China cracks down on questions over source of virus
As thoughts in many countries from Australia to the US and Europe turn to what life might look like after lockdown, China is cracking down on those who dare to criticise the government’s approach.
On Monday, three Beijing-based internet activists disappeared and are believed to be detained by police for archiving censored coronavirus news stories online, according to a relative.
Chen Mei, Cai Wei and his girlfriend surnamed Tang — who contributed to the crowdsourced project on the software development platform GitHub — went missing on April 19, according to Chen’s brother Chen Kun.
The volunteer-driven project, named Terminus2049, preserved articles that were blocked or removed from mainland news outlets and social media by China’s aggressive online censorship.
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Two of the volunteers, Cai and Tang, were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and are currently under “residential surveillance at a designated location”, according to a notice from Beijing’s Chaoyang District police received by their families, and seen by AFP.
Chen Kun said that he is still waiting on official confirmation from Chaoyang police that his younger brother, aged 26, has been detained.
“I understand that Cai and Tang disappeared around the same time as Chen Mei,” Chen said.
“Given that both Chen and Cai were contributors to the Terminus2049 project, we suspect their disappearance was related and relevant to the project.”
The online project included many sensitive coronavirus stories published in recent months, such as personal narratives by Wuhan citizens and an infamous interview with Wuhan Central Hospital doctor Ai Fen, one of the earliest virus whistleblowers.
The article, published by “People” magazine in March, was widely circulated by Chinese netizens in a number of languages and formats — including Morse code — to evade censorship after it was abruptly pulled from the internet.
As China tries to control the domestic narrative surrounding the chaotic initial months of the outbreak, similar crowdsourced initiatives have flourished on GitHub, which is used by an increasing number of tech-savvy Chinese as a last frontier against ever-tightening internet censorship.
Owned by Microsoft, the US-based website remains accessible in China although the Terminus2049 page is blocked.
News of the Terminus2049 trio’s disappearance made a stir online in Chinese activist circles.
“What quarrels were they picking, and what troubles were they provoking? Show me legal proof,” said the outspoken Tsinghua University sociology professor Guo Yuhua on Twitter Sunday, referring to Cai and Tang’s charges.
“Picking quarrels and provoking trouble” is a vaguely defined charge often used by Chinese authorities to target activists and dissidents, which carries a prison sentence of up to five years.
The administrators of 2019nCoVMemory — another GitHub coronavirus archive — made the “protective” move to restrict access to its site to members only, according to an email sent to subscribers that was circulated on Weibo.
Chaoyang public security bureau and the administrators of 2019nCoVMemory have not responded to requests for comment.
It comes as China is facing claims of threatening its international counterparts as the world’s attention turns to the source of the virus.
Last week, EU diplomats leaked reports that a foreign policy document noting that China had contributed to spreading disinformation about the virus was watered down after pressure from Chinese officials.
An EU spokeswoman declined to comment, however China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the country is the “victim of disinformation not an initiator.”
Meanwhile, China’s ambassador to Australia has warned demands for an investigation into the spread of the coronavirus could lead to a boycott of Chinese tourists from Australian shores.
Australia has joined the US in calling for a thorough investigation of how the virus spread from a local breakout to a global pandemic that forced billions into isolation and caused the global economy to tank.
In a thinly veiled threat, China’s ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye warned the push for an independent inquest into the origins of the outbreak was “dangerous”.
“The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what Australia is doing now,” he claimed in an interview with the Australian Financial Review published on Sunday.
“If the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think ‘why should we go to such a country that is not so friendly to China?’ The tourists may have second thoughts,” he added.
“It is up to the people to decide. Maybe the ordinary people will say ‘Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?’”
Cheng also threatened the flow of Chinese students to Australian universities, a key source of revenue that is already under threat from pandemic travel restrictions.
“The parents of the students would also think whether this place which they found is not so friendly, even hostile, whether this is the best place to send their kids here,” he said.
He also blamed Australia for following the US lead.
“Some guys are attempting to blame China for their problems and deflect the attention,” he said.
“It’s a kind of pandering to the assertions that are made by some forces in Washington.”