China's notoriously militant censorship has been turned up to eleven during the coronavirus outbreak. They have made it illegal for healthcare workers, crematoriums, and anyone else involved in the response to discuss the situation - disrupting attempts to provide an accurate picture of what's going on amid the largest quarantine in human history.
Beijing is also using their Orwellian grip over their internet to crack down on the spread of information from citizen journalists, such as Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi - who recorded dozens of reports on the situation in Wuhan, and have both disappeared.
VICE has taken an in-depth look at China's draconian efforts to control the narrative around the coronavirus outbreak, including their efforts to leverage online platforms to hunt down those spreading non-sanctioned information.
Xiaotao City in #Hubei Province is very serious about controlling info about #COVID2019 #Coronavirus #CoronavirusOutbreak #coronaviruschina. See what they say you cannot do.#湖北 仙桃卫健委文件，直到今天首要任务仍然是压制 #疫情 信息 #武汉肺炎 #新冠肺炎 #新冠病毒 pic.twitter.com/4aJHgXcTxe— 曾錚 Jennifer Zeng (@jenniferatntd) February 19, 2020
Beijing has been going to great lengths to track down users on Twitter and WeChat in order to quash negative news from being shared online - using intimidation, arrests, and threats of legal action.
Joshua Left, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who runs a self-driving car startup in Wuhan, China, arrived in San Francisco in mid-January for a vacation, just as the first reports of a new “SARS-like” virus outbreak in China reached the U.S.
He almost immediately began worrying about his family back in his hometown of Wuhan, where the disease appeared to originate, and where panic was starting to set in. Concerned that his family might not be getting information on the scale of the burgeoning epidemic, he posted messages on his WeChat account sharing information he was afraid were not available inside China.
“But then things started to get weird,” he told VICE News.
Left, who asked not to be identified by his full Chinese name, said he first received a warning message from WeChat administrators. Then he began receiving strangely specific messages that appeared to come from four of his friends on WeChat, all asking him for his location, what hotel he was staying at in San Francisco, what his room number was, and what his U.S. phone number was.
Then his cell phone received a warning message that someone in Shanghai was trying to log into his account.
Finally, when he wouldn’t tell them where he was staying, the same accounts all simultaneously began urging him to return to China as soon as possible. -VICE
Left has reported the incident to the San Francisco Police Department and the FBI, however no action has been taken by either.
China is also monitoring Twitter. While banned in the country, many are accessing the platform using virtual private networks (VPNs) - which are also illegal.
One user told VICE that CCP officials visited him at his home in Dongguan after he responded to a tweet criticizing the response to the virus. They told him that his tweet was an attack on the Chinese government and confiscated his phone before forcing him to sign an agreement promising not to repeat the so-called threat.
The user, Ming, told VICE that he knew of 10 other people who had been arrested for sharing coronavirus information during the same week he was interrogated.
The government is also erasing online protests following the death of a whistleblower doctor who tried to warn the world about the outbreak in late December. It is leveraging the popularity of WeChat to silence people outside of China who are attempting to share information with those in the country.
And just this week in Xiantao, a city of around 1.6 million people, the health commission published directives to health workers and government officials that outlawed everything from mentioning the outbreak in group chats to retweeting anything other than the official line, and giving interviews without permission. -VICE
Propagandists have never had it so hard.