The Coronavirus and China’s Free-Speech Crisis

The coronavirus started quietly enough in a seafood market in Wuhan, China, where a few dozen people fell victim to a mystery pneumonia. Once optimistic that the disease would remain an isolated incident, the international community has watched as over 1,000 people have died and well over 40,000 have been infected in 26 countries. And the numbers keep climbing.

The deadly virus is dangerous enough on its own. But for the Chinese government, the story has proven just as contagious — and hard to contain — as the virus itself. Anyone who lived through the 2002–03 SARS outbreak will recall how China covered up the true severity of the disease. This time around, it seems that Chinese citizens are fed up. And they’re at the forefront of a burgeoning free speech movement in China. 

SARS rattled China well before the rise of social media. A disease that was once reported as a rumor quickly infected around 8,000 people and killed roughly 800. Only when people began dying in Hong Kong, where information was comparatively uncensored, did China admit that an epidemic was unfolding. Even so, the Chinese government adamantly claimed that the disease was under control, firing newspaper editors who reported on SARS and blocking foreign commentary on government action. 

Though China’s suppression tactics in the coronavirus era ring eerily similar to those implemented during the SARS outbreak, Chinese citizens have new tools at their disposal. Citizen journalists have been tweeting and vlogging from the hot zone in Wuhan. They’ve been relentless, posting videos of overcrowded hospitals and lashing out at the communist regime for its transgressions. 

But from the earliest days of the virus, state censors have been just as vigorous. The Wuhan police announced on January 1 that they had begun to crack down on those who “shared rumors online” and took action against eight alleged offenders. The journalists who’ve been so instrumental in broadcasting the facts about the coronavirus outbreak to the world have been marked as threats by the Chinese government, facing dire — and often unknown — punishments. Chen Qiushi, a citizen reporter who has been unapologetically venomous toward state authorities in his coronavirus coverage, has been missing since February 6, with many believing that he has been forcibly quarantined. Chinese citizens have seen their WeChat accounts suspended simply for describing local conditions, medical supply shortages, and low morale. Eden Chen, a resident of Wenzhou, asked, “Is writing a few sentences about the lack of face masks now enough to get one’s account suspended?” 

Not everyone has been silenced, though. For nearly two years, Tsinghua University Professor Xu Zhangrun has been offering unfaltering commentary on the dangers of the Chinese Communist Party. Though he was demoted and banned from publishing last year, Xu recently released a biting essay attacking “the fragile and vacuous heart” of China as its actions exacerbate the coronavirus crisis. Calling the current administration “the worst political team to have run China since 1978,” Xu demands that the nation finally commit itself to principles of independent media and freedom of speech — principles that are, in theory, constitutionally guaranteed. In the end, Xu quotes Dylan Thomas to make a simple request of his peers: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 

One case in particular may come to define this new movement for free speech. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist-turned-whistleblower, made his concerns about the coronavirus known back in December and immediately drew state scrutiny for spreading “illegal and false” information. Though he was threatened, he continued to treat the sick before contracting the virus and dying on February 7. 

Instantly, Li Wenliang became a martyr in the fight for free speech. News reports of his death quickly gained 1.5 billion views on social media in China. Citizens shared quotes from Les Misérables, wrote farewell messages to Li in the snow, and lauded him as “immortal.” The popular Chinese social media platform Weibo featured some striking trends following Li Wenliang’s death. Three hashtags ballooned, were seen by millions of users, and were quickly scrubbed away by state authorities: “The Wuhan government owes Li Wenliang an apology,” “I want freedom of speech,” and “We want freedom of speech.” 

We want freedom of speech. 

Perhaps a folk hero like Li Wenliang is just what the movement needed. Now, as Chinese citizens rally behind those who have been silenced, publishing open letters to the government and remaining skeptical of official apologies, President Xi Jinping will need to act carefully. Protesters have drawn parallels to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, aptly concluding that this 21st-century revolt is born of the same spirit. 

It seems that every month brings a new atrocity for heavy-handed China to censor, from the brutal treatment of freedom fighters in Hong Kong to the detention and murder of Uighur Muslims. As hard as China has tried to keep its 1.4 billion citizens ideologically in check, the murmurs that have escaped in the wake of the coronavirus are beginning to sound more like cries for freedom. This push for free speech could outlast the disease itself. 

Fiona Harrigan is a contributor for Young Voices and a political writer based in Tucson, Arizona.

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Author: Fiona Harrigan

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