The coronavirus crisis in China has posed unprecedented political challenges to the authorities and prompted them to further crack down on speech freedom and tighten control over people in a desperate move to bolster the regime, say analysts and activists.
After President Xi Jinping ordered “resolute efforts” to curb the spread of coronavirus in his first public remarks on the disease on 20 January, Wuhan was swiftly placed under lockdown. Millions of communities across China also began to implement draconian epidemic control measures.
The rough implementation of epidemic control has resulted in extensive human rights abuses across China, analysts say. Disturbing images have emerged on social media showing people chained up and paraded on streets, or beaten by police for not wearing masks. Footage has also shown officers installing metal bars or chains outside people’s homes to prevent them leaving.
Propaganda banners with threatening messages have been put up around the country. “A surgical mask or a breathing tube? Your choice,” said one. “Those who don’t report their fever are class enemies hiding among the people,” another said.
The coronavirus has turned into an epidemic that has so far infected more than 75,000 and killed more than 2,000, mostly in China. In Hubei province, home to the epicentre of the virus, Wuhan city, there have been nearly 50,000 confirmed cases.
In a desperate move Wuhan this week began to confine all communities in the city of 11 million people to their homes and authorities said anyone seen on the streets without permission would be severely punished. Officers started to carry out new house-to-house checks to seek out and “round up” all infected patients.
Citizens of Wuhan say they are forbidden from even taking strolls in their neighbourhood and shopping for food. “People are gripped by fear and anxiety, and we are extremely angry because this disaster is entirely manmade,” said a Wuhan resident who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals.
“If they didn’t detain Dr Li Wenliang for ‘spreading rumours’ and told us the virus was under control, none of this would have happened.”
The whistleblowing doctor alerted colleagues in late December to a mysterious disease that turned out to be coronavirus. Wuhan police censured him on 3 January and state television CCTV accused eight people, including Li, of “spreading false rumours”. Li’s death from coronavirus infection this month sparked widespread demands for speech freedom online, although cyber-police quickly took down those posts.
But the authorities do not seem to have learned their lesson. Cases of further crackdowns on speech abound. While the new decree from Wuhan said people would be punished for not reporting cases, it also warned that “fabrication” and the spread of “rumours” would be severely punished.
The government of the south-western province of Yunnan announced in early February that 25 people were detained or censured for “fabricating and spreading rumours” over the coronavirus epidemic. Last week three more in the province were detained over the same accusation.
The authorities are also using epidemic control as a pretext to detain government critics. Two citizen journalists, Wuhan native Fang Bin and lawyer Chen Qiushi, who have reported on the situation in Wuhan, have disappeared under the guise of “quarantine”.
The law professor Xu Zhangrun, who criticised Xi over the coronavirus crisis in an essay, was also put under house arrest under pretext of quarantine. The activist and legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, who has also lambasted Xi for mishandling the epidemic and other crises, was detained last Saturday.
“Restrictions of personal freedoms used to happen only to activists, but now millions in China know how it feels to be under house arrest,” said Hu Jia, a veteran activist who has been previously jailed and often detained.
“This epidemic poses the gravest challenge to the authorities since 1989 [the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement],” he said. “I have never seen so much demand for speech freedom – people now understand it is a matter of life and death. The authorities are afraid that people have awakened.”
Johnny Lau, a veteran commentator on Chinese politics, said the Communist party’s intensification of control over free speech was aimed at bolstering the power of the regime but would ultimately cause political and social instability.
“When people are kept in the dark and they don’t trust the government, their [discontent] would turn into protests,” Lau said.