Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

Coronavirus and China’s Missing Citizen Journalists

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang takes a question from a journalist in Beijing, China, March 18, 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
They were detained for telling the truth about the coronavirus

Three Chinese citizen journalists have gone missing in recent months. They are presumed to have been detained by Chinese authorities after posting videos on social media documenting the reality of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The most recent Chinese citizen journalist to suffer this fate was Li Zehua. Li was living a picture-perfect life. After graduating from one of China’s best universities, he began working as a news anchor for China’s most important and prominent state TV station, CCTV. At the age of 25, handsome and thriving, Li was a rising star. Had he stayed within the boundaries the Chinese authorities have drawn and not raised concerns over the topics that Beijing deemed “sensitive,” he might have lived a good, prosperous life. The coronavirus has changed everything — at least for Li and many like-minded young adults in China.

Unlike their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, today’s young Chinese have no living memories of the atrocities that the Chinese Communist Party has committed since 1949. Massive famine and poverty, minuscule food rations, and millions of people who perished are now a part of history that has gone up in flames, never to be spoken of again. The Chinese authorities have made sure that Communist China’s history, from 1949 to 1989 (including the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre), is scraped clean or reduced to just a few historically inaccurate paragraphs. Today’s young Chinese grew up with little to no awareness of what has happened, not knowing that the glorious Communist China sits on the corpses of millions of innocent people.

With neither living memories nor historical knowledge, young Chinese today do not see the CCP as an evildoer. They grew up in a China that has been a rising world power with signs of prosperity and modernity everywhere. The social contract the Chinese government has offered to them — limited freedom in exchange for stability and prosperity — appears to have worked out well for almost every citizen. So what if they can’t access a few Western social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter? Western-style democracy wouldn’t work in China anyway, the CCP has told them.

But the spread of the coronavirus has exposed the Achilles’ heel of this social contract. When everyone has the potential to be infected, when they hear stories of people who had to walk an hour to seek treatment only to be turned away, when they read the countless pleas for help and heartbreaking stories online, and when they see videos of overcrowded hospitals and overworked medical staff, they see the façade of stability and prosperity crumbling right before their eyes. They are hungry for information. They want to know how to protect themselves and their families. In the past, the search for information and truth would always eventually run up against a wall, and they would just give up. However, the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the handful of early whistleblowers on the coronavirus outbreak, awakened many Chinese, especially the young. They finally realized that the stability and prosperity they were promised and for which they gave up their freedom was nothing but a beautifully wrapped lie.

This is a generation that grew up with the abundance of social media, a generation that is constantly influenced by Western cultures through fashion, music, movies, and YouTube videos. They value freedom of expression. Like young people in the West, they want to instantly share with the world what they see and how they feel. They grew up with electronic gadgets; they have the technological know-how to bypass the Chinese government’s Internet firewall. Since the coronavirus outbreak, some of these young people have taken to heart Dr. Li’s final words: “A healthy society shouldn’t have only one voice.” They have decided to do something about it — through seeking and sharing truth on their own.

That’s what Li Zehua set out to do. He quit his job and found a way to get into Wuhan. With the locals’ help, he was able to get a car and find a place to stay. By sheer coincidence, Li’s new temporary lodging was right next to the former lodging of another young citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi, who had previously posted videos about his visits to Wuhan. By the time Li arrived in Wuhan, Chen had “disappeared,” gone since February 7. Government officials told Chen’s family and friends that Chen had been put into forced medical quarantine, but they refused to disclose when and where.

Undeterred, Li started posting videos of his visits to infected locations such as college campuses and funeral homes. He interviewed residents, migrant workers, and employees at the funeral homes. Li said in one of his videos, “If one Chen Qiushi falls, 10 million more Chen Qiushis will stand up to take his place.” Li’s words held true. Through his reporting, we learned that local authorities didn’t carry out promised disinfectant measures in infected communities and that residents were running low on groceries. These are the types of information China’s state-run media would not dare to report, but Li chose to. For exposing the truth, Li was often harassed by the local police and self-identified security guards, but he continued to do what he regarded as legitimate reporting.

On February 26, when Li was on his way back from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which many conspiracy theorists believe was responsible for creating and spreading the coronavirus, he posted a short video while he was being chased at high speed by a public-security vehicle. Viewers can hear him exclaim, “They’re chasing me. . . . I’m sure that they want to hold me in isolation. Please help me!”

Li made it back to his apartment and started livestreaming again. He was visibly shaken by the chase and knew very well that something baleful was getting close to him. Then he heard a knock at the door. Through the peephole, he saw two big guys outside. It was to be his final hour of freedom. Before he opened the door, he made an impassioned speech.

Li said: “Since I first arrived in Wuhan, everything I have done has been in accord with the constitution of the People’s Republic of China and with its laws.” Knowing he would be taken away and even forcibly quarantined, just like Chen Qiushi, Li made sure to note in the video that he had protective gear and that he was healthy at the moment of his arrest. It was important for him to emphasize this on the record, because if the Chinese government later claimed that Li was sick and quarantined or even had died of the coronavirus, the rest of the world, especially Li’s family, would know it was a lie.

Many Chinese youths today “probably have no idea at all what happened in our past,” Li went on to say. “They think the history they have now is the one they deserve.” Li hoped that more young people would join him in standing up for the truth. After these words, Li opened the door. Two men in masks and dressed fully in black walked in. The camera was abruptly shut off, and the livestreaming stopped. No one has heard from Li since that day. Thanks to the China Media Project, Li’s final speech was translated into English.

Li is the third Chinese citizen journalist detained by Chinese authorities since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. The other two journalists are Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi. Chinese authorities will continue to ruthlessly suppress these truth-tellers. However, something has changed inside China. The pandemic has become a wake-up call for Chinese people. Many of them are starting to realize that freedom of expression is essential for their own and their families’ well-being, even their survival. Last week, when a senior Communist Party official visited a lockdown community in Wuhan, residents were forbidden to come out. So a handful of them shouted from their apartments, “Everything is fake.” This week, the Chinese censors deleted an interview of a Wuhan doctor who discussed the local government’s early cover-up. According to BuzzFeed, Chinese Internet users have been implementing all kinds of creative ways to share the interview, including “rewriting it backward, filling it with typos and emojis, sharing it as a PDF, and even translating it into fictional languages like Klingon.” Beijing is making a big mistake if it thinks that more repression will silence all Chinese people into submission going forward.

This article appears as “China’s Missing Citizen Journalists” in the April 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Helen Raleigh is the owner of Red Meadow Advisors, LLC, a senior contributor to the Federalist, and the author of Confucius Never Said.

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