China’s Supreme People’s Court condemned local police in Wuhan on Tuesday for having arrested and reportedly released individuals sharing information on social media regarding the ongoing viral epidemic there. Other wings of the Communist Party, meanwhile, continued to warn citizens to be silent about the outbreak in public.
The repudiation from Beijing follows increasingly loud Chinese state media griping that local officials in Wuhan have failed to properly respond to the viral outbreak and attempting to redirect public outrage for the slow response to the disease from Beijing back to Wuhan. Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang accepted some of the blame for the secrecy surrounding the outbreak in a press conference on Sunday, but also subtly blamed Beijing’s stringent protocol for keeping quiet, insisting he did not have authority as the most powerful official in Wuhan to release public health information without Communist Party approval.
The Beijing-controlled Global Times newspaper called Zhou’s press conference a “disaster.”
Wuhan officials shut down a wild game and seafood market on January 1 after locals began hearing of a new disease spreading in the city. It took nearly a month for Chinese Communist Party officials to tell the world they had identified a never-before-seen virus spreading in the city and causing deadly pneumonia, by which millions of people had left Wuhan for Lunar New Year.
The virus is believed to be highly contagious and has officially infected over 6,000 people so far, most in China.
The Supreme People’s Court posted a message on a Chinese social media page wryly predicting that, if Wuhan police had not started to detain and “handle” people who posted information about the virus online, many residents would have “started to wear masks and carry out sanitation measures,” curbing the virus’s spread, the South China Morning Post reported.
“If rumours are proved [to be true] time after time, then the people will naturally choose to believe them in times of a breaking event,” a judge on the top court wrote. “To punish any information not totally accurate is neither legally necessary nor technically possible. … It … undermines the credibility of the government and chips away at public support for the Communist Party. It could even be used by hostile overseas forces as an excuse to criticize us.”
The message was a response to Wuhan police issuing a public notice last week in which the administration claimed it had “handled” eight individuals for posting on social media about the virus. The notice did not detail how, exactly, the police “handled” those cases, and also did not identify them, leaving many to believe the people involved were arrested.
“Some internet users have been publishing and forwarding fake news without verification, which has had an adverse social impact,” the notice reportedly read. “Eight people who engaged in illegal activities were summoned and their cases handled according to law, following a police investigation.”
“Anyone posting information and comments online should abide by [China’s] laws and regulations. The police will investigate and punish anyone fabricating and spreading rumors and disrupting social order,” it warned.
China regularly heavily censors its social media outlets, the largest of which are Weibo and WeChat. Social media platforms that allow discussion uncensored by Beijing like Twitter and Facebook are banned. Despite the condemnation from the Beijing judge making the Wuhan police’s response to posts about the virus seem particularly egregious, there is no information that differentiates that censorship and threat of force from typical Chinese government activity.
While the police notice did not identify the offending social media statements, the South China Morning Post cited Beijing Youth Daily as having found at least one of them: a post by a doctor in Wuhan who shared that he had treated patrons of the shut-down seafood market for symptoms of a respiratory infection. The doctor originally identified the infection as Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a disease also caused by a coronavirus that killed nearly 800 people in a 2003 outbreak. He later suggested that the infection appeared to be caused by an unknown virus.
The post identified by Beijing Youth Daily went online on December 30, two days before Chinese authorities shut down the market, but over 20 days before Beijing notified the world of the outbreak.
The doctor reportedly caught the infection after being summoned to the police department and threatened into silence.
The statement from the Supreme People’s Court contradicted warnings in state news agency Xinhua against publishing “rumors” about the virus on WeChat.
“A variety of unsubstantiated comments posted to the internet constantly stir up public panic,” Xinhua reported that WeChat posted as an official warning, according to a translation by the Epoch Times. “All those who spread fake news and thus disturb social order will face up to three years in prison, detention, or disciplinary action. Those who have caused serious consequences will be given 3-year to 7-year prison terms.”
The Epoch Times suggested that the WeChat warning followed an alert sent this week, and leaked to the press, by the Cyberspace Administration of China that social media sites are responsible for ensuring that non-official coronavirus news not appear on their pages.
With this move, Beijing appears to be using discontent about the virus to censor social media but moving that responsibility out of the police realm and placing it in the hands of social media companies. This allows the Communist Party to more carefully control social media sites while also giving the public someone to be upset with: local Wuhan police. It also paints federal government officials as heroically protecting the public from local government overreach.
Diverting public outrage at local officials began overtly after Mayor Zhou’s press conference on Sunday. The Global Times, a government mouthpiece, said that Zhou’s delay in announcing an unprecedented lockdown on Wuhan was “disturbing” and “shocking.”
“It has to be pointed out that it is very regrettable that the city failed to take necessary emergency measures to prevent that many people from traveling across the country as this makes it especially difficult for the country to prevent and control the epidemic,” the newspaper asserted. “The city should face the fact that the public is strongly dissatisfied with this.”
Zhou had blamed Beijing for not doing so at the press conference.
“Regarding the untimely disclosure, [I] hope everyone can understand. [Coronavirus] is a contagious disease. Contagious diseases have relevant law and information needs to be disclosed according to law,” Zhou said. “As [the head of] a local government, after I receive the information, [I] can only release it after being authorized.”