Coronavirus “Rumor” Crackdown Continues With Censorship, Detentions

Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang was first disciplined for "spreading rumors" about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, then used as a deterrent example by state media along with seven others. He was then rehabilitated and lionized as a heroic "whistleblower" after his status as a front-line medic came to light. His death from the virus last week sparked public fury and widespread calls for free speech, but the official campaign against supposed "rumormongers" has continued throughout, and even escalated since Li’s death with the detentions of two prominent citizen journalists.

At Caixin on Tuesday, Qin Jianxing, Wang Yanyu and Matthew Walsh reported on two other Wuhan doctors who reported police encounters similar to Li’s:

On Dec. 30, after reading an online post from a trusted fellow doctor, Liu posted a message in a work WeChat group mentioning the diagnosis of a patient with a mysterious viral pneumonia and speculated whether the area around the seafood market thought to be the center of the outbreak would be quarantined.

“To our nursing colleagues: Don’t go wandering around down there,” he warned.

The following day, Liu was called in for a talk with his employer, who grilled him on the source of the information. Around Jan. 2, he says he was summoned (link in Chinese) to a local police station, where police questioned him further and had him sign a statement.

[…] Xie, meanwhile, told Caixin (link in Chinese) she sent a message into a WeChat group out of a desire to “raise everyone’s vigilance a little” over the outbreak. She told Caixin that after screenshots of her message were posted elsewhere, she received a phone call from the Wuhan police, who subjected her to “verbal education” — a euphemism for an official tongue-lashing. Although the police gave Xie no specific punishment, they warned her against spreading “false information.” [Source]

Despite the backlash against the treatment of Li and the others, detentions continue. On Wednesday, Quartz’s Jane Li reported the arrest of citizen journalist Fang Bin:

Fang Bin, a Wuhan businessman who had been posting videos filmed from city hospitals, was allegedly arrested on Sunday (Feb. 9, link in Chinese), according to Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK, the same day he posted a 12-second video of a piece of paper with the words “resist all citizens, hand the power of the government back to the people” written on it, which he read aloud. RTHK, which didn’t name its source, said that plain-clothes police officers accompanied by fire fighters broke down Fang’s door to enter his flat. Hua Yong, a Chinese artist and rights activist, told Quartz yesterday that Fang’s friends had separately told him of the arrest.

In China, citizen journalists are rare because they can’t obtain the official certificate required for reporting news as they don’t work for a registered outlet—but amid increased public anger against the authorities, some have taken on the risk of offering the outside world a first-hand glimpse of the situation in Wuhan. But as China’s government struggles to contain a coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 1,110 and infected close to 45,000 people, it has also stepped up efforts to contain the narrative around the epidemic and keep public anger centered on local authorities. In addition to dispatching journalists to produce more “positive” coverage from Wuhan, Beijing has censored the more critical coverage from Chinese media, and is silencing specific voices.

Yaqui Wang, China researcher for the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, noted that it appears that “authorities are as equally, if not more, concerned with silencing criticism as with containing the spread of the coronavirus,” repeating a pattern seen in past public emergencies as well. [Source]

See more on Fang’s work from China Change. Fang had previously been briefly detained by police claiming to be carrying out virus inspections. A list of recommendations to authorities from automated public sentiment analysis firm Warming High-Tech, translated last week by CDT, noted in the context of popular anger over Li’s death that disease control measures gave authorities "a legitimate reason to decisively handle any crowd."

Suspicions of such a pretext surround the forced quarantine of lawyer and fellow citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, reported by CNN’s Nectar Gan and Natalie Thomas on Monday. Chen had previously had his social media accounts closed and been barred from leaving the country after posting heterodox video reports on mass protests in Hong Kong:

Chen arrived in Wuhan on January 24, a day after the city was placed under a state-imposed lockdown, designed to stop citizens from leaving to stem the spread of the virus. He visited overflowing hospitals, funeral parlors and makeshift isolation wards and uploaded videos of what he saw online, offering the world a glimpse into the often grim reality at the heart of the crisis.

[… I]n a live broadcast on YouTube, Xu Xiaodong, an outspoken mixed martial artist [background] and friend of Chen, played a message from the journalist’s mother saying he had been forcibly quarantined.

"In the last few hours the Qingdao public security officers and state security officers … notified Qiushi’s parents that Qiushi has already been detained in the name of quarantine. Qiushi’s mother immediately asked them where and when he was taken away, they declined to say," said Xu.

Xu stressed that, based on his interactions with Chen and the testimony of those on the ground, Chen had been in good health prior to his disappearance.

[…] "I’m scared, I have the virus in front of me and behind me China’s law enforcement," Chen said in an emotional video recorded in his hotel room on January 30. [Source]

In an interview last week with Jane Li at Quartz last week, Chen discussed his exile to Western social media, his emphasis on accuracy, and the "political risks" of his actions:

[…] There were lots of rumors circulating on WeChat, which I could not verify. I only report the real situation that I saw myself. […]

[…] I am very nervous because if I get anything wrong, or post even just one piece of fake information, it will be widely shared on the internet… I do feel embarrassed, because I don’t work for any proper media. And I post videos on YouTube, a thing most Chinese people have not heard of. Some people who use VPN know about me and offer me lots of help, even asking me to stay at theirs. So that was why I did a joint live stream with “Face Mask Brother,” who was one of the few vloggers in Wuhan recording their daily lives…

[…] The police security bureau in my hometown also visited my parents’ house because they could not find me. They didn’t dare to come to Wuhan. They ‘educated’ my parents to tell me not to spread negative comments about the government… If I reveal my real location, there could be a risk of me getting arrested. I cannot think about it too much, or I will be afraid of doing anything. As one of the remaining reporters on the front line, I could help spread some information. For the political risks of doing so, I have no time to worry about that for now. [Source]

Chen’s work was one focus of a recent New Yorker piece by Han Zhang on the information controls surrounding the outbreak:

“In the past few years, since Xi started to regulate the Internet and control information and crack down on civil society—including many verified users with large followings—there have been fewer and fewer voices that question or criticize the government, and less and less discussion of public affairs,” [CDT founder] Xiao Qiang, the director of the Counter-Power Lab, at the University of California, Berkeley, which studies digital freedom and censorship, told me. “This is the first large-scale eruption of opinions since then.”

[…] State media employ language that “maintains a clear and bright cyberspace,” Guobin Yang, a professor of sociology and contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “It is Internet censorship in the name of civility.” He pointed out that, although the Chinese supreme court cleared the Wuhan “rumor-mongers,” their decision did not necessarily endorse a free flow of information. In its statement, the court stressed the importance of general vigilance against rumors, especially those that could lead to “social disorders”; these include rumors that “slander the state for inability to control the epidemic” and “fabricate information about hospitals losing control of the epidemic.”

In short, the court’s decision “says that you can’t punish these eight people. It also reaffirms the rule that you can’t spread rumors,” Yang said. “But what is a rumor, and what is not? That’s still up to the public-security people to decide. Often, in this kind of situation, even the authorities don’t know what kind of signal to send out. So a safer approach is to send a positive signal and then a negative signal.” [Source]

At Foreign Affairs in 2015, "Blocked on Weibo" author Jason Q. Ng wrote:

Throughout modern Chinese history, rumor has been a flexible category that has included not only speculation and falsehoods but also unsanctioned opinions about contemporary events. During the Mao era, the historian Steve Smith has written, rumors were considered to be “any information or opinion at variance with the official construction of reality”—even when that information or opinion was mostly factual. […][Source]

In a roundup of outbreak-related censorship translated by CDT English this week, CDT Chinese editors noted:

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. [Source]

Hu Yong also explained his views on rumors in a 2011 interview with Time Weekly, translated at China Media Project.

In an op-ed at The Guardian highlighting rights violations in the handling of the epidemic last week, Chinese Human Rights Defenders’ Frances Eve cited concrete examples of "rumors" in the current context: "reports of potential cases, including people turned away from hospitals or dying without ever being tested and quickly cremated, criticism of the government, the distribution of masks, or the criticism of the discrimination of people from Wuhan or others who may be infected." CHRD has catalogued 351 cases of punishment for rumor-spreading, demonstrating that cases like Chen Qiushi’s, Li Wenliang’s, and the other Wuhan medics’ are far from unique. The group notes that “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.” If comprehensive and proportionally representative, this figure would indicate around 1,700 cases nationally as of January 27.

Six examples not included in CHRD’s list appeared in a document posted to Jinri Toutiao, ostensibly originating from authorities in Shuozhou, a city of 1.7 million in northern Shanxi, some 600 miles from Wuhan.

Report from Shuozhou on recent handling of harmful online information.

According to the spirit of the Municipal Party Committee’s Cyberspace Administration Office and municipal Public Security Bureau’s "Public Notice on Cracking Down on Harmful Online Information During the Epidemic Control Period in Accordance With the Law," we report the following six examples of people spreading such information:

1) At around 9 a.m. on January 26, 2020, user Wang XX of Shuocheng district posted in the WeChat group "Let’s Drink": “Damned Shanxi hasn’t reported any suspected cases, they’re not telling the whole story.”

On January 26, the local Beiwang village police substation summoned Wang and carried out education and admonition.

2) On the morning of January 27, 2020, user Lü XX of Shuocheng district posted in a WeChat group: "The last few days I’ve been scaling the wall to look at Twitter, a lot of videos from Wuhan say the government’s not doing anything."

On January 27, the local Beiwang village police substation summoned Lü and carried out education and admonition.

3) On January 25, 2020, user Li XX (female) of Ying county posted in a WeChat group: "This epidemic must be worse than we imagine when there’s only one confirmed case in the whole of Shaanxi province, but there are two cases in our county. I feel the officials must be lying."

On January 28, the Ying country [Public Security Bureau] internet security division summoned Li and carried out education and admonition.

4) On January 27, 2020, user Yang XX of Ying county posted in a WeChat group: "Today’s paper said there have been nine cases altogether in Shanxi province. There have been that many just in Ying county—I feel the state is underreporting the situation."

On January 28, the Ying county [Public Security Bureau] internet security division summoned Yang and carried out education and admonition.

5) On January 27, 2020, user Yan XX (female) of Shuocheng district posted a voice message in a WeChat group: "The village head died after coming back from Wuhan."

On January 28, the Shuocheng district online safety group summoned Yan and carried out education and admonition.

6) On January 26, 2020, Qi XX (male, 32, from Datong city’s Kuang district) posted on Baidu Tieba’s "Huairen [county] Forum": "A group of people are sick, so what if several thousands or 100 million die …"

On January 29, the Huairen municipal Public Security Bureau summoned Qi to court, after which he made a full confession of his improper conduct. The PSB imposed a punishment of 7 days administrative detention.

Shuozhou Municipal Party Committee Cyberspace Administration Office

January 29, 2020 [Chinese]

CDT Chinese has also archived a now-deleted WeChat post by Li Yuchen, describing his eight-hour detention over postings on the Li Wenliang case on the "Rights Wall" WeChat public account. He concluded: "Dr. Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded and has now passed away, said that a healthy society should not have only one voice. […] I believe the best memorial I can give him is to keep acting as a citizen, and to keep operating Rights Wall."

Law professor Xu Zhangrun, who was suspended by Tsinghua University last year over his fierce written criticisms of Xi Jinping, commented on the public awareness "that the online terror can all too readily escape the virtual realm" in a February 4 essay. From Geremie Barmé’s translation at ChinaFile:

As the technologies being deployed to create China’s big data totalitarianism have been developed with the largesse possible because of unlimited government budgets, we are now experiencing a 1984-style of total surveillance and control. In practice this allows for what could be called “WeChat terrorism,” something directly targets China’s vast online population. The masses are, through their taxes, in fact funding a vast Internet police force that is empowered by the party-state to oversee, supervise and track every statement and action made by everyone in the country. This new canker on the body politic is a direct product of the system itself. People now live in constant anxiety, for they know that the imposition of this kind of Internet terrorism is not limited merely to the suspension or shutting down of personal WeChat accounts, or the larger enterprise of banning whole chat groups [which are a vital way for individuals to debate issues of interest]. Everyone is mindful that the online terror can all too readily escape the virtual realm and become overtly physical; that is the cases when the authorities use what they have learned online send the police to deal with online users in real-time. The resulting widespread social disquiet fosters an atmosphere of constant self-censorship and people are beset by nagging worries about what inexplicable punishment may befall them at any given moment. [Source]

In a blog post this week, legal scholar Jerome Cohen discussed such cases of "low level, low visibility police oppression":

The summoning, humiliation and intimidation of Dr. Li Wenliang and presumably seven colleagues by the Wuhan Public Security’s neighborhood police station turned attention to the frequent but usually low visibility means by which police enforce the minor offenses law, the Security Administration Punishment Law (SAPL, zhian guanli chufa-fa). It authorizes the police alone to suppress a broad range of vaguely defined offenses that are not deemed to be “crimes” and therefore not subject to the formal protections of the Criminal Procedure Law that involve the procuracy (prosecutors) and the courts. The SAPL, which accounts for many more punishments each year than the criminal process, is a major vehicle for low level, low visibility police oppression. Its maximum penalty, 15 days of detention (juliu) for each offense, is usually very unpleasant since shared with many others in uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions.

Nevertheless, as Dr. Li’s case demonstrates, actual formal detention is often unnecessary since an informal “chat”, a stern warning and insistence upon the summoned suspect’s signing a statement of apology and vow to reform is the condition for release. As Dr. Li told the NY Times: ”I felt I was wronged, but I had to accept it.” [Source]

A Cyberspace Administration of China notice translated last week by China Media Project’s David Bandurski showed that company representatives may also be "called in for discussions in accord with the law":

In recent days, the Cyberspace Administration of China has, on the basis of reports from the masses, directed local CACs to seriously deal with such information and content as the “Pipi Gaoxiao” (皮皮搞笑) online social platform which has distributed harmful short videos about the coronavirus outbreak, and has spread panic, [ordering them to] remove the app from the app store immediately. Concerning certain products on the Baidu web platform posting information in violation of regulations to users and conducting lax management, and Huxiu and other online platforms illegally engaging in internet news information services in epidemic-related reports and other problems, [the companies] have been called in for discussions in accord with the law. They have been ordered to immediately stop all illegal conduct and to carry out comprehensive and deep rectification, and these relevant online platforms [have been ordered to] close down problem sections (问题栏目). Concerning Sina Weibo, Tencent, ByteDance and other internet companies, special supervision (专项督导) will now be in effect. Concerning [the WeChat public accounts] “Netease Finance” (网易财经), “Sina Weitianxia” (新浪微天下), “Guyu Laboratory” (谷雨实验室), “Jianmeow” (史上最贱喵) and other online accounts that have illegally carried out reporting activities (自采), broadcast untrue information and other problems, they will be handed in a timely manner. [Source]

China Law Translate has posted a set of judicial opinions on the strict punishment of rumor-spreading, along with other "Violations and Crimes that Obstruct the Prevention and Control of the Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Epidemic" such as breaking quarantine or refusing treatment; threatening or attacking medical personnel; making or selling fake or substandard protective gear or medication; price hikes, fraud, or looting; and dereliction of duty or corruption in combating the outbreak.

[…] Cases of fabricating information on the epidemic should be handled precisely and appropriately in accordance with law. Malicious fabrication of epidemic information, causing social panic, stirring up public sentiment, or disrupting social order, especially maliciously attacking the Party and government, taking the opportunity to incite subversion of state power or overthrow of the socialist system, should be strictly punished in accordance with law. Where disseminating false information due to credulity and the harm is not large, it is not to handled as a crime. [Source]

As a post at Chublic Opinion noted, "anti-rumor" enforcement is not solely enacted by the authorities themselves:

[…] If things have changed in the 17 years since 2003, one clear difference is the emergence of grassroots online defenders of the state against what they see as “subversive forces”. Experts, media, and individuals may all become targets of intimidation in the name of “rumor busting” (piyao). The unifying value of such online actors (some showing signs of state coordination, others spontaneous) appears to be the upholding of social order and stability in the face of extreme uncertainty and chaos. Any utterance that is considered to incendiary or misleading is treated with harsh, and in many cases personal, criticism. Media questioning of official statistics and amplification of non-officially condoned voices run the double risk of both government censorship and punishment by public opinion. What’s tragic is that right in the middle of the Wuhan emergency, this advanced online “immune system against dissent” were activated to attack individuals with real needs and grievances.

[…] All over Weibo, desperate help seekers from the epicenter of the contagious disaster were being chased and attacked by “truth guards” for spreading rumors and misinformation. The bullying was so widespread that a user came up with a satirical guideline advising Wuhaners asking for help on Weibo to self-humiliate and apologize preemptively to the truth guards for their forgiveness. [Source]

Many commentators acknowledge the "legitimate concern that false information from any source could result in panic," but authorities have repeatedly conflated this with political criticism or simply bad PR. Further fueling anger at official "anti-rumor" measures is their prominent role in a broader climate of opacity which is taking much of the blame for the failure to contain the epidemic in its early stages. As CDT founder Xiao Qiang wrote in an op-ed at the South China Morning Post, "overbearing censorship and bureaucratic obfuscation had squandered any opportunity to get the virus under control before it had spread across Wuhan, a city of 11 million people." A statement from the China Human Rights Lawyers Group, translated at China Change, argued similarly:

It is precisely this suppression of information that has caused the virus to spread, forced countless families to be separated, and turned this into nationwide disaster and global tragedy.

Even more disturbing, the crackdown is still ongoing. […]

We do not deny that there are people who deliberately spread rumors, but a distinction must be made between rumors and incomplete information. A citizen is not an office of power; a citizen can hardly have access to completely accurate information, never mind that the data from a developing situation is always in flux. These citizens are sharing timely information based on the facts they have at hand. They are the most ardent of patriots. Theirs is the most valuable of speech. These people should be protected, not suppressed. [Source]

In a petition calling for free speech following Li Wenliang’s death, also translated at China Change, a group of intellectuals including Xu Zhangrun wrote that the epidemic’s current status is "a result of the authorities suppressing speech and the truth […] bent more on shutting off people’s mouths than preventing an epidemic. […] They have used disease control as a pretext to illegally deprive citizens of their constitutional rights, including the right to free speech, right to freedom of movement, and the right to private property. […] Where there is no free speech, there is no safety." (SCMP reports that "the petition is gaining momentum online, but some of the signatories have already come under pressure.")

In a recent interview with Vox, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Yanzhong Huang described a lack of transparency both within officialdom and toward the public and outside world. Noting the "decline and degradation of China’s non-state media industry," Chublic Opinion argued that although "the China of 2020 is economically and technologically much more advanced than the China of 2003, […] 17 years after SARS, the country had proactively dismantled a key part of its immune system against such danger." CDT Chinese editors, introducing their January censorship roundup, quoted Camus’ "The Plague": "’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."

At China Media Project, Qian Gang contrasted the efforts of Li and others to speak out with the silence of the 2,369 delegates at the Wuhan and Hubei "Two Sessions" meetings in early January, whose shadow is widely blamed for giving the outbreak time to spread.

[…] Did any delegates, including those from the medical profession, exercise their right to democratic supervision (民主监督) or political participation (参政议政), offering suggestions to the government on prevention and control of the epidemic?

[…] The 2020 “two meetings” in Hubei were the first time that “delegate channels” were set up with the idea of allowing delegates to answer questions and speak up in public. Were these interactive channels actually used to respond to the most pressing concerns of the public? Why did the media not use these channels to address questions about the epidemic to delegates?

[…] The “two sessions” are not meant to be celebrations or carnivals. The people’s congress system and the political consultation system are meant, at least in principle, to be watchtowers and protective walls safeguarding society and the people. When such an immense threat faces the well-being of the people, it is impossible not to ask serious questions about what ails this system, about what kind of virus has infected it.

[…] The coronavirus epidemic has worked like a CT scan of China’s system, exposing the deep contrast between lofty rhetoric and real conduct, and displaying the “voiding out” (虚化) of the people’s congress and political consultative systems. Millions of people are now bearing the burden of a calamity brought out by this chronic disease of the system. [Source]

From his rehabilitation after Li’s identity as a frontline doctor was revealed to the dispatch of national disciplinary inspectors after his death, central authorities have sought to deflect blame for these early whistleblowers’ treatment, while encouraging similar action elsewhere. In a ChinaFile Conversation on public anger over the outbreak, Rui Zhong noted that such deflection is "an old tactic, allowing for a small, localized stream of criticism to siphon off discontent before it overflows." Many argue, however, that local authorities’ failures are symptomatic of the broader climate aggressively cultivated by Xi Jinping himself. Andrew J. Nathan argued that "Xi has pulled a previously lax administrative system together in such a way that it is now dysfunctionally hyper-responsive to central directives but paralyzed in their absence. Xi’s version of the Chinese party-state stands revealed as a Frankenstein’s monster that flails about in response to its master’s commands, wrecking everything that it hits." Jude Blanchette commented that "this is a system-wide failure, and a thunderous repudiation of Xi’s system of governance." Still more forceful expression of this argument came from Xu Zhangrun. From ChinaFile:

Ours is a system in which The Ultimate Arbiter [an imperial-era term used by state media to describe Xi Jinping] monopolizes power. It results in what I call “organizational discombobulation” that, in turn, has served to enable a dangerous “systemic impotence” at every level. A political culture has thereby been nurtured that, in terms of the real public good, is ethically bankrupt, for it is one that strains to vouchsafe its privatized Party-State, or what they call their “Mountains and Rivers” while abandoning the people over which it holds sway to suffer the vicissitudes of a cruel fate. It is a system that turns every natural disaster into an even greater man-made catastrophe. The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance; the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state has thereby shown up as never before.

[…] The last seven decades [of the People’s Republic] have taught the people many lessons about the hazards of totalitarian government. This time around, it is the virus that is proving the point once more and in the most undeniable fashion. [Source]


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