“Anyone could be the next Li Wenliang”
A Chinese writer explains what it's like living in a country where information is tightly controlled, and misinformation rife, during the coronavirus crisis
06 Apr 20

Wuhan seafood market closed after coronavirus was detected there. Credit: SISTEMA 12/Wikimedia

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Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang told several of his friends in Chinese social media app WeChat to be careful because some patients had caught a SARS-like disease in his hospital. Within hours of this message being sent it had gone viral – without his name being removed. Li was then accused of rumour mongering. He was called to a local police station and reprimanded. But, not jailed, he returned to work, only to contract coronavirus himself. He died on 7 February.

In the wake of the outbreak of coronavirus, the internet police in China first tried to block information about the disease to maintain society order. This was what Li fell victim to. Then, as the situation became out of control, the main target of censorship moved to suppressing negative coverage, as China tried to position itself as a model country in the fight against coronavirus. There was no bad news, even though there was clearly bad news. Did people believe this positive coverage? It’s hard to tell. Looking at related topics on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, most comments have been complimentary. After the lockdown of Wuhan, the local medical system was overburdened. People who couldn’t get treatment asked for help on the internet, but the number of such messages fell from being in the thousands each day initially to hardly any later. Pictures of chaotic scenes in hospitals were removed.

The coronavirus is now storming throughout the world at an increasing speed and scale. It has greatly impeded global activities, as if a pause button on life has been pressed.

As the disease has spread around China, something else has been on the move – the intensification of censorship. While censorship existed before coronavirus, it has rapidly increased since then. And I fear this increase in censorship will not stop soon, even if the virus does.

During this time I have been in Nanjing, a former capital city near Shanghai. All I have been able to do is to watch official news and online discussions to see the latest development of the situation. But in China, where the news is tightly controlled, it’s really hard to identify the correct information. Misleading information is everywhere and you don’t know who to trust. I have felt helpless and the only thing I securely know I can do is to stay at home with family and pray for safety.

At the same time, there has been anger over the censoring of important information. In a recent interview published in the magazine Renwu, Ai Fen, head of the emergency department in a major hospital in Wuhan, recounted her experience. She told the magazine that she was the first to alert other people about the novel virus but was told by her hospital not to spread this information, not even to her husband. The article published on Renwu was quickly removed. And yet there have been many translated versions of the original, including in German, English, even Braille. We won’t let her testimony be deleted.

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The impact of such severe censorship during this critical time has been catastrophic. The censorship carried out by the authorities during coronavirus is not vastly different to that that happens during other sensitive periods, such as around the Tiananmen Square anniversary, except that coronavirus is a global public health crisis, as pointed out by Lotus Ruan, a researcher from Citizen Lab. The censorship of neutral and even factual information related to the virus, which is completely unnecessary, might have limited the public’s ability to share and discuss critical knowledge of how to prevent the virus’ spread. For example, many elderly Chinese people refused to wear masks at the early stage of spread because the government claimed that the disease was preventable, containable and curable and there was no evidence that the virus was contagious between people. Even my grandparents thought I was making a big deal out of the virus.

There was a crucial time-lag of several weeks between when the first doctors started to notify people of the virus and when the authorities actually allowed it to be openly discussed and taken seriously.

China is now starting to come out of quarantine. And just in time for the traditional festival, Qingming, which was this weekend and commemorates the deceased. Residents in the city of Wuhan were allowed to take their departed family’s ashes from the funeral parlor. And yet we were all puzzled. Many web portals and social media platforms received orders not to report news about this, and there were security officers at sites to stop people taking photos. Such action has added more grief to this tragic scene. “The crowd were so quiet. No crying. No dirge. They just left with an urn in silence”, wrote someone on Weibo.

I am lucky. Nanjing has been a relatively safe place since the outbreak. Very few have been infected and as yet there have been no reported deaths. As for the residents of Wuhan, we can’t help but ask: have these people lost their right to mourn?

On 19 March, the official investigation on Li Wenliang’s death was released. It called for Li’s reprimand to be withdrawn and for two policemen who were involved in Li’s arrest to be warned as a punishment and response to the incident. Obviously, this is not enough in the view of the public. The true cause of Li’s tragedy is the deeply rooted censorship which has become a part of daily life. Anyone could be the next Li Wenliang.


The author of this piece is a freelance journalist based in Nanjing, China. 

Index on Censorship’s spring 2020 issue is entitled Complicity: Why and when we chose to censor ourselves and give away our privacy