China ‘Handles’ Eight People for Posting About Wuhan Virus on Social Media

Police patrol a neighborhood on January 22, 2020 in Wuhan, China. The cause of the person's illness is as of yet unknown. A new infectious coronavirus known as "2019-nCoV" was discovered in Wuhan as the number of cases rose to over 400 in mainland China. Health officials stepped up efforts …
Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images

Local police in Wuhan, China, revealed they had “handled” the cases of eight individuals accused of publishing statements not approved by the Communist Party on social media regarding the deadly respiratory disease that recently originated in that city, Radio Free Asia (RFA) revealed on Tuesday.

Despite reportedly circulating for at least a month, Chinese authorities only revealed on Monday that they had identified the culprit of the disease as a new evolution of coronavirus, the same type of virus responsible for the 2003 outbreak of Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The SARS outbreak killed nearly 800 people, largely due to Chinese officials downplaying its lethality and keeping pivotal information from the public.

RFA reported that Wuhan police “recently” issued a public notice addressing eight cases of online “rumors” implying the individuals in question were arrested, but providing no concrete information.

“Some internet users have been publishing and forwarding fake news without verification, which has had an adverse social impact,” the police department statement reportedly read. “Eight people who engaged in illegal activities were summoned and their cases handled according to law, following a police investigation.”

The statement went on to vow to “punish” those posting comments on social media that the Communist Party disapproves of regarding the outbreak.

“Anyone posting information and comments online should abide by [China’s] laws and regulations,” the statement read. “The police will investigate and punish anyone fabricating and spreading rumors and disrupting social order.”

Online reports date the notice of “summoning” eight individuals over online comments back to January 1, long before the Wuhan virus had made news publicly in the West. At press time, there is no information regarding who the individuals “handled” were, what punishment awaited them, or if they remain in police custody.

Chinese officials closely monitor online social media activity. Most Western social media outlets, such as Twitter and Facebook, are banned. Instead, Chinese citizens have access to Weibo, a Facebook equivalent heavily regulated by the Communist Party. Most of the discourse Beijing censors is open criticism of the Party, but censors have extended their reach to anything that could be interpreted as mockery or criticism. For example, China banned references to Winnie the Pooh after Chinese users began comparing portly dictator Xi Jinping to the cartoon bear. Following Xi’s declaration that he would extend his tenure as “president,” commander-in-chief, and head of the Communist Party, censors blocked phrases such as “I don’t agree” and “election term.”

Every June, Chinese censors extend their reach to a variety of seemingly random words that dissidents have used to raise awareness of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which Beijing heavily censors. The Communist Party is believed to have killed over 1 million protesters in the capital on June 4 of that year for demanding basic civic rights.

Last June, on the 30th anniversary of the killing, Chinese internet censors banned words such as “today” and “candle,” a reference to peace vigils for the victims, from social media.

On the developing situation in Wuhan, Chinese censors appear to be allowing some mild criticisms, but only of the local Wuhan government, while Communist Party media applaud Beijing for its alleged openness on the matter. China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission also helped create the image of a forthright China on public health by declaring in a social media post that any local official trying to make the number of cases appear smaller than they are or otherwise minimizing the situation “will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.”

Global health authorities have identified 481 cases of Wuhan virus since Wednesday morning, most of them within China. Other nations identifying patients are Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, and the United States. Hong Kong and Macau have also documented cases. Nine people have died, according to Chinese officials.

The Wuhan virus triggers respiratory illness and pneumonia; it appears to cause more damage in individuals with immune systems weakened by other medical conditions.

RFA noted that health experts are concerned that China has lied about the number of cases documented. Given the exponential growth of the number of proven cases – the number was under 300 on Monday – the virus appears to spread rapidly. Chinese officials also initially denied they had evidence that the virus spread person-to-person, claiming that all patients had had contact with the original source of the virus, but ultimately conceded this was not the case when health workers outside of Wuhan tested positive for the coronavirus. Authorities claim to believe the source is animal meat from a Wuhan seafood market.

“Under this autocratic regime, officials at any level of government are never held accountable to the people, only to their superiors. All they have to do is to sit on information and cover up the truth, because their future is determined by their bosses,” human rights lawyer Xie Yanyi told RFA. “They’re haven’t learned anything from SARS back then, and they are continuing to cover things up.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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