BEIJING—China’s coronavirus outbreak has tested the limits of free speech on the country’s heavily censored online and social media, with a brief window of liberalization that opened during January subsequently slammed shut by authorities.
While censorship in China has tightened under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, questions of transparency around the current outbreak are especially sensitive after Beijing’s cover-up of the extent of the 2003 SARS epidemic fueled suspicion and mistrust, and led to official calls for openness this time around.
The period from Jan. 19 to Feb. 1, when public concern about the coronavirus exploded just as China was gearing up for the Lunar New Year holiday, saw an uncharacteristic loosening. Online buzz about the outbreak flourished, with netizens largely unfettered in criticizing local authorities—but not central government leaders—over their handling of the crisis.
That liberalization has come to end, with censors in the past week shutting down WeChat groups and scrubbing social media posts, according to Chinese reporters. Authorities have also reprimanded tech firms that gave free rein to online speech.
“Xi Jinping has made it clear that he expects efforts to strengthen ‘the guidance of public opinion’ to be increased,” said Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) who studies Chinese social media.
“We’ve already seen around 300 more journalists dispatched to Wuhan and surrounding areas to report on the outbreak. It’s highly likely their brief is to paint a rosier picture of the government’s relief efforts rather than engage in any muckraking or critical reporting.”
The cyberspace regulator, Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), did not respond to phone calls or to requests for comment sent by fax.
China’s censorship machine was tested last week when Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who had been reprimanded for issuing an early warning about coronavirus, died of the disease, triggering widespread outrage as well as mourning.
Online media outlets were permitted to report on Li’s death, but not the anger it had engendered, and early discussions on social media calling for the Wuhan government to apologize to him later disappeared.
A notice sent to editors working for an online Chinese news outlet and seen by Reuters asked them not to “comment or speculate” on Li’s death, “do not hashtag and let the topic gradually die out from the hot search list, and guard against harmful information.”
Sarah Cook, the China media bulletin director at Freedom House, said that previous crises had also seen brief windows of openness, such as the deadly 2011 crash of a high-speed train and the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when domestic journalists and social media users felt emboldened.
“At the same time, initially, officials might be a bit flat-footed and distracted dealing with an unexpected crisis so things slip through the cracks. Even censors within some social media companies may be sympathetic to some of the content and let it through,” she said.
‘Good Online Atmosphere’
The brief window of media freedom came after officials in Wuhan, where the outbreak started, admitted that it was much worse than anticipated and were heavily criticized for their move in January to reprimand eight people for “spreading rumors” on the emergence of the virus—one of whom was Li.
Last week, however, CAC announced that it had punished some websites, mobile applications and social media accounts for publishing illicit content on the outbreak, saying it wanted to foster a “good online atmosphere” amid the country’s efforts to contain the outbreak.
A notice circulated by CAC last week that was seen by Reuters asked audio and video platforms to step up control on “harmful information and rumor” related to Wuhan virus.
It also asked them to stick to official media such as Xinhua and People’s Daily, “not to push any negative story, and not to conduct non-official livestreaming on the virus.”
Some investigative articles published by local media outlets from Wuhan have also been deleted.
Chen Qiushi, a citizen journalist who was sending dispatches from Wuhan over Twitter—which is blocked in China—including images of corpses in the city’s hospitals, has been forcibly put under quarantine since Feb. 7, according to his family and a friend managing his account in his absence.
Many Chinese internet users have turned to black humor or shared images, songs and other art forms in private WeChat groups to express their dismay. One phrase widely shared mocked how many internet pages and content were now showing “server not found” or “404.”
“404+404+404+404+404=2020,” said the shared post.