The Plight of Chinese Whistleblowers and Journalists During COVID

Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto LLP

On February 7, 2020, officials confirmed the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, the first COVID-19 whistleblower in China who warned people worldwide about early infections in Wuhan. The Chinese internet saw an outpouring of grief and fury online that poses an extraordinary challenge to Beijing. In response, China began its crackdown on whistleblowers. Li Wenliang was later coined as a “revolutionary martyr” in a wall of medical staffers who died from COVID. However, his brief biography did not include his reprimand for trying to warn colleagues about the coronavirus. Others, however, have not been lucky enough to be remembered.

On April 19, 2019, Chen Mei did not log on for work. He was held under house detention for his involvement in the operation of Terminus 2049. Terminus 2049 is a crowd-sourced repository on GitHub that archives content removed from Chinese websites and social media platforms by government censors. Many of the most recent articles on Terminus 2049 are about COVID-19. Since the coronavirus outbreak began in China in December 2019, government monitors have censored media reports and online posts that criticize or discuss the government’s responses to the pandemic. Chen Mei was just one of the many whistleblowers who CCP illegally detained.

Dr. Ai Fen, one of the first doctors to raise the alarm on the spread of a new coronavirus outbreak in 2019, was interviewed by her hospital’s Disciplinary Committee and accused of spreading the rumors. She later called herself the “whistle-giver” in an interview with an independent Chinese media. The publication of her interview on March 10, 2020, prompted an online movement to fight back against censorship. People preserved versions of the story in English, emojis, and even a version in a video mimicking the Star Wars opening credits. Some of those articles remain uncensored on the internet. Dr. Ai still works in a hospital in Wuhan.

Citizen journalists Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua, and businessman Fang Bin disappeared in February 2020. Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua resurfaced online after ‘quarantine’ in the coronavirus epicenter. Li Zehua appeared on April 22 on YouTube, Twitter, and Weibo, saying he was treated well by the police. Yet, according to The Guardian, Li's neutral tone in the video was “very different from his previous videos.” On September 30, 2020, Chen Qiushi appeared on his friend Xu Xiaodong’s YouTube channel, saying everything was fine. However, according to his Twitter, he still lives under police supervision. Fang Bin is still missing.

Zhang Zhan, the citizen journalist who posted 122 YouTube videos about the horrific consequences of China’s draconian lockdown in Wuhan, was arrested in May 2020. She went on a hunger strike and was force-fed through a tube. Her brother, Zhang Ju, posted on Twitter on Oct. 30: “She is so stubborn. I think she may not live long.” He added, “She may not survive the coming cold winter. I hope the world remember how she used to be.” Her mother saw Ms. Zhang in a video call on October 28. She told Radio Free Asia, “She can’t walk unassisted now, and her head keeps drooping as she speaks.”

The collective memory is not so endurable for most people under the iron curtain of censorship. CCP again used massive propaganda campaigns to boast about its successful anti-epidemic policies and boost disaster nationalism by portraying a picture of solidarity and hardship in the face of a pandemic. Most people seem to have moved on, forgetting about what happened in 2019. Yet, the Chinese government’s decision not to prosecute Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua still confirmed that they could not silence everyone. They are too afraid to push their people too hard.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto LLP

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