China cracks down on threats to sue the government over coronavirus deaths in Wuhan

Earlier I wrote about the Chinese government’s concern over the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment building around the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. A recent think tank report said the backlash could be the worst China has faced since Tiananmen Square in 1989. But it’s not just the external backlash that has China worried. The government is also trying to crack down on internal dissent from people who are understandably angry that their relatives died in the outbreak. Some had even tried to organize lawsuits but the police were quick to shut down those efforts.

The Chinese authorities are clamping down as grieving relatives, along with activists, press the ruling Communist Party for an accounting of what went wrong in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus killed thousands before spreading to the rest of China and the world.

Lawyers have been warned not to file suit against the government. The police have interrogated bereaved family members who connected with others like them online. Volunteers who tried to thwart the state’s censorship apparatus by preserving reports about the outbreak have disappeared.

“They are worried that if people defend their rights, the international community will know what the real situation is like in Wuhan and the true experiences of the families there,” said Mr. Yang, who is living in New York, where he fled after he was briefly detained for his work in China.

The crackdown underscores the party’s fear that any attempt to dwell on what happened in Wuhan, or to hold officials responsible, will undermine the state’s narrative that only China’s authoritarian system saved the country from a devastating health crisis.

One man whose father died of the virus in February spoke to news outlets about his father’s death and his feelings that local officials should be held responsible, but the stories were all killed before publication. Now the government wants to send minders to his father’s funeral:

Mr. Zhang said several Chinese reporters who had interviewed him about his demands later told him that their editors had pulled the articles before publication. He posted calls online to set up a monument in honor of the victims of the epidemic in Wuhan, but censors quickly scrubbed the messages. Officials have pressed him to bury his father’s ashes, but he has so far refused; he says they have insisted on assigning him minders, who he believes would be there to ensure that he caused no trouble.

“They spend so much time trying to control us,” Mr. Zhang said. “Why can’t they use this energy to address our concerns instead?”

As I wrote last week, the government has cracked down on a group of people who attempted to avoid Chinese internet censorship of documents related to the outbreak. The group had created an illicit archive on Github but last week three of them were arrested. That’s on top of the thousands of people police have threatened, fined and jailed for “spreading rumors” and “causing panic.”

This kind of crackdown after a disaster is par for the course in China. The NY Times mentions in passing a train crash that took place in 2011. The crash killed 40 people and injured nearly 200 others. The response by the government was to bury the wreckage at the site and warn the media not to cover the story except to highlight the positive response of rescue workers. Specifically, reporters were told not to look into the cause of the accident.

Leaked propaganda directives ordered journalists not to investigate the causes and footage emerged of bulldozers shovelling dirt over carriages.

Wang, the railways spokesman, said no one could or would bury the story. He said a colleague told him the wreckage was needed to fill in a muddy ditch to make rescue efforts easier.

But Hong Kong University’s China Media Project said propaganda authorities have ordered media not to send reporters to the scene, not to report too frequently and not to link the story to high-speed rail development. “There must be no seeking after the causes [of the accident], rather, statements from authoritative departments must be followed,” said one directive. Another ordered: “No calling into doubt, no development [of further issues], no speculation, and no dissemination [of such things] on personal microblogs!”

That reaction to a crisis sure does sound familiar. As I wrote earlier, China has pushed back hard on suggestions from the U.S. and Australia that there should be some sort of international investigation into the origin of the coronavirus. They are doing all they can to keep the exact origin and timeline from being pinned down. And there’s no reason to think this approach will end. Even two years after the 2011 train crash, China was still sending minders out on the anniversary of the crash to prevent relatives from visiting the site where their loved-ones died.

Security was tightened around the accident site yesterday to discourage survivors and the families of the dead from making some kind of public display to mark the anniversary, according to residents.

“A police officer, in his uniform, stopped me and my friend and told us that we had better not approach the bridge,” said resident Terry Xie, who saw both uniformed and plain-clothes police officers at the site.

“I said we were not doing anything illegal. He said he was just following the order of keeping people away from the bridge today and he hoped we can understand his job.”

China insists victims of CCP failure move on without placing any blame on the government, just as it insist the rest of the world do the same thing.