CDT Censorship Digest, March 2020: With Every Disaster Comes a Battle for Freedom

In 2020, CDT Chinese editors launched 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 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

CDT Chinese | Chinese Censorship Digest, March 2020: Truth-tellers VS Totalitarian Lies and Fear

Along with every manmade and natural disaster, there is bound to be a battle for the freedom to discern between true and false. This time, that battle started along with the epidemic, but it won’t stop as the epidemic is contained and finally ends. The fear and lies manufactured by the state machinery sometimes seem more realistic than life, how do we break out of a reality based on lies and fear?

Havel answered it simply: by “living the truth.” According to Havel, “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.” Telling the truth and acting along with human nature and conscience are extremely bad for totalitarianism. “The virus of truth […] slowly spread[s] through the tissue of the life of lies, gradually causing it to disintegrate.” Havel likens the power of truth to the child who first yelled “he is naked” in Andersen’s short tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” He was able to gather the moral support of all, and therefore was more powerful than anything.

In March, the Chinese people “spoke and acted along with human nature” again and again, using the power of truth to break out of a reality constructed by fear and lies. From Wuhan citizens shouting, “Everything is fake,” to the relay race around the “one who supplied the whistle,” to the countless Weibo messages each day about Li Wenliang, the people time and time again broke through the lies by resisting censorship. They showed the power of civil disobedience against totalitarianism and censorship, and created a marvel of online resistance.

Also in March, an article said to be written by Ren Zhiqiang circulated the internet. The article described Xi Jinping as a “clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor.” This was a perfect analogy. China’s propaganda machines and bureaucrats were stripped naked over and over again in March, but still insisted to act as emperors. The carols of Great Victory are still staged according to totalitarian logic. Even as the people repeatedly shout that it’s all fake, they continue performing earnestly. Born from this, the absurdity of totalitarianism penetrates every cell of society, but it is the innocent who pay the price for this absurdity.

1) The Strictest Control of Expression Since 2013

On March 1, new regulations on internet expression were formally implemented. Many internet users believe that this is the strictest control of expression to occur since 2013: the CCP not only blocked speech, it also simultaneously banned WeChat account holders; it blocked not only domestic accounts, but also those of overseas Chinese; not only targeted anti-CCP speech, but also remarks that supported the Party (this was due to a need to block inner-Party factions that don’t support Xi). Moreover, the Party established county-level internet police, and required all major websites to be open to the internet police.

After the epidemic situation was gradually brought under control in various regions of the country, the virus of these “speech crimes” continued to wreak havoc.

On February 6, the death of Wuhan Central Hospital Doctor Li Wenliang aroused an intense reaction among the people, and public opinion quickly soured. What started as a commemoration of Dr. Li and a request that the Wuhan government apologize evolved into a call to abolish fierce restrictions on free speech, starting a society-wide truth-telling campaign. This did not move authorities to relax controls on news about the novel coronavirus–or on people who shared the truth. From January 1 to March 21, web users collected “Wuhan Pneumonia Topics” in the “Inventory of China’s Recent Literary Inquisitions,” finding 469 incidents of various punishment–from the earliest whistleblowers Ai Fen and Li Wenliang, to netizens in counties and cities across the country. A text message to a circle of friends or a small video would subject them to various penalties, admonishments, fines, detentions, etc. After the epidemic situation had gradually been controlled in various regions of the country, the virus of these “speech crimes” continued to wreak havoc.

Even more shocking was the control of news reports. According to incomplete statistics from Nanjing Normal University School of Journalism and Communication’s [weekly publication] YouYoung, “there are 18 mainstream media outlets, including BeiqingShenYidu, Freezing Point Weekly, Caijing Magazine, Caixin Online, ThePaper, China News Service, and others, which were managed at one time or another, affecting comparatively large self-media who saw 41 reports deleted or blocked.”

Among the disappeared news reports were, from the earliest news published on January 23 “Conversation with Wuhan Medical Staff: isolation wards saturated, infected colleagues at our sides,”  to the March 10 People public account publishing “The One Who Provided the Whistle” and the March 13 China Youth Daily “Freezing Point” issue “Wuhan Central Hospital Doctor: Infectious Disease Leaves Little Time for Response.” Some of these disappeared inexplicably and were quickly forgotten, while others remain in the public memory after their disappearances.

According to YouYoung’s count, in the time from February 4 to 27, and again in the 12 days from March 2 to 13, every day saw news reports erased from the internet:

Most of the sentiment contained in the “disappeared” reports, most of them touched on strategic  government “faults,” the difficulty of the situation facing Hubei residents, and the general lack of optimism in the epidemic or other “negative facts.” So, the majority of these reports are inclined towards a negative emotion. [Chinese]

Therefore, as one could imagine, the people would only hear good news. As commentator Chang Ping said [translated into English by China Change, original available at CDT Chinese]:

As with every disaster in China, after things hit rock bottom, there’s no bad news left, only good news. The deaths of tens of millions of Chinese [in the Great Leap Forward famine] and the nationwide social collapse [caused by the Cultural Revolution] made everything in the “reform and opening up” era seem like a great achievement. People can do business, they can go to school, they can migrate…… Such rights, all of which are taken for granted in normal countries, are somehow all gifts of the Party’s wise leadership when it comes to China.

The novel coronavirus epidemic is another opportunity for the CCP to sing its own praises. As of now, what the Party has handled in the most stable and orderly fashion, what is most “preventable and controllable,” is not medical treatment, but propaganda and stability maintenance. Even with the epidemic at its worst, songs eulogizing the Party could be heard coming from the hospital wards. Although thousands of families are now forever bereft of their loved ones, and the number of deaths continues to rise, the Party cannot wait to celebrate its successes at the first sign that new cases are decreasing. [Source]

Of course, the YouYoung article was also quickly deleted, and just like the 41 stories it mentioned, could not be stored in the public memory. From Chang Ping, “If someone wants to issue criticism, the new March 1 internet management regulations are there to serve them.”

By the middle of March, the number of new coronavirus infections on the mainland had begun its return to zero, “but amid this unprecedented epidemic, there was one group of people who used their own style of observation, recording, and evaluating, and lost contact with the outside world,” to quote Deutsche Welle. By mid-March online information said that property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang had been “detained” [under the liuzhi system] by the Beijing Commission for Disciplinary Inspection in a training center in the Mangshan suburb of Beijing. News followed that he had been taken away by the Beijing Commission, because he had recently written the essay “People’s Lives are Being Ravaged by Both the Virus and the Major Illness of the System.”  In the article, [the property tycoon and vocal government critic] Ren Zhiqiang criticized the destructive effect the CCP’s authoritarian system has on epidemic prevention and control, and he said that Xi Jinping is a “clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor.”

Additionally, three citizen reporters–Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and Li Zehua–as well as the fleeing Xu Zhiyong, all went missing in February. So far, there has been no news of their whereabouts.

2) Wuhan City Residents: “Everything is Fake”

Like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” here it was a woman’s scream that exposed this self-congratulatory sham.

On March 5, China’s Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan visited the Kaiyuan community in Wuhan’s Qingshan District to inspect epidemic prevention and control efforts. From a floor above, a woman yelled, “Fake! Everything is fake!” “Everything you’re seeing is fake!” The shouts rang out, one after another, through the neighborhood.

That shouting woman thought that the higher-ups didn’t know that the lower-downs were faking it. This shows her naiveté. The higher-ups aren’t faking it? Think back to the hundred thousand jin yield per mu reported by the People’s Daily [during the Great Leap Forward], and to the ongoing cover-up of this epidemic. How could they not know! But objectively speaking, she has revealed the coordinated pretense being put on by the highest and lowest levels of government. She’s put them all on alert that we, the people of this country, know what they’re up to, that it’s a sham, that you’re ridiculous. Now that is something to think about. [Source]

However, even when the trickery has been exposed, that doesn’t mean officials will stop their act. The next day, on the evening of March 6, during a video meeting of the Novel Coronavirus Epidemic Prevention and Control Command, Hubei Province Party Standing Committee member and Wuhan Municipal Party Secretary Wang Zhonglin stated: “We must begin educating the entire city population to feel thankful, thankful to the General Secretary, thankful to the Communist Party; to listen to the Party, to go with the Party, to form a strong positive energy.” Wang Zhonglin continued, “The people of Wuhan are heroic people. They are also people who know how to be thankful.” Up to and including that day, there were already 49,871 confirmed cases in Wuhan and 2,349 dead. Because of the early failure to act, they had no way to deal with the explosive spread of the virus. Many deaths were not included in official tallies, and more secondary injuries went unreported. You want the people of Wuhan to be thankful, now!? As Chu Chaoxin said, they wouldn’t be asking the traumatized people of Wuhan to be thankful if they had any human decency at all:

Two-thousand forty-nine lives. Two-thousand forty-nine deaths. Their bodies still warm. Their families, friends, and classmates all still grieving. Their families, friends, and classmates remain laying in hospitals, waiting to be saved. They don’t even have the energy to mourn, and now there are people who want to educate them to be thankful. This is inhumane. [Chinese]

On the same day, CCTV Morning News aired a portion of an interview in which a doctor asked an old man on a hospital bed, “Does your throat hurt today?” The old man replied, “No, it doesn’t.” The doctor then asked, “Do you feel shortness of breath?” The old man, unexpectedly, replied, “What’s better, short or long?” It felt a little “coerced.” The doctor continued to coach him how to respond. Some people online wondered if this was staged, because the old man was “full of energy and responded very loud and clear.” It seemed he wanted to give positive answers.

Perhaps this is much ado about nothing for us and the people of Wuhan. As a Southern Weekend reporter said:

This actually isn’t making a fuss about nothing. Just as Danjiangkou Municipal Party Committee Secretary put it, asking rhetorically: “What place isn’t making things up?” The next line should probably be: “Which official is not a fake?” [Chinese]

Right after that, on March 10, Xi Jinping traveled to Wuhan to inspect epidemic efforts. In official media reports, Xi’s image was one of care for the people as he “personally rushed to the front lines.” However, many social media users show evidence of efforts to “fabricate” an air of harmony and stability before, during, and after Xi’s visit. On the same day, a video surfaced showing “onlookers” making sure that it was time to start shouting: “Can we start shouting?” “Yes, you can start shouting!” Xi, himself, either consciously or unconsciously, became one of the actors.

3) The One Who Provided the Whistle: A Large-scale Manifestation of Digital Disobedience

The March issue of People (人物) magazine was published on March 10. Its cover article was titled “The One Who Provided the Whistle” (发哨子的人), which featured an interview with Wuhan Central Hospital emergency medicine director Ai Fen:

In the beginning, we had a chance to avoid this tragedy. On December 30, 2019, Ai Fen received viral test results from a patient with an unidentified pneumonia. She circled in red the words “SARS Coronavirus.” When a former college classmate of hers asked about it, she took a picture of the test and sent it to the classmate, who is also a doctor. By that evening, the report had been shared throughout Wuhan physician circles. Among those who shared this report were those eight doctors admonished by the police.

This caused problems for Ai Fen. As the originator of this information, she was called in for a talk with the hospital disciplinary commission. She received an “unprecedented, severe rebuke.” They said she was a professional spreading rumors.

Ai Fen was interviewed by “People” on the afternoon of March 2 at the Nanjing Road campus of Wuhan Central Hospital. She sat alone in the emergency department office. Once bursting with over 1,500 patients, the emergency department had returned to quiet. The emergency department lobby was occupied only by a homeless man laying on the floor.

In previous reporting, Ai Fen was called “another admonished female doctor.” She had even been called a “whistleblower.” Ai Fen corrected these statements. She said she herself was not a whistleblower. She was a “whistle provider.” Ai Fen used the word “regret” multiple times during the interview. She regretted not continuing to sound the alarm after she was called in for her talk, especially when considering her colleagues who had passed away. “If I would have known then what I know today, it wouldn’t matter if they criticized me or not. ‘Laozi says it everywhere’ you know?” [Chinese]

The article caused an uproar. Ai Fen’s phrase, “Laozi says it everywhere,” became an instant catchphrase. The words “Ai Fen” (艾芬) and “whistle” (哨子) became sensitive. Because of this, the article was blocked immediately, it disappeared around 11:40 a.m. the same day. Netizens surmised it was blocked for the following reason:

“The One Who Provided the Whistle” shouldn’t have been an article in need of  “harmonization,” no matter how you look at it.

Actually, it’s more like a song of praise to the “healer’s heart” of medical professionals during this epidemic.

Through this article, we’ve gained a more profound understanding of the life-saving spirit in the bones of doctors (especially in those families with multiple generations of doctors). If you had to find some fault in this article, there’s only one valid point: it touched a nerve with a certain group of people because it may have had something to do with tracing back responsibility. [Chinese]

After it was “harmonized,” netizens began sharing the article with an array of methods. Some changed out the sensitive words. Some shared it as an image. There were even some who sent it in audio form. Over ten different versions of the article emerged that day, with each successive one also eventually becoming blocked. This appeared to anger netizens even more. They began to share the article in even more creative ways: in various foreign languages, in Braille, in Morse code, in “Martian script,” and many more, including Elvish and Klingon. To them, sharing the article was a kind of protest against censorship. “The One Who Provided the Whistle” became an online movement against censorship that had never been seen before, a “large-scale netizen disobedience performance art piece.” One netizen believed this to be an iconic event in the “404 Era.” To remember this large-scale performance art exhibition, this act of “digital disobedience,” CDT Chinese editors have compiled the various versions of “The One Who Provided the Whistle,” and an English explanation is available in the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon.

4) Li Wenliang’s Weibo: China’s Wailing Wall, a Bastion of Expression

Another, ongoing internet marvel occurred on Dr. Li Wenliang’s Weibo in March. Wuhan Central Hospital ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang died on February 2 from complications caused by the novel coronavirus. He posted his last message on February 1: “Today’s nucleic acid test came back positive. The dust has settled, there is finally a diagnosis.” Since his passing, this final post has stayed alive. Underneath this post, countless netizens leave him messages everyday. The comments grow in number by the minute. Someone wishing that he say hello to their father in the afterlife. Someone coming to chat about adopting a stray cat. A kid under mountainous pressure about to take an exam. A pregnant woman woken by nausea in the middle of the night. Someone complaining about their love life. Even someone talking about the current situation with the stock market. They come to share wonderful news and horrible news. Some even know Li Wenliang was a foodie, so they leave him pictures of amazing dishes. One netizen described the busy scene in a blogpost:

Since the news of Li Wenliang’s death on the evening of February 7, over 10,000 comments have flooded this Weibo post every single day with no exceptions.

As of March 16, over 39 days, 619,000 people have left a comment. In other words, if you could read 10 comments a minute for three hours a day, you’d need almost a year to read them all. But you still couldn’t, because a new comment is born roughly every minute—at least another ten thousand each day. [Chinese]

This ordinary ophthalmologist, who tragically became a hero for speaking the truth during the Wuhan outbreak, has not been forgotten by the people. His brilliant epitaph has become: a brave “whistleblower” for public health and safety. He’s even become like an intimately close brother on the internet, as some comments show: “Tens of thousands write their daily diary here.” “So many ears resolutely remember your long-sounding whistle.” Netizens have been commenting here about their struggles–against censorship, against forgetting, against anger, against apathy, against malice–as if they’re sharing their lives in confidence with Li Wenliang. As Weibo user @一朵默默绽放的花儿 put it, “Li Wenliang’s Weibo has become a ‘digital Wailing Wall,’ a safe place for people’s kindness.”

On the day Li Wenliang passed away, there was an outbreak of anger online. The National Supervisory Commission established an investigation group the same day. Their long-overdue report was released 43 days later. On March 19, the National Supervisory Commission published the “Results of the Investigation into the Mass Reaction to the Situation Regarding Dr. Li Wenliang.” In it, they state, due to the improper admonishment issued by the Zhongnan Road Police Station and irregular law enforcement procedures, the investigation team has recommended that the supervisory authorities of the city of Wuhan and Hubei Province supervise and rectify the matter, urge public security organs to revoke the admonishment, hold relevant personnel accountable, and promptly publish the results of this processing. But, asked  @金融黑天鹅 on WeChat, even though Li Wenliang’s official admonishment had been revoked, will we be free from similar admonishments in the future?

This evening, we are delighted to see that Li Wenliang’s admonishment has been revoked. However, we really hope that we don’t see the same mistake twice. We look forward to a future in which each one of us has the freedom to speak. Even if something wrong is said, we should be free from official admonishment. This is not some great demand. This is the most basic of demands. Public authorities must genuinely take the lead in following the law! [Chinese]

On March 19, the comment count on Dr. Li Wenliang’s final post suddenly increased by 100,000. Countless netizens flooded onto Li Wenliang’s Weibo to tell him the results of the investigation, and to ask the doctor, can you now rest in peace? On March 20, Deutsche Welle’s Chang Ping wrote:

Netizens describe this investigation as “sailing a mammoth mothership out to sea, but bringing only a single mudfish back for all their effort.” “More cannon fodder. They’ve found a few scapegoats. They finished wronging the doctors, now they’re wronging the police.” “Dr. Li, they’re only dealing with those who carried out the policies—not with who set the policies.” “Local police write an admonishment letter, and even CCTV knows about it. First they report one thing, then the opposite. Do they see us ordinary folk as damn fools? It really is like the saying goes: They know they’re lying. They know we know they’re lying. We know they know we know they’re lying. And yet, they go on lying!” [Chinese]

Chang Ping continues: “This is the same as every time we go through a man-made public disaster—this is a public opinion street war between the people and the propaganda department. In this street war, which is being waged everywhere, Li Wenliang’s Weibo post acts as a bastion. It’s presently occupied by the populace, who are completely enraged. Even though the vast majority of commentary is being made incredibly carefully, avoiding things that are too sensitive or provocative, it’s a place for releasing emotion. However, the propaganda department won’t just sit idly by and watch.”

Up to today, Li Wenliang’s final post remains online, and the propaganda department obviously won’t only sit idly and watch. Some suspect they see it as a thorn in their side. In order to protect this bastion, this Wailing Wall, CDT Chinese is collecting the best comments each day, and will continue until the account is closed. CDT English has also translated some of these comments and will continue to do so while possible.

5) The Grain of Sand of This Era; How Could I Cry?

At the end of February, a YouTuber’s rendition of the song “How Could I Cry?” was uploaded to YouTube, to commemorate the medical workers sacrificed during the novel coronavirus epidemic. It quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

Official statistics on February 14 showed a total of 1,716 confirmed infections among medical workers. Six of those have been confirmed to have died because of novel coronavirus, making up 0.4% of coronavirus deaths nationwide. Southern Metropolis Daily reports that as of February 8 at least seven medical workers died at their posts during the epidemic.

The WHO-China Joint Mission on COVID-19 held a press conference on February 24, during which they announced there had been 3,387 cases of coronavirus infections among medical workers at 476 medical organizations total nationwide (2,055 confirmed cases through testing, 1,070 clinical diagnoses, and 157 suspected cases). Of these, 3,062 were in Hubei Province, making up over 90%.

After gaining control of the outbreak, however, some problems arose regarding issuance of relief payments. Not only were many doctors and nurses unable to get subsidies, in some places, authorities wanted previously issued subsidies returned. From @叶正松’s WeChat:

According to many colleagues, the applications for February 11 to March 11 were different than the current ones. In some places, some money was given out in line with the original papers, some for 300 days, some for 200 days. However, these payments were later returned to the hospital in the form of cash, to be re-administered according to the March 12 paperwork. By this point, these places were no longer the frontlines anymore!

The so-called March 12 paperwork is the “Notice Regarding the Focus on Implementing Measures for the Love, Care, and Protection of Frontline Medical Workers.” This document clearly defines “frontline medical workers” as only those personnel that both “directly take part” and “come in direct contact with confirmed or suspected cases.” Only then are they able to receive subsidies. [Chinese]

On March 26, the skies were gloomy over Wuhan. At a Hankou funeral home, relatives formed a long line waiting for an urn to be brought in. There weren’t any funeral songs, but there were deleted posts:

Here, death is just a number. Actually, it’s not even that for those who passed away before being tested.

One Wuhan girl said: why would a picture of people lining up at a Hankou funeral home be blocked or banned? I was there throughout the entire process. The neighborhood reserved a time. We went to the funeral home at eight o’clock and waited four hours. How many sad and indignant relatives there were, and yet there was nothing they could do but just accept it. How many people, never having been tested, become nothing but a cold box in the end? Those outside of the numbers—are they just forgotten? Not worth a mention? [Chinese]

Online, one person after another took turns guessing the number of dead. The masses spoke: it’s time to make the numbers from Wuhan funeral homes public!

By facing up to these cold statistics, we send the deceased a little bit of warmth.

By releasing the funeral home statistics from the last three months, it would not only provide the people with a clear response and eliminate some distrust, it would also allow us to gain a comprehensive, critical understanding of the epidemic, and to sufficiently learn its lessons. [Chinese]

But, Wuhan’s real coronavirus death numbers? Perhaps the reality is “uncountable,” asks CDT Chinese:

Not long after the “novel coronavirus” broke out, people quickly expressed serious doubt over the accuracy of China’s officially publicized confirmed case and death numbers in Wuhan (and the entire country). This doubt has remained throughout the entire epidemic. Actions taken by truth-seeking netizens and media have been met with suppression.

On February 19, even if it was already impossible to learn the truth about the epidemic because of the methods the authorities used to tally the deaths, related departments were still playing with the numbers, as the report “PH Notes | Wuhan Lockdown Day 29: Counting Standards Once Again Changed” points out.

On February 25, CDT learned of a website called “Wuhan · Humanity” that collected discussion underneath the Sina Supertopic “Coronavirus Patients Asking for Help.” Thousands of calls for help were recorded on the channel. (Sina later deleted a large amount of these posts.) Perhaps many of the cases described herein had not been included in official counts. [Chinese]

In the face of this huge, unprecedented disaster, in addition to the unfortunate direct victims, there are also many suffering secondary harm. Wuhan-based Author Fang Fang said: “The grain of sand of this era is like a mountain fallen onto the heads of ordinary people.” So many “little people” have fallen onto “hard times” because of this epidemic. On March 2, CDT started the “The grain of sand of this era” tag. A large number of “ordinary people” shared their struggles during the epidemic period using this tag. Some of these writings are shared below.

In the essay “That Year’s Thousand Arrows Through the Heart, That Year’s Desolation,” author Liu Yuan asks what we will remember after this great disaster. He implores us to remember those cold-blooded experts and that cold-blooded bureaucracy. Remember those whose lives stopped this winter. Remember this winter’s orphans. Remember those medical workers who risked their lives. Remember those who spoke the truth, whether it was with their words or with their actions. But, don’t be surprised if sadness wells up from within from time to time. Liu ends the essay recalling lyrics from a song he heard online that moved him amid the crisis:

Newborns’ cries that year
Elderly with nothing to depend on that year
The resentment that year
The turning of the wheel of life and death that year

The whole town turned out that year
Carefully catching your breath that year
The iron bars caging the arrogant that year
The souls crying over the Late Qing that year

Hard to discern day from night that year
Hoping for sunny days ahead that year [Chinese]

Translation by Little Bluegill and Josh Rudolph. Original Chinese post by CDT Chinese


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