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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Inside the Early Days of China’s Coronavirus Coverup

Late on the night of February 2, as her insomnia kicked in, a Beijing woman whom I’ll call Yue took out her phone and religiously clicked open WeChat and Weibo. Over the past two fitful weeks, the two Chinese social media platforms had offered practically her only windows into the “purgatory,” as she called it, of Wuhan.

At this point, according to official estimates, the novel coronavirus had infected just over 14,000 people in the world—and nearly all of them were in the central Chinese city where Yue had attended university and lived for four years. A number of her friends there had already caught the mysterious virus.

An inveterate news junkie, Yue hadn’t been able to look away from the ghastly updates pouring out of Wuhan, which—interspersed with a dissonant bombardment of posts praising the Chinese government’s iron grip on the outbreak—kept hitting her in an unrelentingly personal way. Her mental health was fraying, and she was “disappointed in humanity,” as she later put it.

That night, just when Yue was about to log off and try to sleep, she saw the following sentence pop up on her WeChat Moments feed, the rough equivalent of Facebook’s News Feed: “I never thought in my lifetime I’d see dead bodies lying around without being collected and patients seeking medical help but having no place to get treatment.”

Yue thought that she had become desensitized, but this post made her fists clench: It was written by Xiao Hui, a journalist friend of hers who was reporting on the ground for Caixin, a prominent Chinese news outlet. Yue trusted her.

She read on. “On January 22, on my second day reporting in Wuhan, I knew this was China’s Chernobyl,” Xiao Hui wrote. “These days I rarely pick up phone calls from outside of Wuhan or chat with friends and family, because nothing can express what I have seen here.”

Unable to contain her anger, Yue took a screenshot of Xiao’s post and immediately posted it on her WeChat Moments. “Look what is happening in Wuhan!” she wrote. Then she finally drifted off.


The next morning, when she opened WeChat, a single message appeared: Her account had been suspended for having “spread malicious rumors” and she would not be able to unblock it. She knew at once that her late-night post had stepped on a censorship landmine.

What she couldn’t have realized, though, was that she had posted her screenshot at what seems to have been a turning point in China’s handling of the epidemic: Over the previous two weeks, the government had allowed what felt like an uncharacteristic degree of openness in the flow of information out of Wuhan. But now the state was embarking on a campaign of censorship and suppression that would be remarkable even by the standards of the Chinese Communist Party.

Over the past several weeks, as the number of new cases in China has tapered off and lockdowns have lifted, China has been positioning itself as a global leader in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It has vigorously promoted the narrative that its unprecedented quarantine measures bought time for the world—and that much of the world then botched and squandered that head start. Now, the story goes, China has again come to the rescue as it shares its expertise, experience, and equipment.

To be sure, China did eventually take extraordinary and painful steps to quell its domestic outbreak. But it has also taken extreme measures to curate the information that has emerged from ground zero of the pandemic.

Over the last month or so, China’s openness with the rest of the world—or lack thereof—in the early days of the pandemic has become the subject of intense geopolitical debate. “The reality is that we could've been better off if China had been more forthcoming,” Vice President Mike Pence told CNN in early April, when asked why the Trump administration had gotten off to such a late start in taking the virus seriously. The debate has become a strange and strained one, given that whatever China did or did not cover up, the US still squandered its chance to prepare for the inevitable even after Beijing’s warnings had become loud and clear.

Moreover, it wasn’t the rest of the world that Beijing was most intent on keeping in the dark. Nowhere has China been more aggressive in its war for control of the coronavirus narrative than it has been at home. A vivid and human picture of that information war emerges if you examine all the stories and posts that have been wiped off of the Chinese internet since the outbreak began—which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do for the past few months.

Seasoned journalists in China often say “Cover China as if you were covering Snapchat”—in other words, screenshot everything, under the assumption that any given story could be deleted soon. For the past two and half months, I’ve been trying to screenshot every news article, social media post, and blog post that seems relevant to the coronavirus. In total, I’ve collected nearly 100 censored online posts: 40 published by major news organizations, and close to 60 by ordinary social media users like Yue. In total, the number of Weibo posts censored and WeChat accounts suspended would be virtually uncountable. (Despite numerous attempts, Weibo and WeChat could not be reached for comment.)

Taken together, these deleted posts offer a submerged account of the early days of a global pandemic, and they indicate the contours of what Beijing didn’t want Chinese people to hear or see. Two main kinds of content were targeted for deletion by censors: Journalistic investigations of how the epidemic first started and was kept under wraps in late 2019 and live accounts of the mayhem and suffering inside Wuhan in the early days of the city’s lockdown, as its medical system buckled under the world’s first hammerstrike of patients.

It’s not hard to see how these censored posts contradicted the state’s preferred narrative. Judging from these vanished accounts, the regime’s coverup of the initial outbreak certainly did not help buy the world time, but instead apparently incubated what some have described as a humanitarian disaster in Wuhan and Hubei Province, which in turn may have set the stage for the global spread of the virus. And the state’s apparent reluctance to show scenes of mass suffering and disorder cruelly starved Chinese citizens of vital information when it mattered most.

On January 20, 2020, Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese infectious disease expert, essentially raised the curtain on China’s official response to the coronavirus outbreak when he confirmed on state television that the pathogen could be transmitted from human to human. Zhong was, in many ways, an ideal spokesperson for the government’s effort; he had become famous for being a medical truth-teller during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Immediately following Zhong’s announcement, the Chinese government allowed major news organizations into Wuhan, giving them a surprising amount of leeway to report on the situation there. In another press conference on January 21, Zhong praised the government’s transparency. Two days after that, the government shut down virtually all transportation into and out of Wuhan, later extending the lockdown to other cities.

The sequence of events had all the appearances of a strategic rollout: Zhong’s January 20 TV appearance marked the symbolic beginning of the crisis, to which the government responded swiftly, decisively, and openly.

But shortly after opening the information floodgates, the state abruptly closed them again—particularly as news articles began to indicate a far messier account of the government’s response to the disease. “The last couple of weeks were the most open Weibo has ever been and [offered] the most freedom many media organizations have ever enjoyed,” one Chinese Weibo user wrote on February 2. “But it looks like this has come to an end.”

On February 5, a Chinese magazine called China Newsweek published an interview with a doctor in Wuhan, who said that physicians were told by hospital heads not to share any information at the beginning of the outbreak. At the time, he said, the only thing that doctors could do was to urge patients to wear masks.

Various frontline reports that were later censored supported this doctor’s descriptions: “Doctors were not allowed to wear isolation gowns because that might stoke fears,” said a doctor interviewed by the weekly publication Freezing Point. The interview was later deleted.

“Those were my saddest days. As a medical worker, I had to obey rules. But I don’t understand why we couldn’t say anything,” another health care worker told Southern People Weekly, a Guangzhou-based weekly magazine in an article headlined “From discovery to lockdown, Wuhan’s frontline medical workers analyze why the epidemic exploded.” The story, published in early February, was later censored.

On February 26, Caixin published an article called “Tracing the Gene Sequencing of the Novel Coronavirus: When was the Alarm Sounded?” It offered a detailed timeline of the outbreak. According to Caixin’s reporting, the provincial health commission began actively suppressing scientists’ knowledge about the virus as early as January 1. (Despite repeated attempts, the provincial health commission could not be reached for comment.)

By January, according to Caixin, a gene sequencing laboratory in Guangzhou had discovered that the novel virus in Wuhan shared a high degree of similarity with the virus that caused the SARS outbreak in 2003; but, according to an anonymous source, Hubei’s health commission promptly demanded that the lab suspend all testing and destroy all samples. On January 6, according to the deleted Caixin article, China’s National Center for Disease Control and Prevention initiated an “internal second-degree emergency response”—but did not alert the public. Caixin’s investigation disappeared from the Chinese internet only hours after it was published.

When asked to comment on the Caixin story, China’s CDC responded, "We have made sure to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak as efficiently as possible and do not condone news reports that accused our center of mishandling the crisis."

That same day, February 26, Caijing, a Chinese business magazine, published an interview with one of the experts whom the National Health Commission sent to Wuhan in early January to conduct field research on the mysterious pneumonia outbreak. The expert reported that the group’s work was severely hindered by the provincial health commission.

According to the scientist, a representative of the provincial commission vehemently denied that any medical workers in Wuhan had been infected. In fact, at least one infection of a medical worker had occurred at Wuhan Central Hospital two days before, according to a doctor quoted in Freezing Point. Soon after it was published, the interview with the scientist disappeared. Wuhan Central Hospital declined to comment on the specifics of its response to the crisis, except to say that it "adhered to all the principles laid out by relevant authorities."

Government censors also appeared to take particular aim at articles that were graphic in their depiction of the apocalyptic scene in Wuhan in the first days of lockdown.

On February 1, Caijing revealed that many patients suffering Covid-like symptoms couldn’t be tested for the virus due to the severe shortage of testing kits; they were also being turned away at hospitals due to the scarcity of available beds. Many were left to die at home, their deaths never counted in the official tally of Covid-19 fatalities. “80 out of 120 fever patients would have lung infections, but only 5 of them would be admitted,” the reporter wrote, quoting a frontline administrator at a hospital in Wuhan.

Reports like this, even if they were short-lived, inspired some Chinese Weibo users to create an account called “Those Who Were Not Documented” on February 21. The crowdsourced page asked people to report whether they had relatives or acquaintances who had died outside of the hospital without having been tested—all to make sure there was a more accurate tally of the death toll. That account itself was purged within a day after it was created.

Another article, published on February 4 by China Business Journal, essentially confirmed what Yue’s friend Xiao Hui had posted on WeChat about bodies lingering in hospitals. The article, under the headline “You Had to Queue Up to Get Into Funeral Parlors,” reported that Wuhan’s crematoria were so overloaded that corpses were being left in hospital morgues, sometimes for days. This article was later deleted, too.

On February 20, in an article headlined “Who is Lying? A Conversation with a Wuhan Medical Worker,” a local newspaper interviewed a doctor who had been infected by the virus but later recovered. The doctor said that close to 300 medical workers had become infected in her hospital, but management had banned staff from saying or posting anything “sensitive.” This dispatch, too, was later deleted.

In early March, the head nurse of a Wuhan hospital’s ER Department, told a Chinese monthly magazine called People (no relation to the American magazine) that many medical workers were on the brink of severe mental breakdown. “My tears are dry and there is nothing moving that will make me cry anymore—not possible,” she said. The article later vanished.

Other articles that were disappeared carried the following headlines: “No Hospital Beds, Family of Five Infected;” “Voices from the Frontline Medics;” “Over 160 Hospitals Turn to the Public for Help, Why Is the Medical Supplies Stockpile Insufficient?” Close to 20 news stories portraying the horrendous situation were abruptly deleted after they were posted.

Among journalists and social critics in China, the 404 error code, which announces that the content on a webpage is no longer available, has become a badge of honor. “At this point, if you haven’t had a 404 under your belt, can you even call yourself a journalist?” a Chinese reporter, who requested anonymity, jokingly asked me.

However, the crackdown on reports out of Wuhan was even more aggressive against ordinary users of social media.

On January 24, a resident posted that nurses at a Hubei province hospital were running low on masks and protective goggles. Soon after that post was removed, another internet user reposted it and commented: “Sina employees—I’m begging you to stop deleting accounts. Weibo is an effective way to offer help. Only when we are aware of what frontline people need can we help them.”

Only minutes later, the post was taken down. The user’s account has since vanished.

Censors deleted a video that showed a young woman weeping as her mother’s corpse is driven away to the cremation center. They pulled down footage of what appeared to be nurses and doctors, overwhelmed by the scale of the outbreak, having mental breakdowns. They culled posts in which relatives of hospital workers made pleas for medical supplies. Nearly any expression of raw grief, pleading, or desperation seemed fair game for removal—at least in the early days of the outbreak.

But the real war between China’s censors and its social media users began on February 7.

That day, a Wuhan doctor named Li Wenliang—a whistleblower who had raised alarms about the virus in late December, only to be reprimanded for “spreading rumors”—died of Covid-19.

Within hours, his death sparked a spectacular outpouring of collective grief on Chinese social media—an outpouring that was promptly snuffed out, post by post, minute by minute. With that, grief turned to wrath, and posts demanding freedom of speech erupted across China’s social media platforms as the night went on.

A number of posts directly challenged the party’s handling of Li’s whistleblowing and the government’s relentless suppression of the freedom of speech in China. Some Chinese social media users started to post references to the 2019 Hong Kong protests, uploading clips of “Do You Hear People Sing” from Les Miserables, which became a protest anthem during last year’s mass demonstrations. Even more daringly, some posted photos from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest and massacre, one of the most taboo subjects in China.

One image that surfaced from Tiananmen was an image of a banner from the 1989 protest that reads: “We shall not let those murderers stand tall so they will block our wind of freedom from blowing.”

The censors frantically kept pace. In the span of a quarter hour from 23:16 to around 23:30, over 20 million searches for information on the death of Li Wenliang were winnowed down to fewer than 2 million, according to a Hong Kong-based outlet The Initium. The #DrLiWenLiangDied topic was dragged from number 3 on the trending topics list to number 7 within roughly the same time period.

The #WeWantFreedomofSpeech and #IWantFreedomofSpeech hashtags were deleted as soon as they gained momentum. As the night dragged on, the deletions became more vigorous and even ridiculous: Excerpts from the Chinese Constitution that supposedly guarantee its citizens’ right to freedom of speech were censored; even China’s national anthem fell under the censors’ radar because it begins with the words “Rise Up, People Who Do Not Want To Be Slaves.”

“I hope Sina blows up all of our Weibo accounts today, so we can use this debris to build Dr. Li a gravestone,” wrote Li Jingrui, a Chinese reporter.

Since the night of February 7, whole publications have fallen to the scythe. On January 27, an opinion blog called Dajia published an article titled “50 Days into the Outbreak, The Entire Nation is Bearing the Consequence of the Death of the Media.” By February 19, the entire site was shut down, never to resurface.

On March 10, an article about another medical whistleblower in Wuhan—another potential Li—was published and then swiftly wiped off the internet, which began yet another vast cat-and-mouse game between censors and Chinese social media users. The story, published by People, profiled a doctor, who, as she put it, had “handed out the whistle” by alerting other physicians about the emergence of a SARS-like virus in late December. The article reported that she had been scolded by hospital management for not keeping the information a secret.

Soon after it was deleted, Chinese social media users started to recreate the article in every way imaginable: They translated it into over 10 languages; transcribed the piece in Morse code; wrote it out in ancient Chinese script; incorporated its content into a scannable QR code; and even rewrote it in Klingon—all in an effort to evade the censorship machine. All of these efforts were eradicated from the internet.

While articles and posts that displease Chinese censors continue to be expunged across the Chinese internet, the messages that thrive on television and state-sanctioned sites are rosy: News anchors narrate videos of nurses saying how honored they have been to fight for their country despite all the hardships and video clips of China “generously” shipping planeloads of medical equipment to other countries hit hard by the virus are playing on a loop.

As the outbreak began to slow down in mainland China, the government remained cautious in filtering out any information that might contradict the seemingly unstoppable trend of recovery. On March 4, a Shanghai news site called The Paper reported that a Covid-19 patient who had been discharged from the hospital in late February later died in a post-discharge isolation center; another news site questioned whether hospitals were discharging patients prematurely for the sake of “clearing all cases.” Both stories vanished.

On April 8, travel restrictions in Wuhan were finally lifted, and the measures used to contain the outbreak continue to ease. The government, meanwhile, is aggressively pushing for the public to show its gratitude toward the ruling party for its supposedly efficient response. TV stations are playing patriotic documentaries to showcase the government’s measures to combat the pandemic. By constantly comparing the scale of the outbreak in the United States with that in China, the government is feeding its people reasons to be grateful for their authoritarian government.

But it’s unlikely that the masses of people who watched posts being expunged from the internet will forget how they were governed in the pandemic. On March 17, I picked up my phone, opened my Weibo account, and typed out the following sentence: “You are waiting for their apology, and they are waiting for your appreciation.” The post promptly earned me a 404 badge.

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