Details of China's crackdown on free speech during the coronavirus outbreak

According to China’s Ministry of Public Security, police investigated more than 5,100 instances of “fabricating and deliberately disseminating false and harmful information” between January 20 and February 21. The actual number as of today is unknown as are details of most of the cases. However, a group called Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) has collected information on 897 such cases between January 1 and March 26. What they found was government censorship of social media which resulted in some people having their social media accounts deleted and others being put into administrative detention.


From our incomplete list of cases, we are able to tell that the punishments handed out by police fall largely into several types: administrative detention, criminal detention, enforced disappearance, fines, warnings/interrogations, forced confessions and “educational reprimand”. In over half of these cases, we could not find the specific punishments meted out against the “offenders.” Of the specified types of punishment, police favoured administrative detention (18.5% of the total) and “educational reprimand” (17.8% of the total).

The offenses or crimes or pretext that authorities used to back up the punishments include “spreading rumours,” “fabricating false information,” “causing panic,” “disrupting public/social order,” and “leaking privacy.” In the vast majority of these cases, or 93% of the total, police cited “spreading misinformation, disrupting public order” as the pretext for punishing online speech related to COVID-19 outbreak in China.

CHRD also constructed a timeline of when these cases happened and found there were two spikes, the first in late January after China finally acknowledged the seriousness of the virus and the second in February, apparently after the death of whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang.

According to this timeline, after the January 20 Xinhua announcement, when information about the rapidly spreading virus was critically important for the public, who were nervous and scared, Chinese police acted with apparently concerted nationwide operations in penalizing many more online users—396 of the 897 cases occurred between January 21-31…

In February, the number of punishments shown on our list peaked with 467 individuals sanctioned. The death of Dr Li Wenliang from coronavirus on February 6 drew massive outcry on Chinese social media, with an outpouring of grief, anger, and denouncements of government officials. Many Chinese netizens demanded their right to free speech. The spike of penalties imposed by police on online users in February likely reflected a heightened crackdown by authorities in response to the surge of expressed strong emotions on the Internet over Dr Li’s death. Government censors ordered state media to downplay his death and dispatched CCP discipline officials from Beijing to Wuhan to conduct an investigation.


China also “disappeared” a number of independent journalists who dared to report directly over social media what was happening. The CHRD provides a list of some of these [emphasis added]

  • Citizen journalist and lawyer Chen Qiushi (陈秋实) has been missing since being taken away by police on February 6. Chen, original from Heilongjiang, is a lawyer who practiced law in Beijing and became popular online after he started social media broadcasting from the Hong Kong protests in 2019. Just after the Hubei authorities announced the mandatory lockdown in Wuhan on January 23, Chen travelled to the city to report the situation on the frontline.
  • Citizen journalist and rights activist, Fang Bin (方斌), has been missing since being taken away by police on February 9. Fang Bin is a Wuhan resident who began posting videos online of life and death in the epicentre of the outbreak, including one video filmed on January 25 that highlighted the overwhelmed hospitals, in which he called for unblocked, free information to combat the epidemic.
  • Citizen journalist and former CCTV host Li Zehua (李泽华), has been missing since police took him into custody on February 26. Li travelled to Wuhan in February, after Chen Qiushi’s disappearance, and began to report on conditions on the ground and post videos online.
  • Dissident intellectual and former prisoner of conscience, Guo Quan (郭泉), was detained on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” on January 31 and then formally arrested in February for speaking out online about the coronavirus outbreak. He is being held at Nanjing No. 2 Detention Center.

More recently, Chinese property developer Ren Zhiqiang, nicknamed “the cannon” for his tendency to speak very directly, disappeared sometime last month after he wrote an abrasive opinion piece which was seen as critical of President Xi Jinping. Ren wrote, “I saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor.” In the same piece he also said, “The reality shown by this epidemic is that the party defends its own interests, the government officials defend their own interests, and the monarch only defends the status and interests of the core.”  Yesterday, the Guardian reported an update on Ren. He is being investigated for “serious violations.”

Late on Tuesday, party officials said Ren was accused of violations that are widely used as a euphemism for corruption and graft. The short statement posted online said Ren was undergoing disciplinary review and supervision by the Beijing discipline inspection commission, the top anti-graft commission in the country…

Responding to Ren’s arrest, Human Rights Watch’s China director, Sophie Richardson, said the Chinese government’s propaganda machine was “in overdrive, claiming a positive performance in the Coronavirus crisis”…

“That Ren is being held and investigated by the CCDI guarantees one outcome: a total denial of fair trial rights.”


Criticize the communist government and you will be found guilty of something.

Finally, Dr. Ai Fen gave an interview last month explaining how she was ordered to shut up about the virus after she spread (accurate) information about it online. Immediately after the the interview with her was published, the Chinese government censored it. Dr. Ai Fen has also disappeared.

In light of all of this coordinated censorship it’s astounding that U.S. media outlets continue to report Chinese government data on the virus as if it were reliable and unbiased. Here’s an Indian report on Dr. Ai Fen highlighted by BizPacReview. She is one of the few real heroes of this horrible pandemic. American elected officials ought to demand that China reveal what has happened to her.

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David Strom 10:00 AM | June 19, 2024