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Chinese government puts ‘citizen journalist’ in suspicious quarantine over virus reporting

It is difficult to obtain reliable biographic info on Chen Qiushi. From the videos he posts he looks even younger than his 34 years. He has a law degree, if we can go by a troll who posted multiple times on his videos (denounced as a government hack in replies), saying that Chen is only doing what he is doing now because no clients would hire him as a lawyer anymore. Chen calls himself a “citizen journalist” and reported from Hong Kong last fall about the protests, and then from Wuhan last month about the coronavirus outbreak. Since the evening of February 6 none of his family and friends have heard anything from him.

His case represents an intersection of two internal challenges which have been growing within China: the weiquan “rights protectors” who use China’s attempts to portray itself as a “rule of law” state to confront abuses through legal arguments within the system; and the jokers and hackers on the Chinese Internet who try to circumvent the pervasive censorship, either by finding ways to speak evasively on the approved social media sites such as Weibo and WeChat, or by working around the “Great Firewall of
China” to access forbidden foreign sites such as Twitter and YouTube, or since April even Wikipedia.

The two phenomena often intersect, since the regime’s response to any incident that reflects badly on any official is typically to suppress all discussion of it, while rights protectors need to stir up public awareness to generate pressure. The government gives in, if public outrage becomes loud enough, more often than outsiders might think.


To give one example which involved Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, during the SARS outbreak, the last time a novel virus from China caused hundreds of deaths: Sun Zhigang (1976-2003) was from outside the city of Huanggang in Hubei, and attended university in Wuhan but could not find a job. At celebrations of the Lunar New Year in 2003 he told family and friends he intended to go to the Shenzhen Economic Zone in Guangdong province. Supposedly, only those with government-issued residency permits are allowed to work in these boom areas, but in practice companies are as reliant on illegal migrants as, say, produce farms in California. He was arrested in Guangzhou on March 17, and called friends in Hubei to ask them to bring his ID card. He had not bothered to bring it since it was marked rural residence only, and would not have been helpful, but having no ID at all on him made the charges worse. The police beat him severely, and he died that March 20.

The family did not believe it when the police told them he had died of natural causes, given the appearance of the body. Lawyers in Guangzhou would not help, but a rights protector in Wuhan, Wang Xiangbin, raised funds for an autopsy and pursued the case with authorities relentlessly. Reporters at Nanfang City News, a Guangzhou newspaper with one of the largest circulations in the world, broke the story on April 25. Crucially, the Internet was swamped at the time with criticisms of the government’s handling of the SARS outbreak so the censors had their hands full, and the Sun Zhigang story spread under their radar. Phoenix TV, headquartered in Hong Kong and more difficult for Beijing to control, did a piece interviewing the tearful family. When Southern Metropolis Daily, a tabloid affiliate of Nanfeng Media, also picked it up, the government belatedly responded, arresting the chief editor Cheng Yizhong for “corruption” alleging that he had been paid to cover the story. Outraged social-media posts from all over the country alerted the government that it was too late to cover up the affair, so officials changed to their other typical response, designating scapegoats. One was executed, another given a suspended death sentence, and a dozen more given prison terms from six months to three years, while the Sun family was given a $53,000 settlement (a lot of money in rural China).

But the rights protectors pressed on, appealing to the National People’s Congress that the Custody & Repatriation Act, which gave police broad powers to sweep up people working in urban areas without the residency permit, was unconstitutional since it had only been passed by the State Council and laws restricting personal freedom must, in theory, be passed by the Congress. Like many dictatorships, China has a constitution (latest version enacted 1982, with multiple amendments especially in 2004 and 2018) promising many rights that usually mean little. It is a particularly Kafkaesque irony that hashtags citing Article 35, with its guarantee of free speech, are censored immediately. There is no constitutional court with the authority to strike down a law for violating the constitution. In this case, though, Premier Wen Jiabao accepted the argument and declared in June 2003 that the law would be replaced with a Measure To Assist Vagrants With No Means Of Support. In practice the system is little changed except that police are now reluctant to beat “vagrants” to death. But Wuhan has become one of the places where rights protectors feel most emboldened.

The level of thought control which China would prefer to impose would practically require hiring half the population to censor the other half one on one. Artificial intelligence flagging suspicious phrasings for attention by a more feasible number of censors (Amnesty International estimates that the Ministry of Public Security employs between 30,000 and 50,000 in this capacity; Public Security is the Ministry whose budget has grown most rapidly in recent years) can only go so far. The problem is that the Chinese language is especially well adapted for speaking evasively. Words are formed from one-syllable roots with a tone (rising, falling, steady, or wavering) as well as consonant and vowel. Puns which substitute roots of unrelated meaning distinguished only by tone, or sometimes roots which are the same down to the tone and distinguished only by written character (in speech, only by context), are pervasive. Thus 8 is an unlucky number because it sounds like “death” and 748 is an insulting Internet reply sounding like “Die right away!” while 23 is Chinese for LOL since the characters for 2 and 3 put together look a little like the “Ha!” that is used for laughter (2333 is like LOLOLOL).

Words meaning “censored” are of course censored, so people would say “harmonized” in reference to a government statement that the Internet should contribute to a “harmonious society.” When héxié “harmonized” with two rising tones also became censored, people would say their posts were eaten by the héxiè “river crab” (falling tone on second syllable, and different character on the first). A daring animator “Crazy Crab” released a series of videos Hexie Farm in which animals on the farm sang their stories, to a sappy tune allegedly inspired by Disney’s It’s a Small World. The most popular animal was Cao Nima the “Mud Grass Horse” (depicted as an alpaca). Authorities were astonishingly slow to recognize that this name was, up to tones, “fuck your mother” and that the cheery song was full of double entendres both sexual and political: the March 2009 ban on YouTube was the response. Crazy Crab was never caught, but of course any reference to “river crab” is now censored. So people say they had problems with “what water yields” (the savvy of course realize this means river crab, which means harmonized, which means censored).

Wang Xiaofeng usually does light-hearted satire, but earned a lot of street-cred in 2006 when he appeared in a video wearing three wristwatches. Deng Xiaoping, who dominated China (though not holding the highest official titles) from Mao’s death in 1976 until his own in 1997, was purged in the 1960s as a “capitalist roader” for his economic approaches, and forcefully swept away socialist dogmatism when he came to power. He also rejected the antipathy to old Chinese culture of the “Cultural Revolution” period, insisting that China needed to embrace its heritage if modernization was not to turn it into a satellite of the West. Hopes that this was leading toward a more open democratic society were crushed in the June 4, 1989 crackdown on the protesters at Tienanmen Square: any oblique reference to this event will bring down the censors’ full fury. But it left a crisis of legitimacy: what did the Communist Party stand for anymore? Deng’s handpicked successor Jiang Zemin came up with the “Important Thought” of the “Three Represents” which was promoted throughout his presidency, and written into the Party platform when Jiang began retiring from his various posts in 2002. The Party represents 1. economic development, 2. cultural heritage, and 3. political unity. Wang popularized the pun “wearing three watches” (sounds like “Three Represents”) to refer to someone plugged into this system of state-sponsored crony capitalism justified by nationalistic cultural exhibitions.

Chen Qiushi is a brassy embodiment of a new generation of Chinese, brought up in this atmosphere of snarky resistance that constantly tests the edges of what they can get away with. From Hong Kong in August 2019 he repeatedly posted his views that the protesters were neither violent, except in response to police violence, nor lawbreakers, since they were only demanding what Chinese law nominally guaranteed them. The government takes a very different view, of course, and demanded in September that he return to Beijing to explain himself, under threat of having his Weibo and WeChat accounts (which had 740,000 followers) terminated. He complied, but his explanations did not satisfy the authorities, who shut down his accounts deleting all content. At the beginning of October he started posting to a YouTube account, and in a sign that knowledge of how to “climb” the Great Firewall is increasingly widespread, video of his reappearance was quickly mirrored on Weibo (though, of course, taken down quickly).

In January Chen, his close ally Xu Xiaodong (an MMA fighter nicknamed “Mad Dog”), and a half-dozen others infiltrated Wuhan, locked down since the end of 2019 in a belated effort to contain the coronavirus, but with no shortage of activists willing to provide safe houses. Chen and Xu appeared wearing wristwatches with their hands tied together (this author is not able to find out whether tying the hands together was just a gesture of unity or has some punny meaning) to launch a series of videos about the
shortage of supplies, confusion about what to do, and more damningly, the warnings which the government ignored from the doctors who first identified the disease.

The case of Dr. Li Wenliang, who was forced by Wuhan police to write an apology for “fear mongering” after correctly warning on December 30 that the new disease was likely to spread, and then contracted coronavirus himself, sparked an unprecedented outpouring of grief and fury on Thursday February 6 after premature reports of his death. The government denied he was dead, then the next day had to announce that he had died overnight.

The censors seemed unable to cope with the sheer number of posts about Dr. Li, but the authorities at least made sure to shut down Chen and his friends. On Thursday evening shortly after posting a disturbing video from Wuhan morgue, Fang Bin posted live as police battered down his door and took him into custody. On Friday there were numerous posts demanding Fang’s release, and he did reappear that evening, but Chen was not with him and he had no idea what had become of Chen. The government still seemed to be taken flat-footed by the outpouring, at first responding not by trying to censor all the protesting posts, but pushing back with posts purportedly from ordinary citizens asking for trust that authorities would properly investigate the questions raised by Dr. Li’s case. These were mocked as coming from the “Five Mao Party”: this phrase can be explained to police as meaning the five top officials who hold titles once held by Mao Zedong, but there is a small coin called a “Mao” in slang and it is widely believed that five of these per post is the going rate for pro-government propaganda.

Over the weekend postings took a more dangerous turn demanding “Where is Xi?” (the President, who has not made any kind of public statement) so the censors finally started mass deletions. On Saturday “Mad Dog” Xu posted that Chen’s mother had been informed that Chen was taken in “for reasons of quarantine” but questions about where he was being held went unanswered.

Robert Eckert is a longtime member of the Underground Bunker community and author of the historical novel The Year of Five Emperors.

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