Dr. Ai Fen, the whistleblowing Wuhan doctor punished for trying to warn colleagues about the coronavirus pandemic in December, posted a video message on Tuesday after human rights groups called on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to “urgently clarify” her condition.
Ai disappeared at the end of March, shortly after criticizing the CCP in an interview that China’s vast censorship apparatus tried to erase from the Internet. Human rights activists are worried that her new video message might have been produced under coercion.
Ai was one of the original Wuhan whistleblowers, punished for attempting to warn other doctors about the rise of a new SARS-type virus while the CCP was desperately trying to conceal its existence. In her March interview, she complained bitterly about the people who died because she was silenced and regretted not standing up to Communist Party intimidation.
“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand. I would have f**king talked about it to whoever, where ever I could,” she said.
Asked if she considered herself a whistleblower, Ai replied: “I am the one who provided the whistle.”
Australia’s version of 60 Minutes reported on March 30 that Ai “disappeared” soon after giving that interview, which went viral despite relentless efforts by Chinese censors to delete every copy of it from the Internet and destroy every physical magazine carrying it. Numerous other international media organizations tried to contact her without success. Friends and family members feared she was under arrest.
On March 31, an enigmatic post appeared under Ai’s account on Weibo, a Chinese social media service that approximates Twitter, which is banned by the CCP. The post included a photo of Wuhan with the anodyne caption, “A river. A bridge. A road. A clock chime.”
Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, commonly known by its French acronym RSF, said last week there had been no confirmed communications from Ai since March, and called on the CCP to “urgently clarify” her status.
RSF questioned the authenticity of another post on Ai’s Weibo account that claimed she was free to move and not under duress, suggesting her video message might have been “staged by the Chinese regime.”
As RSF pointed out, Chinese police routinely force prisoners to surrender their online passwords and often write misleading posts under their names, or simply coerce the prisoners into making statements.
On Tuesday Radio Free Asia (RFA) was able to get in touch with Ai, who said she was the author of the posts on her Weibo account, and rather oddly claimed the mysterious posts sporadically appearing under her name were an effort to reassure the world that she was alive and well:
“It was I who sent out the posts on Weibo,” she said. “I never used to use it in the past because I thought it was useless, and I only started using it after this thing happened because there were a lot of people concerned about me.”
“Some of the employees of Weibo behind the scenes kept saying I should post a bit more, but I told them I’d only be able to do it from time to time,” Ai said.
“I’d like to thank everyone for their concern,” she said. “I’m doing pretty well, just going to work every day. Everything is fine.”
“I’d like to say … that all I ever wanted was to just get on with being a doctor in peace: thank you for your understanding,” Ai said.
Granted that the CCP tries to keep even its more prominent citizens from hearing news from the outside world, Ai’s response was still improbably mild given the urgent worldwide concern for her safety. The Chinese government has been bombarded with demands to vouch for her safety and requests to speak with her, from CCP headquarters in Beijing down to Wuhan municipal authorities. Major media organizations across the globe have treated her as a missing person since the end of March.
“I was busy so I threw some random poetry on a social media account I never use, just to let everyone know I’m okay” is a bizarrely understated reaction from the doctor who previously declared she was not just a whistleblower, but the whistle.
RFA spoke to sources who said Ai is indeed under duress and cannot speak freely. An employee at Wuhan Central Hospital, where Ai is the director of emergency services, told RFA she was not at work, contrary to her statements. Other employees nervously refused to talk about her at all. One of them even suggested contacting the hospital’s “propaganda department” for comments on the record.
“She probably is under pressure, but you shouldn’t call her. Call someone else, okay? Sorry about that, really sorry,” said another jittery “source familiar with the situation.”