all very decisive actions. [Chinese]

On January 27, one of the eight “rumormongers” emerged and conducted an in-depth interview with Beijing Youth Daily. As it turned out, this rumormonger–previously rebuked by the police [CDT has translated the official rebuke]–was a doctor. Eleven days after he was reprimanded by police, he contracted the disease and was put into quarantine. His parents were also both infected. That day, the report, “Beijing In-Depth | The Admonished Wuhan Doctor: 11 Days Later, He Enters Quarantine After Contracting The Disease From A Patient,” was completely banned online.

The identities of the eight “rumormongers” then became public. They’re from three groups: Wuhan University Clinical ’04 Group; Union Red Cross; and Cancer Center. From the names, we can see they are all medical groups, and are virtually all medical professionals. One of them, Li Wenliang, was a doctor on the front lines treating patients with pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus. His mother and father later contracted the disease. He himself suffered a severe case [CDT translated a censorship order to delete news on his hospitalization]. He was in the ICU, unable to get out of bed or even to go to the bathroom. Basically unable to speak. [On February 6, Dr. Li passed away, inspiring a mass online call for free speech. Meanwhile, censorship authorities ordered the media to control the temperature of relevant discussion, and to follow official news sources.]

According to one medical expert, on January 1, medical editors of virtually all online platforms had all seen this “rumor.” Some editors solicited articles from him, wanting him to write about how to prevent SARS transmission. However, considering the laws on publishing information about infectious disease, action had to be taken by official government agencies, otherwise it would be illegal. As a result, he remained silent the entire time.

In other words, after the new year, the result finding 2019-E ncov and SARS-cov 70% homologous was already spread widely among clinical doctors. Eight writers were arrested. It was even announced on CCTV [CDT has translated CCTV’s initial use of the disciplinary action as a warning]. Doctors all felt insecure as a result. From then on, no doctors dared sound the alarm again. [Chinese]

On the evening of January 29, Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention chief epidemiology scientist Zeng Guang was interviewed by the media. He spoke about how to win this “war of annihilation” with the virus. When asked about the eight rumormongers, Zeng Guang expressed:

These eight people are to be lauded. In hindsight, we can give them a very high appraisal. They were early Zhuge Liang’s [English context on Three Kingdoms era military strategist Zhuge Liang]. But science believes evidence. To come to a conclusion, you need to bring out evidence. [Chinese]

However, Wuhan officials expressed no admission of wrongdoing toward the eight.

On January 29, someone under the username “LittleMountainDog” [xiaoshangou 小山狗] published an article titled “Recording The Discovery of the First Case of Novel Coronavirus.” The article laid out the details on how the novel coronavirus was discovered during the 26th and 27th of December 2019. The author also expressed confusion:

If we were able to determine this unknown virus was a coronavirus very similar to SARS in two days, and after all the analysis was submitted, then why did authorities wait until January 7 to announce that the pneumonia was being caused by a new kind of coronavirus?

The biggest feelings one takes away from this whole thing is a loss of hope, distress, and anger. We found out what is was so quickly, why weren’t we able to keep it under control? To have the entire country slip into a war with the outbreak? It wasn’t a matter of science, nor technology. It was decision-making and the media. [Chinese]

The next day, this article was deleted.

On January 30, public medical field platform Yixuejie [医学界] published an article titled “The Great Plague of Wuhan, What Have National Experts Contributed?” The article analyzed two Chinese research papers on the new pneumonia put out by The Lancet in January.

The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announced 41 cases of the virus on January 11. These would become the 41 cases in the research paper. But, The Lancet explains in their article that their data comes from the authorities. While 14 of those cases were patients who had no history of exposure to Huanan Seafood Market, and hospitals and the Health Commission were undergoing airborne quarantine, in its public notice the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission claimed that “no evidence of human-to-human transmission has yet been discovered.”

On January 15, over half a month had passed since hospitals were taking airborne disease quarantine measures with patients. As of January 1, they had already verified one case of family transmission. There had already been 14 patients with no history of exposure to Huanan Seafood Market. Yet on FAQ of the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission’s official website, they “do not rule out the possibility of limited human-to-human transmission.” And they continued to stress a “low risk of sustained human-to-human transmission.” Several domestic media outlets published this information from inconspicuous positions.The last line of a table in an article from the New England Journal of Medicine published information regarding the infection of medical personnel. During the period of January 1 through January 11, there were a total of seven medical personnel who had contracted the virus. [Chinese]

Yet, for an unknown reason, the danger posed by this new coronavirus, as pointed out in these two papers, was not reflected in efforts to control the outbreak. At the end of the report, author Jiang Feihong says:

Here are the facts. To quote UCLA Public Health Center Associate Director, Epidemiology Professor Zuo-Feng Zhang, when he was interviewed by Intellectual [知识分子]: From a scientific research standpoint, the results looking into Wuhan pneumonia have been first-rate. Many articles were published in many journals in a very short time. But a lot of the data could have been used to inform control efforts during the early stages of the outbreak. Some of the most important information we were only able to see after it was published in English-language journals. A lot of information was not made public in a timely manner domestically in China, nor was this information used in a timely manner in the fight against the outbreak.

The publication of high-quality research is to be respected and congratulated. But why couldn’t this data be seen in China? Wouldn’t it be better if these results were utilized in the fight to control the epidemic? I feel like the push to be the first to publish high-quality scientific research was driving this activity—not public health best practices, not putting the health of the public first and foremost. [Chinese]

On January 30 on WeChat, BioWorld published the article “Undeniable Evidence from NEJM, Human-to-Human Transmission of Wuhan Novel Coronavirus In Mid-December Verified, Who Concealed the Discovery, Letting the Epidemic Spread Throughout the Country?”

CDC experts already verified human-to-human transmission in mid-December 2019.

However, on January 10, 2020, Wuhan officials had yet to announce clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. It wasn’t until January 20 that academician Zhong Nanshan publicly announced human-to-human transmission.

So, just who was it that held Wuhan back, in turn holding the whole country back? [Chinese]

Looking back, from the emergence of the disease to the explosion, one thing is for sure: from controllable to uncontrolled, Wuhan missed the best period for controlling the epidemic. Some individuals online put together a timeline of the Wuhan epidemic “In the End, Who Held Back Wuhan?”. They ultimately concluded:

December 8 to December 31, 2019: Wuhan blank;

January 1 to January 10, 2020: Wuhan blank;

January 11 to January 17, 2020: Seven days since the first death, Wuhan continues to report “no new cases.”

January 20 to January 22, 2020: A directive of the highest level was issued. Two days after control efforts were comprehensively raised, Wuhan finally began calling on city residents to wear masks. Leaders of relevant departments were still participating in Spring Festival celebrations.

Who was it that held Wuhan back? What are they afraid of? Who will be held responsible for the dead? [Chinese]

On January 31, renowned publication Intellectual [知识分子] published an article titled “Deception’ or ‘Protection’? Report Incites Wuhan Outbreak Controversy.” The article includes the following analysis:

Early morning, Beijing Time, January 30. The New England Journal of Medicine uploaded an epidemiological research paper about the Wuhan novel coronavirus. It caused instant concern among the public.

Critics believe that the “human-to-human transmission in those who had close contact with sick individuals in December 2019,” mentioned in the paper, showed that the authors–including individuals from the China’s CDC–knew as early as the beginning of January that there was already verified proof of human-to-human transmission. But those on the outside didn’t know human-to-human transmission was possible until January 20. There were also scientists who claimed that this paper was a retrospective epidemiological study. Some time had to elapse for data collection and analysis. Why claim the “cover up of an epidemic?”

But what is the real truth? [Chinese]

The article also mentions that Zhejiang University professor Wang Liming questioned the paper on Weibo: “Evidence of human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus was purposefully concealed!”

From the data in this paper, we see that the Chinese CDC had clear proof of human-to-human transmission in the first days of January. So at which juncture was this information covered up over the course of the subsequent three weeks? Was is not allowed to be made public because Chinese CDC scientists wanted to publish their own papers? Were there some reasons that the Wuhan government wanted to suppress the data from being made public? Or something else?”

Wang Liming’s questioning rapidly went viral. Tens of thousands shared and commented. It was deleted after two hours. [Chinese]

As this was going on, various departments of the government began a “Blame War.” “Sorting Out The Ugly Blame Game—Who Won?” recorded how the mayor of Wuhan, the CDC, and the National Health Commission attempted to pass blame to one another. “Not a single one has any retrospection. They all swear it’s somebody else’s responsibility, somebody else’s mistake.” Who will get stuck with the blame next? This article was deleted nearly instantly. Articles attempting to trace back the blame were deleted the fastest online.

II. Soldiers on the Battlefield Putting Lives on the Line, Officers in Their Tents Being Entertained by Beauties

There is nothing to fear about the truth; what’s scary is a lack of truth. Along with the spread of the outbreak, control of the news and speech during the [early] Wuhan pneumonia period never let up. People with information were constantly ordered to be silent. Reports and postings were constantly deleted. Even footage of doctors, nurses, and patients on the front lines pleading for help was being controlled and deleted. Even after the Wuhan pneumonia was verified, people posting or sharing information about the epidemic were consistently being detained.

As the saying goes: soldiers on the battlefield are putting their lives on the line, while beauties are singing and dancing for officers in their comfortable tents.

While the people of Wuhan put everything they have into the battle with the virus, they face a comprehensive lack of medical resources. While videos of doctors and nurses crying spread across the internet, Hubei and Wuhan officials were still celebrating Spring Festival in a high-profile fashion. On January 19, some 40 thousand Wuhan families staged a banquet for a festive dinner. On January 21, the Hubei Province Spring Festival Arts Performances held at Hongshan Auditorium were a resounding success. The performances were attended by many provincial leaders, such as Provincial Party Secretary and Director of the Provincial People’s Congress Standing Committee Jiang Chaoliang and Deputy Provincial Party Committee Secretary and Provincial Governor Wang Xiaodong. On January 22, the Hubei Provincial Department of Emergency Management held their Spring Festival gala.

As one online commenter put it, looking at the newspaper headlines at the time, he felt “chills in his heart.” Not a single word about Wuhan pneumonia in the headlines. It was all still nothing but merriment.

By January 23, Wuhan pneumonia had spread across all regions of China. A few hours after the administration in Wuhan declared the city closed in efforts to curb the spread of the outbreak, CPC Central Committee General Secretary, Chairman Xi Jinping delivered celebratory Spring Festival remarks in Beijing—making no mention of the 11 million people closed off in Wuhan or the Wuhan pneumonia issue. On January 25, Jackie Chan sang “I Ask Where My Country Looks Sick” on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala.

On January 25, one Weibo user, frustrated with Chairman Xi Jinping’s absence in dealing with this enormous national security issue, published a question, asking, “Where is that person?” (那个人在哪里?) The post was very quickly deleted. Some who reposted knew all too well that “Xi Jinping” were sensitive words, so they replaced his name with “Trump” (特朗普). “Scolding Trump” (怒斥特朗普) quickly began trending on Weibo. Some internet users even began posting missing person notices for Xi Jinping.

On January 28 Xi Jinping conducted a high-profile meeting with World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesusm. In response to the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic crisis, Beijing established a special “CPC Central Committee Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Outbreak Response Task Force.” The group held its first meeting on the 26th. It was led by Li Keqiang—not CPC Central Committee Chairman General Secretary Xi Jinping–causing a lot of outside speculation. Seemingly to refute the rumors, during his meeting with Ghebreyesusm, Xi Jinping stressed, “As for prevention and control efforts combating the epidemic, I’ve been continuously directing the effort personally, personally making arrangements.”

III. Just How Severe Is Wuhan Pneumonia?

Just how severe is Wuhan pneumonia? How true are data and reports from the authorities? People are asking one question after another online, and “rumors” are flying everywhere.

Author Hu Yong’s old essay, “Rumors, a Kind of Social Protest” once again returned to public view [linked post continuously updated collection of censored “rumors” on the topic. CDT has translated one such “rumor.”]. The essay quotes Kapferer: “Rumors are both social and political. ‘Official’ sources are political in nature. They emerge from a kind of consensus. This consensus determines who has the right to speak, even if they lack the right to do so from a moral or ethical standpoint. Rumors are a kind of relationship with the authorities: they reveal secrets, propose hypotheticals; they force the authorities to speak. They are an objection to the fact that the authorities are the only source of information. Without invitation, rumors spontaneously fight for the right to speak. They are often statements from the opposing party. Official refutations are unable to squelch them, because they make official positions seem unreliable. Rumors cause us to question the authorities, to question the notion that ‘only those with the right to speak with speak on a matter.’ Rumors and official accounts are sometimes at odds with one another, so rumors constitute a kind of anti-power, while at the same time acting as a kind of balance against power.” Because of this, the people have no other recourse but to look for the truth in rumors.

As the severity of the epidemic grows, stories from patients continue to surface. Their stories are devastating, like thousands of arrows to the heart. For example, the story of a child with cerebral palsy freezing and starving to death. A family of five all becoming infected, saying goodbye to their mother who died in quarantine on Chinese New Year’s Day. One girl suffered the loss of her grandmother and father within one month, and her mom is still being treated in quarantine. A husband borrowed over 200 thousand yuan but was still unable to save his pregnant wife’s life. Or that of countless Wuhan residents pleading for help on the internet. Their stories are being deleted, erased by the authorities.

During this period, a 2015 article looking back on the 2003 SARS outbreak, “Thirteen Years After SARS: Not Talking About It Doesn’t Mean We’ve Forgotten,” has been circulating online. The article evaluates the outbreak in China and Vietnam at the time, explaining why Vietnam has able to relatively quickly and effectively control the outbreak:

Comparison Between China and Vietnam: On one side, the outbreak lasted 187 days, 5,328 people infected. On the other, it lasted 39 days, 63 people infected. 

[…] One important reason why the outbreak was controlled so rapidly in Hanoi was the quick diagnosis and reporting by Carlo Urbani. However, the open attitude of the Vietnamese government should also absolutely be commended. As the New England Journal of Medicine put it, “To a certain degree, the story of the SARS outbreak in Hanoi is one of the best examples of the government putting public health before political considerations.”

That’s a little academic. To put in in plain terms: Over the course of the epidemic, Hanoi officials considered the health of the population more important than their own political standing.

If, just like when SARS first appeared, China invited a doctor like Urbani to come… And if Chinese officials put aside their political calculations like those Vietnamese officials did, cooperating fully from the beginning with international experts, sparing no effort to combat the outbreak, perhaps there wouldn’t be as many people who died in China and throughout the world. [Chinese]

Unfortunately, that’s all hypothetical. The dead don’t get another chance. But the biggest tragedy isn’t making the mistakes, it’s not admitting to them, causing the same tragedy to play out once again. If China’s officials were able to learn from these lessons and put down their political “face,” listen to the “rumormongers” and the feedback from doctors on the frontlines, put the public’s health above their own political considerations, combat the outbreak in a timely fashion, would the outbreak have been more effectively controlled? The answer is actually a no. Because this is the price of totalitarianism. “Every totalitarian state has its own Chernobyl moment,” [as one netizen put it]. From the beginning–deleting posts and banning accounts, arresting “rumormongering” online commenters, procrastinating, concealing the real details of the outbreak–to the slow, ineffective crisis management, and response capabilities… It’s like they are repeating the mistakes of the SARS incident 17 years ago, as if they never learned their lessons from the disaster. As many people trying to figure out the root cause have realized, this closed, arrogant, pre-modern power structure spends all of its time removing dissent and has completely lost the ability to correct itself. When faced with a public crisis, these officials are always putting stability maintenance before people’s rights. These outdated governing philosophies and capabilities, concealed by the old system, are now exposed. On this path of stubbornness and complacency, where bad habits die hard, how similar is this to Chernobyl’s Bridge of Death? Stanford University Professor Zhou Xueguang, in an essay evaluating the Chernobyl tragedy, “‘Organized Disorder’: The Great Dilemma of Organizational Policy Decisions in a Closed System,” he asserts that the more closed a system is, the more difficult it is for that system to withstand the impact of unexpected events. This closed and arrogant system [of China] is likewise unable to withstand the impact of unexpected events.

IV. Other Notes for Review

The scary thing is, totalitarianism doesn’t exist merely because of major events like epidemics. More so, it becomes a kind of routine, an everyday thing. Under this totalitarian system, we experience a Chernobyl tragedy every second of every day.

At the end of 2019, China’s Ministry of Public Security instructed Shandong Police to establish the “12.13” task force. They were to open the largest-scale civil society clean-up campaign [English coverage of the 12.13 Shandong crackdown] since the “709 Incident” [also known as the Black Friday crackdown on rights lawyers and activists]. Their series of investigations into liberals launched December 26. By January 1, eight had been detained. Those who have been detained are, respectively: Ding Jiaxi, Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya, Li Yingjun, Huang Zhiqiang, Liu Shuqing, Wei Xiaobing, and Lu Siwei. Since then, more and more human rights lawyers have been hunted down and forced to flee. The families of these human rights activists also face persecution by the police. Their voices have been completely silenced on the mainland Chinese internet. Zhou Youfang, the wife of lawyer Wen Donghai who had been forced to flee abroad, described her escape through self-published media accounts on January 19. She wrote that she worried about her husband Wen Donghai, who was still on the run in China: “I Flee with Two Children, Yet I Know Not Where to Flee.” Human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, the wife of Yu Wensheng, denounced the illegal actions of the Chinese government. She accused the Chinese government of illegally coming to their door like “bandits” to abduct him, barring lawyers from intervening. To this day, she doesn’t even know if he’s dead or alive. She was also implicated and detained for questioning, handcuffed to a chair for as long as nine hours straight. She was even humiliated by being required to be strip searched. She now deals with being routinely followed whenever she leaves the house.

Translation by Little Bluegill. See also all of CDT’s English coverage of the novel coronavirus


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