Coronavirus: China tries to contain outbreak of freedom of speech, closing critics’ WeChat accounts

Kristin Huang

Several Chinese intellectuals have had their social media accounts suspended following their demands for freedom of expression and criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

The intellectuals had said the impact of the coronavirus – which had caused more than 78,000 confirmed infections and 2,715 deaths in mainland China as of Wednesday – might have been alleviated if people had been free to raise warnings when there were early signs of an outbreak.

Qin Qianhong, a law professor from Wuhan University, a top-ranking institution in the city that has been the epicentre of the outbreak, said his WeChat account had been disabled since last Wednesday.

He said it could be because he raised concerns in his WeChat posts over the extreme lockdown measures imposed on the Hubei provincial capital, and questioned state media reports that praised the sacrifices of Wuhan residents.

His posts mocked Wuhan officials, three of whom said they felt “guilty” after being reprimanded by central government officials sent to oversee containment of the outbreak.

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“If only one day they might feel guilty after being criticised by the public [rather than by officials],” he wrote in a post on February 12.

Qin also criticised the decision to boost the scores of medical workers’ children sitting the high school entrance exam in June. He said no official explanation had been given for the suspension of his WeChat account.

Qin Qianhong is among those who have had their social media accounts suspended. Photo: Wuhan University School of Law

“Maybe it is because I am critical and straightforward, which the authorities regard as unacceptable,” he told the South China Morning Post. “The public has a lot to say, but they are not allowed to express it … and the epidemic is getting serious.

“If we had let people raise society’s alarm and the government had taken prompt measures, this outbreak may not have turned into a big crisis.”

Calls for freedom of speech have been mounting in mainland China since whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang died on February 7 after becoming infected with the coronavirus. Li was reprimanded by Wuhan police after a WeChat message he sent his friends on December 30, about an unknown pneumonia at his hospital in Wuhan, was posted online. Two days later, the local health authority announced 27 cases of viral pneumonia had been found, while Wuhan police said they had punished eight people for “spreading rumours”.

Li was also forced to write a “self-criticism” to his employer, in which he “compared [my behaviour] with the Communist Party’s constitution, party regulations and the spirit of a series of speeches [by party leaders]”. He vowed to “keep in line in thought and action with the party’s Central Committee”.

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Mainland intellectuals said Li’s death showed one of the risks of China’s suppression of freedom of speech. Peking University law professor He Weifang wrote in an article shared with friends via WeChat that poor governance, the lack of a free press, and an information blackout had made the outbreak worse.

He’s article – despite it being handwritten in an attempt to bypass state censors – was soon deleted, and his WeChat account was suspended.

Zhang Qianfan, another Peking University law professor, also had his WeChat account suspended for three days last week after reposting He’s article.

“Suspending WeChat accounts shows that there is no freedom of expression,” he said.

Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan’s account was suspended after he reposted a colleague’s article arguing censorship had compounded the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Tory Ho

Chinese authorities have stepped up their efforts to suppress dissenting views during the epidemic.

The official WeChat account of Dajia, an opinion blog run by internet giant Tencent Holdings, was removed on Wednesday last week and its homepage was unavailable. The blog had featured posts about social issues by some of China’s leading intellectuals and independent thinkers since its inception in 2012.

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The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced earlier this month that it had punished a range of platforms and publishers for content it deemed unsuitable and misleading.

CAC said it had “supervised and guided” companies including Sina, Tencent and ByteDance – owners of the country’s most popular social platforms Weibo, WeChat and Douyin (known outside China as TikTok) respectively.

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