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Is China telling the truth about coronavirus?

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Coronavirus

Missing journalists and online censorship raise concerns over state secrecy

In Depth James Ashford
Friday, February 14, 2020 - 11:04am

A senior White House official has criticised China for a “lack of transparency” over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

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The virus has killed nearly 1,400 people, with all but three of the deaths recorded in mainland China. More than 5,000 new cases were reported in the country on Friday, extinguishing hopes that the virus will soon be contained.

The Guardian reports that senior government leaders in Beijing have called for other areas in China to “adopt quarantine and rescue measures equal to that of Wuhan”, the city at the centre of the outbreak, which has been under lockdown since 23 JanuaryBut not everyone is convinced 

What did the White House say?

Larry Kudlow, the director of the US National Economic Council, told White House reporters on Thursday that he was “disappointed” by China’s apparent opaqueness around its handling of the outbreak.

“We are a little disappointed that we haven’t been invited in and we’re a little disappointed in the lack of transparency coming from the Chinese,” Kudlow said. 

He claimed Chinese President Xi Jinping had told Donald Trump that Beijing would accept US help, but had yet to do so, reports the South China Morning Post.

Kudlow said that Washington was “more than willing” to work with the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO) to tackle the crisis, but that Beijing “won’t let us”.

I don’t know what their motives are. I do know that apparently more and more people are suffering over there,” he continued.

Referring to the top leadership body of China’s ruling Communist Party, he added: “Is the Politburo really being honest with us?”

China today revised down the number of deaths from coronavirus in the country to 1,380, following a reported spike in cases in previous days. China’s National Health Commission eliminated 108 deaths from the total after apparently discovering “duplicate statistics” in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, but did not provide more details.

“These numbers are jumping around… there was some surprise,” said Kudlow.

Is China telling the truth?

During the initial outbreak of the new coronavirus, known as Covid-19, officials in Wuhan “thought they had everything under control”, says Wired.

“Two days before Wuhan went into quarantine, provincial leaders watched dance troupes in the city’s auditorium,” says the science and tech news site. “While officials likely reported the virus to higher-ups, they also seemingly underplayed its severity – likely scared of reprimands and being seen as incapable of handling a situation. Their default setting? Keep quiet and suppress.”

The virus spread rapidly in the following days, leaving Wuhan medical teams understaffed and short on supplies.

Now, the state’s desperation to declare victory in containing the coronavirus is putting pressure on local governments to keep the number of reported cases as low as possible.

Meanwhile, investigative news outlet Southern Weekend has reported that tests in China to determine whether patients carry the coronavirus have produced incorrect results in some cases. Those given the all clear by hospitals as non-infectious could, in fact, be infected yet are carrying on with business as usual, putting others at risk.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Yaqiu Wang, Chinese authorities are currently “equally, if not more, concerned with silencing criticism as with containing the spread of the virus”, the BBC reports.

“The authoritarian Chinese government has a history of harassing and detaining citizens for speaking the truth or for criticising the authorities during public emergencies, for example, during Sars in 2003, Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, Wenzhou train crash in 2011 and Tianjin chemical explosion in 2015,” she told the broadcaster.

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Dr Li Wenliang

The Chinese censorship machine has been busy deleting online posts related to the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who first warned friends on popular social media app WeChat of a coming Sars-like illness.

He was reprimanded by Chinese police and told not to spread “false comments” for alerting colleagues, and his findings dismissed as rumours. The 34-year-old, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, subsequently became infected with the virus. 

Days before his death on 6 February, Dr Li told reporters that silencing truth-tellers can make a country sick. “I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society,” he said.

In the hours following his death, nearly two million Chinese social media users shared or viewed a hashtag translated as “I want freedom of speech”, before it was deleted by censors, says The Economist.

Missing journalists

Human rights lawyer-turned-video journalist Chen Qiushi travelled to Wuhan to report on the outbreak, sharing videos of corpses lying in Wuhan’s hospital corridors at the outset of the epidemic.

“I will use my camera to document what is really happening. I promise I won’t… cover up the truth,” he said in his first YouTube video. 

Chen knew that his reporting put him at risk, telling the BBC earlier this month that he was unsure how long he would be able to continue.

“The censorship is very strict and people’s accounts are being closed down if they share my content,” he said.

On 7 February, a video was shared on his Twitter account - which is being run by a friend - featuring his mother, who said Chen had gone missing the day before.

The friend later alleged in a YouTube video that Chen had been forcibly quarantined. The journalist has not been heard from since.

Another whistle-blower, Wuhan businessman Fang Bin, also posted videos about the outbreak to “report on the actual situation here”.

He uploaded his videos to YouTube, using a VPN to get around Chinese censorship laws that ban the website. A clip uploaded on 1 February appears to show eight corpses piled in a minibus outside a hospital in Wuhan.

On 9 February, he posted a 13-second video with the title “all people revolt - hand the power of the government back to the people”. 

“After that, the account went silent,” says the BBC.

Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International, this week said it was still unclear whether Chen or Fang “were taken away by police or placed under ‘forced quarantine’”.

China needs to “understand that freedom of information, transparency and the respect for human rights facilitate disease control, not hinder it,” said HRW’s Wang. “Authorities are doing themselves a disservice by [allegedly] disappearing Fang and Chen.”

Chinese authorities have failed to issue any statements about the whereabouts of either of the two men.

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