The coronavirus epidemic has shown no signs of slowing over the past week, and many are starting to look more critically at Beijing’s handling of the crisis. More specifically, Chinese citizens are starting to question whether their government’s crack-down on “rumors” has put their nation, and world, at risk.
It all started back in December when an ophthalmologist in Wuhan sent a message to a few of his physician friends warning them of “seven confirmed cases of SARS.” Later that doctor, Li Wenliang, followed up with those friends to say it wasn’t SARS, but unspecified coronavirus.
In the days that followed, Li faced disciplinary action as government officials accused him of spreading rumors. He was later forced to sign a letter admitting that he was spreading “untrue speech.” Eight others in Wuhan were also under investigation for spreading rumors about this new coronavirus strain.
On Jan. 10, Li himself contracted coronavirus but China’s President Xi Jinping had yet to inform the masses of the dangerous virus. When Jinping finally acknowledged the epidemic on Jan. 20, it was too late. The virus had already spread beyond control with the majority of China none the wiser.
When Li died from complications due to coronavirus on Feb. 6, a wave of anger swept China. Beijing worked tirelessly to censor calls for free speech and criticism of the government’s handling of the epidemic in the hours that followed. But the wave of public unrest was too large to contain. If Li’s warning about the first seven cases had been heralded rather than stifled, coronavirus might not be the unmitigated disaster it’s become today.
Chen Qiushi, a lawyer turned citizen journalist, traveled to Wuhan on Jan. 24 to see for himself what was happening. His one-man operation has been reporting everything from hospital constructions to burial centers around the city. Most of his viewers are Chinese citizens using a VPN to get around the government’s censorship laws.
On Thursday, the same day that Li’s death sparked outrage among Chinese citizens, Chen went missing. According to CNN, his friends and family were told by police that he’s been forced into quarantine. By all accounts, Chen was in good health before he disappeared.
Now Chinese citizens, already outraged by the treatment of Dr. Li and his death, have another martyr for their movement.
The government has been inundated by citizens speaking freely online through Weibo. On Friday, one of the top two trending hashtags on the social media platform was “We want freedom of speech.” Beijing has since deleted or restricted most of those posts— a move that could prompt further unrest.
In the wake of Li’s death, Chen’s disappearance will fuel anger directed at government officials that could boil over in the weeks to come.
It’s been more than a decade since the last pro-democracy demonstrations in China, but calls for greater transparency and freedom of speech could erupt into something similar as the coronavirus situation worsens.
In Hong Kong, coronavirus has spurred on protestors as many of the city-state’s residents worry about its open border with China. The virus has added a new dimension to activists’ calls for democracy— though reluctance to gather in large groups due to the virus has cut down on organized protests.
While a full-scale resistance in China is unlikely, the coronavirus epidemic could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in Hong Kong. Surgical mask shortages have reportedly caused prices to skyrocket. Radio Television Hong Kong reported that a box of masks could sell for as much as $257.
In China, Hong Kong, and many neighboring Asian nations, censorship has created panic among residents who don’t know what to believe. In an effort to cut down on “fake news,” many governments are restricting what can be said online about the virus. But that sentiment is exactly how Dr. Li was silenced when the virus first appeared. In that way, censorship can silence good information alongside rumors.
That’s left hundreds of thousands of people wondering how bad the epidemic really is and what they can do to protect themselves. History tells us that’s a dangerous way to deal with heath crises. Back in 2003 when SARS was ravaging China, rumors about a vinegar cure saw hoards of people travel to the Shanxi province to get it. The supposed cure was a hoax, but it helped the virus made its way across China.
The days ahead will be crucial for Beijing as people continue to mourn Li’s death and question the circumstances under which Chen was quarantined. Censorship is likely not enough to beat back the rising tide in China, especially if public dissent online continues. If more stories like Chen’s make their way into the news and the Chinese public continues to demand answers, a push for greater freedom could start to gain momentum.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of CCN.com.
This article was edited by Sam Bourgi.