In the western world, it’s novel to imagine a secret cyber police force terrorizing the lives of online critics. In the midst of a global pandemic like COVID-19, some 800 million web users in China see this as their deadly reality, forced to either conform to the Communist Party’s narrative of being tough on disease or be branded as an enemy of the state. Thankfully, some are no enemies of the truth.
In a report published by The New York Times, it was revealed by multiple Chinese residents that these organized police raids have significantly “gained power” in recent months, detailing how the government’s supposed offenders are “dragged off for hours of interrogation, forced to sign loyalty pledges and recant remarks deemed politically unacceptable, even if those words were made in the relative privacy of a group chat”, particularly in relation to efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The report cites Li Yuchen, a law school graduate from the central city of Chengdu, who was recently held in captivity for a sarcastic essay on Chinese censorship. Yuchen was held for eight hours, from afternoon until midnight, until he was finally forced to condemn his remarks, write a formal counter-essay as proof of compliance, and pledge loyalty to the party in a written statement. Not even 30-years-old and already considered a public enemy, all for the crime of sharing a semi-sarcastic opinion.
Mind you, this is no mistaken outlier from a single corrupt police department, as evidenced by repeat behavior across multiple precincts. The most notorious example being the case of Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan medical expert who was featured in Yuchen’s essay, who was subjected to the exact same treatment of interrogations, loyalty pledges and coerced silence for “spreading rumors” about the spread of some “mysterious virus” we now know as the very real COVID-19 outbreak. Dr. Li passed away from exposure to the virus, forcing the government to supposedly conduct a private investigation into his death (which is sure to go nowhere).
“Dr. Li said that a healthy society shouldn’t have only one voice,” Yuchen wrote of the punished whistleblower on WeChat. “I think the best way to mourn him is to continue to be a citizen.” In the eyes of the party, however, a false choice is presented where to be a citizen conflicts with being truthful, cautious, and anything other than a lackey for political chess. Ironically, the government’s methods of appearing tough on the disease are the very same methods that propelled the disease’s spread in the first place: “using the internet police to muffle the most outspoken.”
It’s true China has the appearance of systematic strength against COVID-19, even impressing the World Health Organization (WHO) in their report on containment efforts they’ve described as “bold approaches” which have “changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic,” but it’s no different than lighting a garbage fire and expecting praise for putting it out. To needlessly censor people pre-warning about something of paramount public interest, now infecting nearly every facet of daily life, is to be culpable in the damage done. No amount of massive quarantine lockdowns and electronic surveillance can change how they’ve manufactured a genuine crisis into a tool for more authoritarian control. They tie up loose ends however they please.
For the lackeys at the Cybersecurity Defense Bureau, known for their policing of online hacking, digital fraud, and censorship, this is just more of the same on a larger scale. The report cites their government releases from 2016, detailing how in the Guangxi region alone they tasked 1,200 internet police officers with covering its 50 million person population — at least one enforcer for every 10,000 users. No doubt these ambitious motives also require opportunity and means, easily enhanced when you have a controlled populace locked in their homes. And not all of its people are willing to go without a fight.
In an interview with the Chinese magazine “Renwu” (or “People”), Dr. Ai Fen of the Wuhan Central Hospital revealed she is also being reprimanded for her own role in trying to prevent the outbreak, recognizing the symptoms in patients as early as December of last year. “If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand. I would have fucking talked about it to whoever, where ever I could,” she explained, noting messages and images of the virus were never to be sent.
“We watched more and more patients come in as the radius of the spread of infection became larger. I knew there must be human to human transmission.” The article has since been removed due to government pressure, citing that it was “spreading rumors” and “harming stability” according to The Guardian. In an effort to evade censors, however, new versions of this article were published through tweets, morse code, partial emojis and, and pinyin, known as the “romanization system for Mandarin.” A fine example of these reprints can be seen below:
For those who’re already applauding China’s COVID-19 responses, CN is still heavily censoring info. A magazine’s feature on a whistleblower is being taken down from the entire CN internet. Ppl have to turn article into EMOJI to avoid censorship. Chinese readers can u decode it? pic.twitter.com/4p4vgXJ3I5— Tony Lin (social distancing aka introverting) (@tony_zy) March 10, 2020
“One reason for the online outrage after Li Wenliang’s death was because people know that what he encountered is just a normal Chinese person’s experience,” argued Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, providing a statement to the Times. “It’s not the local police’s fault. It’s Xi’s error that this kind of thing has become a part of daily life.” The only correction I would add is this is a feature, not an error of the system.
After all, this is perfectly exemplified in President Xi Jinping’s iron-fist approach to something as insignificant as memes comparing himself to the likes of Winnie The Pooh. The outbreak just broadens their battlefield. “Since social media has existed in China, there’s been nothing like the current explosion of speech,” added Hannah Yeung, a digital archiver and political activist speaking with the Times. “After people scream and shout, their posts get deleted and there’s no more voice of opposition. Nothing gets fixed.”
Nevertheless, these efforts still matter and can fundamentally change lives for the better, even at a relatively small scale. The Times highlights the story of Miles Zhang, a businessman from Wuhan, who was one of the few people who were saved from the crisis due to Dr. Li’s warnings. “I really stood out,” he recalled, noting his wearing of goggles, masks, and gloves to isolate himself from the contagion, arousing enough suspicion from the police that he was also interrogated. “I used to think the censorship was a technical problem that could be overcome,” Mr. Zhang said. “But this time was like a smack to the head. This is state terrorism.”