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.