China spent the crucial first days of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak arresting people who posted about it online and threatening journalists
In the early days of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, Chinese officials arrested citizens they accused of spreading rumors about the illness online. Journalists have also reported being detained and threatened by Chinese authorities while covering the outbreak. Experts are now faulting the Chinese government for its harsh crackdown on the flow of information about the virus. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
As the Wuhan coronavirus death toll rose to at least 18 on Thursday, the Chinese government is facing questions over its vice grip on the flow of information in the early days of the outbreak. In early January, Wuhan police said they had arrested eight people for spreading "rumors" about what was then a mysterious pneumonia causing serious complications in patients. When the coronavirus made national headlines, more and more journalists started reporting being detained or threatened with arrest by Chinese authorities while reporting on the outbreak. The Wuhan outbreak immediately hearkened back to the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, which the Chinese government tried to cover up. The two viruses are in the same family, which also includes the common cold and pneumonia, but Wuhan so far is much milder than SARS. While the government was almost immediately forthcoming with the international community about this outbreak, its actions in suppressing information at home have left some experts concerned that it made the situation a lot worse.
Aside from the actions of the Chinese government, Eric Toner, a senior scientist at Johns Hopkins University, said the virus itself still has a lot of unknowns that heath officials need to figure out. "The information that has been coming out of China so far is incomplete," Toner told Business Insider's Aria Bendix. "There's an awful lot we don't yet know." Wuhan police make arrests as the disease spreads Chinese officials first reported the outbreak to the World Health Organization on December 31. Early on, officials cracked down on talk about the illness online. Just four days later, Wuhan police said they had summoned eight people for spreading "rumors" about the virus. According to Poynter, the people who were arrested posted on the social networking site Weibo and/or other messaging apps that SARS was back. Poynter tried to figure out what had happened to the eight people, but struggled. It reported that the state-owned Global Times cited an anonymous police source who said the group was not kept in custody or punished. Journalists are threatened and detained for reporting on the fast-moving virus There have also been concerning reports of journalists being detained or threatened with arrest while reporting on the coronavirus in Wuhan. The Hong Kong news outlet TVB reported on January 14 that a group of journalists, including a reporter from their outlet, were detained for hours while covering the outbreak at a Wuhan hospital that has been treating patients. According to the report, the journalists were at Jinyintan Hospital to get a briefing in the morning when a "group of plainclothes policemen" confronted them and started asking questions. TVB said their reporter was "then taken to the police room in the hospital for questioning, and asked to delete the materials shot in the hospital." Time reporter Charlie Campbell recalled a similar incident while reporting at the seafood market pinpointed as the source of the outbreak. He said he was "repeatedly threatened with arrest while observing the scene from the street." "A police officer at the market would only confirm they were continuing 'analysis,'" he wrote.
History repeating itself? China has been more transparent with the international community with this outbreak than it was with SARS. Then, the government underreported cases until a whistleblower doctor revealed the truth. But when it comes to giving information to its own people, the message from China has been lacking. In the early days of the outbreak, officials downplayed the seriousness of the virus, saying that it was controlled, according to The New York Times. Poynter reported that officials initially said that the virus came from animals and could not be spread from human to human, something that later proved to be incorrect. Just days before the entire city was quarantined, Wuhan hosted a major banquet involving 40,000 families in order to set a world record, The Times reported.
The virus wasn't even front page news on the Wuhan Evening News, the city's bestselling newspaper, from January 6 to 19, according to the Financial Times. It was during this time that the city was hosting annual meetings for top municipal and provincial officials (January 7-17). Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese bureaucracy at the University of Chicago, told FT that this event was most certainly a factor in the toned-down government response. "This is a major factor that the authorities in Wuhan city sought to project an air of calm and most likely delayed taking action to stop the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus," Yang said. A public health expert, who asked not to be named, told FT: "There is a question of whether the alert [was] in place sufficiently quickly this time."
While the official order is that anyone who hides infections will be "forever nailed to history's pillar of shame," the actions taken by the government so far are telling a different story. "The authorities are sending a signal, which is that only the government agencies can talk about the epidemic," Yu Ping, a former Southern Metropolis Daily reporter, wrote on his personal blog, according to The New York Times. "All other people should just shut up." The crackdown on misinformation has also led to some discontent among average Chinese citizens talking about the outbreak online. "Why is the government scared of public discussion?" one Weibo user wrote, according to Time. "They are slow to handle the crisis, but fast to shut people up." "If the government wants us to trust them, they should be trustworthy, first," another Weibo user said. "If we have lost confidence in them, the government needs to reflect on itself instead of shutting people up."
Read more: The Wuhan coronavirus has killed 18 people and infected more than 630. Here's everything we know about the outbreak. China's version of TikTok launches feature to spread awareness and fight Wuhan coronavirus Wuhan, China, and 5 other cities have been quarantined as China attempts to halt the spread of the coronavirus. That's about 23 million people on lockdown. A scientist warns we haven't seen the worst of the Wuhan coronavirus — it could reach 10 times the scale of the SARS outbreak and peak in March Join the conversation about this story »
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A 4th Chinese citizen journalist was reportedly detained after livestreaming what life was like in Wuhan at the height of its coronavirus outbreak
A former lawyer was detained after livestreaming videos from Wuhan, China, that were critical of the...A former lawyer was detained after livestreaming videos from Wuhan, China, that were critical of the Chinese government, according to the South China Morning Post. Zhang Zhan had been blogging about life in Wuhan on social-media platforms like YouTube and Twitter since February. According to the report, the 37-year-old was accused by authorities of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" and was arrested Friday. According to the Morning Post, Zhang is the fourth citizen journalist known to have gone missing after reporting on activities in Wuhan. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. A former lawyer was detained after livestreaming videos from Wuhan, China, that were critical of the Chinese government, according to the South China Morning Post. Zhang Zhan's friends told the Morning Post that her family had received confirmation on Friday that she was being held at a detention center in Shanghai. According to the report, the 37-year-old was accused by authorities of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble." Zhang had been blogging about her daily life on social-media platforms like YouTube and Twitter, which are banned in China. Her latest video, posted Wednesday, criticized Chinese authorities' attempts to contain the novel coronavirus. According to the Morning Post, Zhang had been living in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus had first emerged, since February 1. Zhang was in Wuhan while it was placed under lockdown for nearly three months as the number of cases in mainland China spiked. Zhang went missing Thursday, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, citing local reports. If convicted of a crime, she could face up to five years in prison, the organization said. According to the Morning Post, Zhang is the fourth citizen journalist known to have gone missing after reporting on activities in Wuhan. A human-rights lawyer named Chen Qiushi went missing in February after he traveled to Wuhan in January to record the situation. Friends and family of the 34-year-old said he was forcibly quarantined by the police, and he has not been seen since. Li Zehua, 25, was detained in Wuhan on February 26 and livestreamed his encounter with the police. He reappeared online in late April — nearly two months after the incident — and said he had spent two weeks "quarantined" in Wuhan as well as his hometown. The police arrested another person, Fang Bin, in Wuhan on February 10. In one of his videos, he accused the government of a cover-up. His most recent video was posted to his YouTube channel on February 9, and he has not been seen since. And last week, the Chinese human-rights lawyer Zhang Xuezhong was detained after posting a letter on WeChat criticizing the government's response to COVID-19. In his letter, seen by the Morning Post, Zhang said the handling of the coronavirus pandemic was emblematic of deep-rooted issues within the country's leadership. According to the Morning Post, he was released a day later. China is known for censoring criticism of its policies, and dissenters have been jailed or disappeared after making complaints. A Wuhan doctor named Li Wenliang died of the novel coronavirus after being silenced by the local police for trying to warn his peers of the possibility of a viral outbreak. He died February 7. Chinese government censors are working in overdrive to protect the party narrative regarding the new coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan before spreading worldwide. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the Chinese government was silencing coronavirus survivors seeking answers on what went wrong with the country's early coronavirus response.Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: What makes 'Parasite' so shocking is the twist that happens in a 10-minute sequence
After SARS, Chinese health officials built an infectious disease reporting system to evade political meddling. But...After SARS, Chinese health officials built an infectious disease reporting system to evade political meddling. But when the coronavirus emerged, so did fears of upsetting Beijing.
Authorities in Beijing have wrapped up an investigation into the death of doctor and novel coronavirus...Authorities in Beijing have wrapped up an investigation into the death of doctor and novel coronavirus whistleblower Li Wenliang. The National Supervisory Commission said Thursday that investigators concluded local authorities in Wuhan mishandled the situation and followed "irregular" and "improper" law enforcement procedures. Li, one of eight doctors police reprimanded, was forced to sign a letter acknowledging that he was "making false comments." He died from the coronavirus in early February. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. China has admitted that attempts to silence doctor and novel coronavirus whistleblower Li Wenliang were "improper," Chinese state media reported Thursday. Wrapping up an investigation into the young ophthalmologist's death, the National Supervisory Commission said investigators concluded that local authorities in Wuhan mishandled the situation and followed "irregular" and "improper" law enforcement procedures. Li sent a message to his former classmates from medical school on December 30, warning that a handful of patients in Wuhan had symptoms similar to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus and urging them to be cautious. Screenshots of Li's message went viral online. "I only wanted to remind my university classmates to be careful," he later told CNN. "When I saw them circulating online, I realized that it was out of my control and I would probably be punished." Li, one of eight doctors who police reprimanded, was forced to sign a letter acknowledging that he was "making false comments." The doctor checked into Wuhan Central Hospital on January 12 after revealing on Weibo that he had been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. He died on February 7. "During the fight against the novel coronavirus outbreak, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at our hospital, was infected. Efforts to save him were ineffective. He died at 2:58 a.m. on Feb. 7. We deeply regret and mourn his death," Wuhan Central Hospital stated shortly after his death. As Li's passing sparked public outrage, China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said it would send investigators to look into "issues raised by the people in connection with Dr. Li," Reuters reported. Putting the blame on local law enforcement, investigators advised that the police officers involved in reprimanding Li be punished and that the letter of admonition be withdrawn. The letter has been withdrawn. The US and China have sparred over who is to blame for the virus China has faced criticism, especially from the US, for its handling of the coronavirus, which has spread to over 200,000 people worldwide after first appearing in Wuhan. "Rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up," White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said last week, adding, "It probably cost the world community two months to respond." China has been working hard to reshape the narrative on the coronavirus, with some officials arguing that the virus may not have originated in China and fueling unfounded speculation that it may have originated in the US. Last week, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman drew the ire of the US State Department and the Department of Defense when he wrote on Twitter that "it might be US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan." In response, President Donald Trump has started calling the coronavirus the "Chinese virus." "China was putting out information, which was false, that our military gave this to them," he said at a recent press briefing. "Rather than have an argument, I said I have to call it where it came from, and it did come from China." China has expressed strong opposition to such comments. "Recent comments by US officials have smeared China," a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Thursday, adding, "The world should cooperate instead of insulting others and passing on responsibility." The US offered up a similar suggestion to China in response to suggestions that the US military might be responsible. The US is currently working to contain the virus, which has infected more than 9,400 people and resulted in at least 152 deaths domestically. Worldwide, more than 222,000 people have been infected and more than 9,000 have died. China has reported more than 81,000 cases, with 70,000 people recovered and 3,249 deaths.Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Here's how to survive an avalanche