Journalist Tracy Wen Liu, who did some on-the-ground reporting from Wuhan during the worst days of the coronavirus outbreak, warned in a Foreign Policy article on Tuesday that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is once again censoring doctors and patients to keep them from discussing the truth of the pandemic and China’s response.
Liu cited some of her own reporting from Wuhan this year to illustrate that the notorious muzzling of doctors and scrubbing of social media posts is happening again. She said her own account on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site that stands in for Twitter, was blocked in May despite accumulating some 90,000 followers after nine years of posts.
“A wave of new censorship has grown during the coronavirus pandemic, most of it focused on covering up the stories around COVID-19 itself,” Liu said.
In January and February, the CCP was mostly concerned with suppressing the horror stories about supply shortages, overcrowded hospitals, and sick Chinese citizens pleading for help, while the new censorship wave seems to be based on “nationalism” and “glorifying the government’s response to the epidemic.”
Liu said the goal of the renewed censorship campaign is protecting China’s narrative that it did a spectacular job of containing the coronavirus, based on transparently false claims of low infections and deaths that have been repeated without much criticism by international organizations and media:
As life in China gradually goes back to normal, it has become more and more difficult to interview medical workers, patients, and their families. The government wants to portray itself as a responsible regime that has successfully contained the virus and is leading the world. More and more people are getting into trouble, whether ordinary members of the public or journalists. After Southern Weekend, a popular and historically liberal paper, published an article about the extensive corruption at Wuhan Central Hospital, it was criticized by the propaganda department and was told not to publish any more coronavirus-related articles other than official Xinhua copy. According to their journalists, a few coronavirus-related in-depth investigative articles never get the chance to be published.
People who lost their loved ones to COVID-19 are demanding answers and accountability from local officials, especially those who lost family to infections picked up in hospitals when they were there to be treated for another condition.
According to Liu’s account, the CCP has been keeping a close eye on the best-known malcontents from the worst days of the epidemic – the people who demanded answers after losing family members, especially the few whose stories reached foreign ears – and is moving quickly to ensure they do not say anything that disrupts the Communist Party line about China’s astoundingly effective coronavirus response. She noted it is fairly common knowledge among medical workers that they are not allowed to share information about the coronavirus or how the facilities they work in responded to it – at least not if they want to keep their jobs at those facilities.
Liu concluded with an interesting observation that the CCP’s official push for a nationalist account of the coronavirus has inspired what appear to be sincerely pro-government private groups who do everything they can to spread “positive stories” and harass dissidents but some of those cheerleading groups have themselves been censored for saying too much, or drifting into discussions of forbidden topics like free speech.
Beijing law professor Xu Zhangrun became the highest-profile victim of this second wave of censorship on Monday when he was arrested for the “crime” of criticizing Chinese dictator Xi Jinping’s response to the coronavirus. Xu was especially trenchant in his criticism of Xi’s use of deception and censorship to manage the political fallout from the epidemic, so he’s essentially been silenced for noticing that people are being silenced.
The Washington Post last week reviewed Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City, a collection of posts from a Wuhan resident named Fang Fang mentioned by Liu in her discussion of renewed censorship. Fang made many of the same points as Liu about government censors and “nationalistic trolls” zealously guarding the official narrative of the coronavirus epidemic, including Chinese officials who flat-out lied to their superiors, and the world, about whether the coronavirus was contagious, for as long as they could get away with it.
Fang’s writing is interesting because she posits that the regime in Beijing does not have the narrative under control quite as firmly as it appears to the outside world. She thinks the censorship efforts went too far, inspiring resistance and derision from many Chinese citizens, and she believes the public is angry that duplicitous and inept officials have not been punished for their roles in allowing the disease to spread.
If any of that resentment has truly weakened the CCP’s grip on power, it is not easy to see from beyond China’s borders, where the news about China is almost completely dominated by the official heroic narrative of the Chinese government. Fang sarcastically chided the CCP for thinking it could suppress all dissent and delete every social media post critical of Beijing’s response to the coronavirus but, for the moment, the CCP appears to be doing exactly that.