How China’s Response to COVID-19 Set the Stage for a Worldwide Wave of Censorship

Chen Qiushi was born in China’s remote, frigid north near the country’s border with Russia. An only child, he loved to tell stories and jokes to his family and classmates and dreamed of being an actor or a television journalist. But his mother objected, and Chen got a law degree from a local university and moved to Beijing, where he later took a job at a prestigious legal firm.

In off-hours, Chen continued to pursue his passion for performing. He dabbled in standup comedy at local bars and did voice acting. He became a contestant on “I Am a Speaker,” a talent show for orators modelled on “The Voice.” In his final performance, he expounded on the importance of free speech. “A country can only grow stronger when it is accompanied by critics,” Chen said. “Only freedom of expression and the freedom of press can protect a country from descending into a place where the weak are preyed upon by the strong.”

Chen won second place and used his newfound fame to build a large social-media following. In 2018, he uploaded more than four hundred short videos that provided basic tutorials on Chinese law on Douyin, a platform similar to TikTok, but only available for users in China. He gained more than 1.5 million followers, making him the most popular legal personality on the entire platform.

In the next year, Chen began providing independent journalism to his followers on social-media. In the summer of 2019, he travelled to Hong Kong to report firsthand on the pro-democracy street protests that had erupted in the city. “Why am I in Hong Kong?” Chen asked, in a video posted on August 17th. “Because a lot is happening in Hong Kong right now.”

Chen interviewed protesters and spoke with those who supported the police. He waded into simmering controversies, such as the use of violence by some demonstrators. He acknowledged that journalism was a hobby of sorts, but said that he still had an obligation “to be present” when and where news unfolded. He also pledged to be objective. “I won’t express my opinion carelessly,” Chen promised. “I won’t say whom I support or whom I disagree with. Everyone has their own subjective prejudice. I wish to leave behind my own prejudice and treat everything with neutrality as much as I can . . . because I am not satisfied with public opinion and the media environment in China, I decided to come to Hong Kong and become the media myself.”

Alarmed by the reach of Chen’s social-media posts, Chinese officials pressured Chen’s law firm to get him to leave Hong Kong. The firm told Chen that, if he did not return to Beijing immediately, he would be in grave danger. Four days after he posted his first video from Hong Kong, Chen flew home to Beijing. All of his public Chinese social-media accounts, including Weibo, WeChat, and Douyin, no longer worked. When he tried to open a new Douyin account a few weeks later, the account was deleted as soon as his face appeared in a video. He posted messages on his YouTube and Twitter, which are banned in China. After Chinese police interrogated Chen and demanded to know what he thought of the Hong Kong protests, he expressed frustration. “No one cares about the truth—all they care about is my stance,” Chen complained in a YouTube video. “This is the problem we face right now. It seems that truth does not matter at all.”

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Six months later, on January 23, 2020, the city of Wuhan went into lockdown. The next day, Chen boarded the last train from Beijing to Wuhan. “When disaster happens, if you don’t rush to the front lines as soon as possible, what kind of journalist are you?” he asked in a video he posted outside the train station. Chen seemed to believe that informing the public and insuring access to independent reporting was the key to fighting the disease. “As long as information travels faster than the virus, we can win this battle,” Chen said, in the video. “Although I was blocked on the Internet in China for reporting on the events in Hong Kong, I still have a Twitter and a YouTube account. In the next few days, I invite you to find me through these channels. I’d be happy to help get the voice of the people of Wuhan to the outside world.” Chen apparently believed he could use his skills as an orator and his charisma as a performer to build an audience online, even if it was primarily on YouTube and Twitter and not the Chinese social-media platforms from which he was banned.

Over the next ten days in Wuhan, Chen visited emergency rooms and supermarkets, talked to doctors, nurses, and city residents, and uploaded daily video reports. On January 25th, the beginning of the Chinese New Year, Chen donned improvised personal protective gear, including swimming goggles, and filmed a busy scene outside a local emergency room. The next day, he visited the shuttered Wuhan wet market, where a seafood seller, Wei Guixian, was reportedly the first person to have fallen ill from the virus. Chen described the market as a colorful place that sold foxes, monkeys, and pangolins, and said “local rich people do have a habit of eating wild animals to boost their health.”

As Chen reported from the city, Chinese officials systematically covered up the outbreak. The National Health Commission ordered institutions not to publish any information related to the unknown disease. Chen feared that such censorship was facilitating the spread of the virus and believed that his daily video reports informed the public. He facilitated donations of supplies and distributed food to hospital workers. He shared with viewers an encouraging note from his parents, who urged him to keep reporting but also to stay safe. He also implicitly criticized the country’s leadership after President Xi Jinping initially did not travel to Wuhan. “I don’t care where Xi Jinping is,” Chen noted, addressing the city’s residents. “But I, Chen Qiushi, am here.”

On March 10, 2020, nearly three months after the presumed first case, the President finally visited Wuhan. He praised the people’s war against the coronavirus, and brought along journalists from state-controlled media outlets. Through its global propaganda network, China told its pandemic narrative to the world. It used crude measures—a video, distributed by the state-run news agency Xinhua, featuring the Statue of Liberty failing to defend the U.S. from the virus—and more sophisticated strategies, such as generating media coverage of the Chinese government delivering aid in places such as Pakistan and Italy.

Part of the government’s argument is that its system of strict information control has allowed it to suppress misinformation and rumors, while providing the population with reliable health information and protocols to stay safe. A global survey released in June 2020 found that sixty per cent of respondents believed that China had responded effectively to the pandemic, while only a third felt that the U.S. had done so. The Chinese government used its near-total control over domestic news media—as well as social media—to manage public perceptions of its coronavirus policies and to build popular support for its actions. It blocked or took down online posts that cast doubt on the government’s response and, in some cases, arrested and prosecuted dissenters. Taking advantage of deteriorating relations with the Trump Administration, it expelled more than a dozen U.S. foreign correspondents, some of whom were asking uncomfortable questions about Wuhan.

China provided a playbook for information repression that spread around the world alongside the virus. Citing COVID, authoritarian governments in Russia, Iran, Nicaragua, and eighty other nations, according to Human Rights Watch, enacted new restrictions on free speech and political expression that were falsely described as public-health measures. In at least ten countries, protests against the government were also banned or interrupted. Information on the virus that did not come from the government was criminalized as “fake news” or propaganda.

Authoritarian regimes called the censorship necessary and much of it temporary, but, in reality, the pandemic amplified or accelerated a shift toward authoritarianism that, according to the U.S.-based pro-democracy organization Freedom House, had been under way for fourteen years. At least ninety-one countries that the group monitored restricted news media in response to the virus outbreak in the first months of 2020, including sixty-seven per cent of the states that the nonprofit classifies as “not free.”

These crackdowns were often fuelled by domestic political considerations, Freedom House found, including a desire to hide the extent of the outbreak from citizens and conceal government incompetence. The repression was facilitated by the narrative, created and spread by China, that authoritarian governments were better equipped to respond to the pandemic, in part, because of their ability to control and manage information. This was in sharp contrast, China argued, to the deficiencies in the democratic world, particularly in the United States, which was mired in division and misinformation and struggled to muster an effective public-health response. Today, as the most recent wave of the pandemic recedes, a post-COVID global political order is emerging where autocracies appear strengthened and democracies seem divided.

During his time in Wuhan, Chen visited the construction site of Huoshenshan Hospital, an enormous emergency medical facility that the Chinese government built, from scratch, in ten days. The hospital was both a response to the overwhelming demand for patient care, and a carefully calibrated propaganda effort intended to highlight the ability of the Chinese government to mobilize state resources and reorganize society in an emergency. During a car ride back with several Wuhan residents, Chen observed empty streets as he searched for a place to eat.

As his time in Wuhan wore on, Chen became increasingly agitated. He uploaded a twenty-seven-minute monologue in which he decried shortages of testing kits and hospital beds, described the exhaustion of doctors and construction workers, and reported that taxi-drivers in the city had figured out that a contagious disease was spreading weeks before the authorities made a public announcement. Despite the government’s attempt to control the flow of information, they knew to avoid the Huanan market. Chen described the growing mayhem at hospitals, the lines, the patients being treated in parking lots and waiting rooms, and the body of a dead patient sitting in a wheelchair.

Several days after Chen’s arrival, someone from the Bureau of Justice called Chen and asked where he was staying in Wuhan. Authorities summoned Chen’s parents and asked them to pressure Chen to leave Wuhan. “I want him to return home more than you do,” Chen said his mother retorted. A week later, Chen told his parents he was planning to visit a temporary hospital. After being unable to reach Chen for twelve hours, his friends, following an agreed-upon protocol, logged into his accounts and changed his passwords. Though there has been no official confirmation, they suspected that he had been detained by Chinese authorities and was being secretly imprisoned.

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