Social Media Users Punished As China Tightens Censorship of Coronavirus Outbreak

February 13, 2020 Updated: February 14, 2020
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China’s International Center of Cyber Law publicized on its website a list of social media users who were punished between Jan. 22 and Feb. 6 for “spreading rumors” on the Internet about the outbreak of novel coronavirus, now named COVID-19.

The table listed 167 cases with dates, details of the “rumor,” and punishment for each case. Some cases involved more than one social media user.

Preceding the table was a short statement, “In the face of a major public health crisis, it is necessary to control Internet rumors in a timely manner.”

Tally of COVID-19 Patients Is a Forbidden Topic

The majority of the “offences” were notifications of confirmed or suspected cases in their city or neighborhood. Some included the number of deaths.

For instance, a man in Baoding City, Hebei Province, wrote on his blog: “I truly believe the authorities have not revealed the true number of infected patients. I heard that in a village about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from ours the number of confirmed cases was six on Jan. 26. All were sent to hospital for quarantine. But I have not seen any official reports that included these six cases.”

He received five days of administrative detention for this posting. Administrative detention refers to arrest and detention of an individual without trial.

Another man in Anhui Province was given six days of administrative detention and a 500 yuan ($72) fine for revealing in his blog that, “21 medical personnel at North Anhui’s Coal and Electric General Hospital have been infected with the mysterious viral pneumonia, and have been under quarantine for days.”

A person surnamed Chen in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province said in his post, “In Hebei Province, so far there have been 313 people infected with the virus and 26 people have died from it.” Police claimed that his statement was a rumor that had caused people to panic. Chen was given 10 days of detention.

A social media user surnamed Lu in Guangxi Province was detained for 10 days for revealing in his post that a man who recently returned from Wuhan suddenly died. Police insisted that although a man in a local village had indeed died, Lu’s statement about the man returning from Wuhan was incorrect.

On Jan. 27, a person surnamed Wang in Xinjiang Autonomous Region notified his friends on WeChat: “Be sure to explain to our relatives that this disease is not as simple as what is said in media reports. It is not a flu-type disease, it is a plague-like contagion. My cousin in Wuhan called me yesterday and told me that the real situation is many times worse than media reports. There are long lines of people waiting for treatment in hospitals in Wuhan, and there is a shortage of protective gear for medical workers. They are now treating patients with little or no protection.”

What Wang said is consistent with overseas media reports, but local police determined that it was false information and placed Wang under detention.

Video Postings Refuted

In several cases, individuals were punished for the videos they posted on social media.

On Feb. 5, several social media users in Chengdu shared a video showing many medical personnel gathering outside a high rise building with narration identifying the residential compound. Chengdu Police released a public notice criticizing them, listing their names, and claiming that the scene shown in the video did not take place in Chengdu.

Similarly, in Yibin City, Sichuan Province a man surnamed Chen posted a video on Feb. 3 showing an ambulance and medical staff busily working in his community. “See, at Sunshine Community, two people are being taken away,” he said in the video.

Police stated that Chen did not know what was really going on, and had caused adverse effects among locals by claiming that the patients he saw had COVID-19. “Based on official information from our local CDC, there is no confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 in our district so far,” the police announcement read.

In two other cases, police ordered the video posters to admit that their videos contained archival footage unrelated to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Internet Policewoman Says She Works 20 Hours a Day

A small media group in Shandong Province praised an Internet policewoman for working 20 hours a day monitoring WeChat postings. “Guo Qiqi, a policewoman at Cyber Surveillance Center of local police department, was so busy during the Chinese New Year holidays, that she kept her cell phone with her to perform her work around the clock,” the Jan. 28 report said.

According to Guo, on Jan. 22, the city’s police department launched an emergency response plan. For seven consecutive days, four female officers worked in shifts to ensure 24-hour monitoring of the Internet.

“As soon as an issue is identified, we must resolve it within 30 minutes. There is tremendous pressure. We cannot even have a meal with our families during the New Year. All our time is dedicated to reading WeChat postings, checking rumors, and deleting posts,” Guo said.

When this report caught readers’ attention, they posted Guo’s story on various Chinese forums to condemn the Chinese regime’s censorship. The news has sparked anger among many residents.

“It is precisely because of these bastards that the virus is now spreading all over the world.”

“They are doing the most wicked job that harms all.”

“Internet police are mad minions of the Chinese Communist Party. They are shameless.”