Detentions, Site Closures Hit Archives of Censored COVID Content

Ever since the novel coronavirus emerged in China in late December, Chinese authorities have taken steps to control information about what is now a global pandemic responsible for 208,000 deaths worldwide. They have issued censorship directives, punished individuals who shared information, and detained citizen journalists who reported on the virus and official measures to control it. However, Chinese internet users concerned over both the rapid spread of the disease and government efforts to obfuscate the truth found spaces online where they could express themselves with relative freedom. The death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, who had been officially reprimanded after sharing information about the virus with his fellow medical professionals, ignited public demands for free speech, and his Weibo page has since become a “Digital Wailing Wall” where supporters leave personal messages expressing their worries and anxieties. More recently, however, the government has begun to crack down on online spaces where citizens are sharing their experiences living with COVID-19 and its repercussions. The volunteer managers of a project on GitHub, which is not blocked in China and is often used by activists to post censored content, have been detained. One volunteer, Cai Wei, and a woman surnamed Tang have been charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”–a common charge against political activists–and are being held under residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL). The whereabouts of another volunteer, Chen Mei, are unknown. From Reuters:

The two – Chen Mei and Cai Wei – have been out of contact since April 19, when police detained them in Beijing, Chen Kun, Chen Mei’s brother, told Reuters.

[…] Chen Mei, 27, and Cai, who are old friends, were volunteers with a project called Terminus2049, an open-source archive that keeps records of censored articles from Chinese media on Github, a coding platform, Chen Kun said.

[…] For a short time after the outbreak started, there was a window of relative openness for China’s online media to report aggressively on the virus.

But that ended in February as censors stepped in to shut WeChat groups, delete social media posts and tighten controls on the domestic media. [Source]

It is not clear if Tang, who is Cai’s girlfriend, was also involved with Terminus2049. Chen’s brother wrote about their detention on Twitter. AFP has more on their work, which included publishing a censored but widely shared interview with Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital:

The article, published by People magazine in March, was widely circulated by Chinese netizens in a number of languages and formats – including Morse code – to evade censorship after it was abruptly pulled from the Internet.

As China tries to control the domestic narrative surrounding the chaotic initial months of the outbreak, similar crowd-sourced initiatives have flourished on GitHub, which is used by an increasing number of tech-savvy Chinese as a last frontier against ever-tightening Internet censorship.

[…] News of the Terminus2049 trio’s disappearance made a stir online in Chinese activist circles.

“What quarrels were they picking, and what troubles were they provoking? Show me legal proof,” said the outspoken Tsinghua University sociology professor Guo Yuhua on Twitter on Sunday (April 26), referring to Mr Cai and Ms Tang’s charges. [Source]

The Committee to Protect Journalists responded to the detentions:

“China can’t change the facts of its bungled initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak and it must stop trying to cover it up,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler in Washington, D.C. “Authorities should free Cai Wei and Tang immediately and allow them to return to the important work of keeping the public informed. Authorities must also disclose if they are holding Chen Mei and, if so, must let him resume his work.”

The volunteers’ family and friends called the police after the three went missing, but were repeatedly told that they were not detained or the police had no information on their whereabouts, until Cai and Tang’s families received the Public Security Bureau’s letters, according to the Southern Idiot Observation Group. [Source]

Around the same time, a similar COVID-focused GitHub project, #nCoVMemory, changed its settings to private.

#nCoVMemory had published a range of COVID-related content, including the journal of Wuhan writer Fang Fang.

William Yang reports further on Medium:

According to a research done by Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), at least 897 Chinese citizens have been penalized by the police for commenting on the coronavirus outbreak or sharing relevant information online. One of them is Chen Chiao-Chih, a retired professor from the University of Science and Technology in Beijing.

Chen was arrested for “intentionally making up and spreading fake news” on April 17, after he shared some tweets that said “the Wuhan virus in not a Chinese virus. It’s a CCP virus” in February. The prosecutors later changed his crime to “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”

According to Leo Lan, a Research and Advocacy Consultant for CHRD, he thinks the behaviors of the three volunteers don’t constitute “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”

“The decision to arrest them shows that the Chinese government can’t even tolerate such minimum level of freedom of information,” said Lan. “The Chinese government is obviously concerned about being questioned about the authenticity of the information about coronavirus, as well as the government’s handling of the pandemic.” [Source]

Citizen journalist Li Zehua, who had disappeared in February while reporting from Wuhan, has recently reappeared, saying he was forcibly quarantined for two months. Lily Kuo reports for the Guardian:

At least three men entered his apartment, identifying themselves as public security. Li then went with them to a local police station where he was told he was being investigated on charges of disrupting public order.

Police later said they would not charge him but because he had visited “sensitive epidemic areas” he would need to undergo quarantine.

Li, who had to give his devices over to a friend, spent the next month in quarantine in Wuhan and then in his hometown in a different province. He was served three meals a day, monitored by security guards and able to watch state broadcaster CCTV’s evening newscast.

“Throughout the whole time, the police acted civilly and legally, making sure I had rest and food. They really cared about me,” he said. Li said he was released on 28 March and has been spending time with his family. He wished those who suffered during the epidemic a fast recovery. “May God bless China and the people of the world unite.”

Li’s tone and comments, neutral and patriotic, were markedly different from his previous videos. Li, who had worked for the state-broadcaster CCTV, travelled to Wuhan to report on the crisis after another citizen journalist and activist Chen Qiushi disappeared. [Source]


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