“Citizen journalists” and “netizens” in China who are critical of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak are apparently being “disappeared.” Winning most attention are two cases from Wuhan, infamously the epicenter of the outbreak. Wuhan businessman Fang Bin was posting videos to YouTube (presumably through a VPN) to “report on the actual situation here,” with one on Feb. 1 seeming to show eight corpses piled in a minibus outside a hospital, going viral. On Feb. 9, he posted a 13-second video with the words “All people revolt—hand the power of the government back to the people.” After that, the account went silent. The other is Chen Qiushi, a human rights lawyer turned video journalist who built a reputation through his coverage of the Hong Kong protests last year and in late January traveled to Wuhan to report on the situation. He visited hospitals in the stricken city, looking at the desperate conditions and speaking with patients. Then, on Feb. 7, a video was shared on his Twitter account (currently managed by a friend) featuring his mother, who said he had gone missing the day before. His friend, Xu Xiaodong, later claimed in a YouTube video that he had been forcibly quarantined. (BBC News, Feb. 14)
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists is calling on the Chinese government to “immediately account for the whereabouts of journalist Chen Qiushi, and ensure that the media can cover the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan without fear of retribution.”
Wuhan has been on lockdown since Jan. 23, and harsh restrictions on movement have now spread beyond Hubei province to several provinces across central and eastern China. (Bloomberg, Feb. 11) The coastal province of Zhejiang, immediately south of Shanghai, has imposed a “draconian quarantine,” according to the South China Morning Post. Some residents are being locked inside their homes. while others must present a “passport” to go out every two days for supplies.
In the south, the cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen have imposed measures allowing the governments to seize private property under emergency powers—marking a first since the establishment of China’s property law in 2007. (HKFP, Feb. 12)
In at least one city—Wenzhou in Zhejiang province—public anger over the government’s reaction to the crisis has actually spilled into street protest. A YouTube video dated Feb. 5 showed crowds gathering on a roadway, chanting and shouting angrily, as riot police close in. A scuffle breaks out as the video ends.
Most of the dissent has been online—and not only on VPN-accessed officially blocked sites like YouTube and Twitter, but China’s own Sina Weibo. Outcry has seemingly been so overwhelming that the government’s very industrious censors are having a hard time keeping up. It is especially taking the form of homages a young Wuhan doctor, Li Wenliang, who tried to raise the alarm about the virus back in December before it was out of control—only to be silenced by police, who told him to stop “making false comments.” He continued working at the overwhelmed Wuhan Central Hospital, and last week succumbed to the virus. (BBC News, Feb. 7)
It is likely that many dissident netizens have been detained or “quarantined” apart from those cases that have reached the outside word. Radio Free Asia reports that seven have been detained in Tibet for spreading “rumors” online.
Among the items that have slipped through the censors is horrific video footage from Wuhan of men in hazmat suits apparently dragging people from their homes to be forcibly quarantined. (Daily Mail) One Wuhan resident with an ailing father in her home was able to reach BBC News. “We’d rather die at home than go to quarantine,” she said. “My uncle actually died in one of the quarantine points because there are no medical facilities for people with severe symptoms. I really hope my father can get some proper treatment but no-one is in contact with us or helping us at the moment.”
States a commentary in Japan Times: “For the first time since coming to power, Xi’s high-tech censorship machine is meeting with intense resistance from millions of Chinese internet users. The controlocracy is being put to the test. Most likely, though, the outbreak itself will be used to justify even more surveillance and control of the population.”
Chna’s leaders seem to be aware of the potential threat to the legitimacy of their rule. Xi Jinping presided over a meeting of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee to discuss the crisis last week. An official statement released by state news agency Xinhua said the leaders acknowledged the epidemic poses “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance…” (SCMP, Feb. 8)
Dissident legal scholar Xu Zhangrun has written an essay entitled “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear,” which is online in translation at the website ChinaFile. Xu blames the current national crisis on “systemic impotence” that Xi has fostered through an atmosphere of intimidation. “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.” He implies that the regime may be facing the biggest challenge to its legitimacy since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. (The Guardian. Feb. 11)
Hong Kong-based ChinaWorker website sees the crisis of legitimacy as a dual one, with the coronavirus outbreak and draconian response closely following the protests in the semi-autonomous city: “Coming in rapid succession, and further accentuated by an unprecedented superpower struggle with US imperialism (with the epidemic destined to become an additional battleground in this conflict), these crises have begun to sap the confidence of China’s ruling elite and its previously rock solid belief in the CCP’s authoritarian capitalist model. Xi, the ‘strongman’ who was charged with rescuing CCP rule, looks more likely to trigger its downfall.”
Ironically and tellingly, the current panic has put a media spotlight back on Jiang Yanyong, the military surgeon who exposed the government’s cover-up of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003. It now emerges that he has been under house arrest since last year, after he wrote to the top leadership asking for a reassessment of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement and its repression. (The Guardian, Feb. 9)
We will close by recalling that two of the cities most impacted in the current crisis have been the scene of protests over the past years. Wuhan was shaken by demonstrations over placement of a waste incinerator last June. Wenzhou saw two eruptions of protest in 2012: First, in May, a migrant worker was killed in a clash with factory security guards over a wage dispute, leading to riots and street-fighting. (BBC News, May 30, 2012) Then, in November, residents in Liuliang and Fangbei villages, within Wenzhou prefecture, clashed with police in a protest against the construction of power pylons over their homes. (SCMP, Nov. 22, 2012)
And we can be sure that China’s rulers are now recalling the long revolutionary legacy in Wuhan. In July 1967, it was the scene of the notorious Wuhan Incident in the Cultural Revolution, in which workers and local military commanders in the city rose up against Mao Zedong. In 1927, after the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Nanjing unleashed its brutal repression of Chiang’s erstwhile allies the Communists, a rival left-wing Kuomintang-Communist government was established in Wuhan, claiming to be the legitimate capital of all China. And the historic October 10, 1911 uprising that ultimately turned into the revolution that brought down the Qing Dynasty began in Wuchang, a district of Wuhan prefecture.
1911, 1949, 2020? You can bet that there is fear in the Zhongnanhai today….
Image via YouTube