Coronavirus: Citizen journalists disappearing following criticism of Chinese government
The coronavirus has reportedly killed more than 1000 Chinese residents since the outbreak of a new coronavirus, restricting travel and forcing the quarantines. The Chinese government is under immense pressure to solve the crisis, and scientists are racing to find a way to contain the unnamed virus before it has global repercussions. In another disturbing, yet not altogether surprising, turn of events, persons who have been critical of the government’s handling of the virus outbreak are starting to disappear.
Many Chinese residents have taken to social media to document how the virus is effecting their communities and how those communities are effected by the government. Chen Qiushi is one of those citizens, a lawyer who has been at the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan. He started posting about the virus on January 25 after the Chinese government locked the city down in order to contain the virus. Chen Qiushi’s remarks regarding the government and its handling of the outbreak have been—in a word—critical, citing lack of medical supplies, crowded hospitals, and accusing the Chinese government of incompetence and suppressing freedom of speech in discourse regarding the pandemic.
Chen Qiushi’s latest update was last Thursday, February 6, and no one has heard from him since. In a recent tweet, Chen’s friend Xu Xiaodong, stated that Chen has been “taken away to quarantine by force.” He went on to say that Chen has not had access to his personal cell phone. This is interesting, because Chen’s Twitter account still appears to be active despite his disappearance. In a statement released by the Human Rights Watch, they stated that friends and family have applied for an audience to speak with Chen, but their queries have not been returned.
Another Chinese “citizen journalist” has also gone missing, just days after the disappearance of Chen Qiushi. Fang Bin, a Wuhan-based businessman, has also been documenting the devastation in his community via social media. He had reportedly dared the Chinese government to come seize him for his comments regarding their handling of the virus on the same day that he posted a 12-second video of a paper that read “resist all citizens, hand the power of the government back to the people.” Authorities used the fire brigade to break down his door and arrest him.
In China, government focus appears to be split between containing the spread of the virus, and controlling the narrative surrounding the containment. Yaqui Wang, a Cinhese researcher for Human Rights Watch, commented on the government’s repeated pattern of censoring or controlling narratives that concern disasters or pandemics, “authorities are as equally, if not more, concerned with silencing criticism as with containing the spread of the coronavirus.”
American watchdog organizations and lawmakers have called for the Chinese government to account for Chen Qiushi’s and Fang Bin’s whereabouts. Steven Butler, the program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists stated, “Authorities in Wuhan must disclose whether they are holding journalist Chen Qiushi. If they are, then he should be released immediately. China does not seem to have learned the clear lesson that bottling up the truth about a spreading illness will only make matters worse.”