China wants to keep coronavirus critics silent – but its journalists are fighting back

China has been frantically trying to contain coronavirus for several months, but it is secretly waging another fight during the crisis – with the country’s journalists.

China’s journalists say it all started with the death of Dr Li Wenliang – a whistleblower whose attempt to warn the country about the coronavirus outbreak was silenced by the government. He died on 6 February after contracting the disease.

His death set off a wave of outrage across major social media platforms, as citizens initiated a short-lived online campaign demanding freedom of speech. Relevant posts were deleted by the Chinese government within hours, but the incident further strengthened citizens’ determination to preserve the truth of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Li Wenliang was a normal guy with a good conscience and people see themselves in him,” Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Independent.

“His death illustrates that anyone could die in this system of deception, suppression and zero accountability.”

Several prominent citizen journalists tried to take advantage of the brief window of openness to reveal the real situation in Wuhan.

Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua were briefly popular after uploading rare video footage from Wuhan to Youtube and Twitter. However, all three were soon forced into disappearance by the government in February and have not been seen in public since.

Ethan Chen* said Li Wenliang’s death pushed him to challenge Beijing’s narrative around the disease – but he too fears he might suffer the same fate as his colleagues.

“The government doesn’t want Chinese citizens to have access to information that contradicts the official narrative, so they always try to silence whistleblowers by taking them out of the picture,” Chen told The Independent.

“Their disappearance reminds me that as a journalist, there are certain duties that I’m supposed to fulfil when the government tries to bury all the truth – I have the responsibility to write down what I have seen and experienced during the outbreak.

“Many people have been detained for speaking up about the truth, and I honestly am expecting that something similar will happen to me sooner or later.”

Censoring sensitive content online is only one of many ways that the Chinese government silences critics. Hu Jia, a prominent Chinese activist, is no stranger to the wide range of methods that Beijing uses to oppress anyone who hopes to reveal truth during major crises.

On 31 January, hours before he was scheduled to join a talk show on Radio Free Asia (RFA) to talk about the coronavirus outbreak, several police knocked on the door of Hu’s residence, asking him what he’d been up to.

“Then they asked whether I’ve been accepting media interviews, and warned that I shouldn’t be stabbing the Chinese government’s back when the whole country was united to fight against the coronavirus,” Hu recalled.

The argument lasted for more than half an hour, and in the end, the police warned that if Hu insisted on joining the show on RFA, that would leave them with no choice but to “follow the drill”.

Then around 11 pm that night, police showed up at his door again. This time, they asked Hu to go downstairs with them. Once he went downstairs, the police got into an argument with him again.

“They quarrelled with me until they made sure that I wouldn’t be able to make it for the Radio Free Asia’s talk show,” Hu said“I brought my cellphone with me, in case producers from Radio Free Asia wanted to reach me. But the police made it really clear that if I tried to use my phone while quarrelling with them, they would use extreme measures against me.”

After that evening, Hu was put under house arrest for 16 days.

“I have been detained multiple times since in 2001, yet every time I was arrested for comments I made, it made me understand the reason why freedom of speech is so important to a functioning civil society,” Hu said.

“Unfortunately, I also paid a huge price for defending freedom of speech. I need to sacrifice my personal freedom, dignity and safety in order to keep raising awareness.”

Chinese journalists are now trying to keep the truth about the coronavirus outbreak alive by moving information shared by citizens to places beyond Beijing’s reach.

Several citizen-initiated projects have been set up on GitHub and other platforms. These projects gather personal narratives and Chinese news reports about the coronavirus outbreak across different social media platforms and online forums in China.

One of the projects is called “Memories of the 2020 coronavirus outbreak,” which is started by seven volunteers around the world and aims at “establishing a database for researchers studying epidemic prevention and internet users.”

But rights activists warn that ultimately, it is Beijing who is winning in this tug of war.

“The Chinese government has been increasingly restricting the use of VPNs by Chinese citizens, and we can expect that their moves will make circumvention over the internet censorship even harder for citizens in the future,” Wang from HRW said.

“They can also just silence whoever they want by arbitrarily detaining them.”