China is not just trying to contain the coronavirus; it is trying to contain information about the coronavirus.
This statement was originally published on indexoncensorship.org on 5 February 2020.
The world has been transfixed by news coming out of China since the outbreak of coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The running death toll currently sits at nearly 500, with a further 24,000 people in China confirmed as having been infected. But are these the real numbers? Is China, a country whose government is notorious for censorship and control of information, revealing the whole truth? And how are they handling a crisis in which people having the correct information could be the difference between life and death? We report on the five key trends that are having an impact on the accurate reporting of the virus.
Suppress the news
It got off to a bad start. Local authorities in Wuhan did not speak out about the deadly outbreak when it began, even allowing Lunar New Year gatherings to go ahead, knowing people in attendance were infected. This initial suppression of information about the virus could be attributed to the authoritarian, centralisation of power and intelligence in China. Local authorities must wade through levels of bureaucracy to gain the verification needed from the higher offices to release vital information to their local residents.
And media were warned to stick to the party line; one widely read commercial newspaper in Wuhan, Wuhan Evening News, did not feature the outbreak on its front page between 6 and 19 January. Today, it’s much the same. Bad news isn’t news.
Arrest, arrest, arrest
In the early days of the outbreak, the authorities in Wuhan tried to silence people who attempted to warn others about the spread of coronavirus. Eight people in Wuhan were arrested for speaking out on social media, including a doctor working to treat the infected. Li Wenliang, from Wuhan Central Hospital, sent a message to some of his colleagues telling them he had noticed several patients infected with a Sars-like disease. Four days later authorities arrived at Li’s home, accused him of spreading misinformation and forced him to sign a document which called for his silence.
The charge of spreading misinformation has since been used against many others, such as a social media user in the city of Tianjin near Beijing, who criticised the government’s response. He was arrested for 10 days and accused of publishing “insulting speech”.
The government continues to threaten long jail terms for people who criticise the government’s response.
Scapegoat easy targets
In a story twist, President Xi Jinping has allowed posts criticising local Wuhan authorities for their slow response to circulate on social media. Keen to preserve his image as an infallible leader, Xi has been happy to allow small government bodies to become scapegoats for the crisis. Xi has also shied away from the spotlight in the government’s handling of coronavirus, presumably not wishing to be associated with it, and has appointed Li Keqiang to a leadership position in controlling the outbreak. Is this a typical approach of Xi Jinping’s? Perhaps. China historian Jeff Wasserstrom explores how the Chinese leader carefully manages his image in the new Index on Censorship magazine.
Flood the web with “good virus” news stories
State media have saturated news feeds with stories of hospitals being built at breakneck speed to accommodate the waves of infected people and other stories of just how well China is handling the outbreak. Footage of the construction of a new hospital is even being live streamed online. Despite this apparent transparency of the government’s actions, state media and government officials shared an image of a building claiming it was a completed hospital in Wuhan, when it was in fact an apartment building more than 600 miles away.
Working alongside the media are China’s 50 cent party members – aka the government’s army of trolls who are known for their online praise.
Block the flow of people – and information
Seventeen cities, which are collectively home to over 50 million people, have been put on lockdown so far, restricting the movement of people throughout China. While this may be a practical move to reduce the spread of the infectious disease, it also halts the spread of information between Chinese citizens. People are forced to rely on the information given to them by the authorities, who, during the early days of the outbreak, falsely assured people coronavirus could only be passed on from an animal, and not between people. Or they’re going online to be greeted by photos of shiny hospitals being built in a week. Either way, it’s not great.
Read about how Allied governments during the First World War suppressed news of Spanish flu here.