While British nationals who were recently evacuated from coronavirus-stricken Wuhan and placed under quarantine in a UK facility are commenting positively on the efficiency of the British government in response to the outbreak, a growing number of online posts made by Chinese citizens trapped in Wuhan are pleading online for help from the outside world.
In a recent video posted by a number of secondary YouTube accounts, an anonymous Chinese man is seen describing the severity of the situation directly from the locked-down city, criticising the Chinese government for leaving the people of Wuhan in the dark.
With online content and internet use strictly limited in China, the act of uploading a video like this highlights the man’s desperation as he risks serious retaliation from the Chinese authorities—not only for his reproval of the state, but for the post upload itself.
Speaking into the camera, the man’s anguish is palpable: “It is very difficult to post anything online right now. In mainland China, well, you know, you need a VPN and all kinds of stuff, and there’s severe internet latency. So I’ve got no other choice, but to seek help from here.”
In the video, the Chinese national also makes points regarding China’s general health system during the epidemic, and the difficulty in receiving healthcare of any kind currently, no matter the urgency—an issue that many of us outside of Wuhan may well have overlooked. “Perhaps one of your family members has something like a high blood pressure condition or heart attack, and needs to go to the hospital immediately,” he says. “How do we do this? Calling emergency hotline 120, you can try it, it simply doesn’t get through.”
This is not the first time a video has emerged online highlighting the lack of access to urgent healthcare for an illness unrelated to coronavirus in a virus-hit province in China. On 1 February, Global News posted another chilling video of a mother desperately pleading with authorities to let her access medical help for her daughter sick with leukemia, who was seemingly met with little response from Chinese guards.
Highlighting that receiving medical care for even the virus is nearly impossible, the man in the video continues to explain that a total shutdown of public transport and the closure of gas stations make it difficult for many to get to the hospital, adding that even getting there doesn’t mean one would receive treatment. “The hospitals are packed. The doctors don’t tell you to get registered or anything, you just have to line up. You might have to wait hours in line and still can’t get treated. Perhaps you were fine before, but after queuing up for hours, you get contaminated.”
Elsewhere in China, individuals are chronicling the reality of the situation by screenshotting critical posts online by citizens in China and Hong Kong before the Chinese government deletes them, and video clips have emerged on Chinese social media that show Wuhan residents quarantined in the city shouting from tower blocks; some in an effort to keep up morale, others in protest.
As if the lack of efficient response learned from the 2002 SARS outbreak in Southern China wasn’t enough, an even more worrying revelation has come to the fore, suggesting that the Chinese government had been sitting on information on the novel virus for longer than we think.
It was 23 January by the time Wuhan was locked-down and flyers were dispersed in the community to inform them on the virus, yet reports show that Dr Li Wenliang, who died from the disease on 6 February, first warned his medical school classmates of the novel virus in an online chat group as early as 30 December, 2019, commenting that patients had been placed in quarantine. A day later, the Wuhan Municipal Health and Health Commission released a briefing on the new epidemic, and although at this point unaware that the virus could be spread by human-to-human transmission, their brief advice to wear masks seemed to have been lost in a communication breakdown.
Why? Many are claiming the mishandling of vital information during the virus’ nascency is due to the state acting in favour of secrecy and political arrogance, rather than efficiency. A senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Yanzhong Huang, was quoted in The New York Times commenting on Chinese officialdom’s shortcomings: “This was an issue of inaction. There was no action in Wuhan from the local health department to alert people to the threat.”
There are two narratives at play online right now surrounding the coronavirus. The first praises the work of Chinese officials in the handling of the situation, the speed of constructing a new hospital to hold patients with the virus and in maintaining ‘calm’ and ‘order’. On the flip side, there is a wealth of bitter comments, stories of non-Chinese parents being removed from the country and forced to leave behind partners and young children with Chinese passports, memes that condemn the government and videos of deceased victims in body bags being loaded into trucks. The latter is the narrative the Chinese government wants to hide.
China’s strict regulations on internet usage, including bans on Facebook and YouTube, and manipulation of the reality of coronavirus by controlling the output through state media and spreading fake images online of a new build hospital in Wuhan, is in no way helping those at the centre of the epidemic who are desperate to survive.
With the posting of online content by those who decide in desperation to defy the gag-rules, we on the outside are able to get an idea of the bigger picture. But what price these brave individuals still trapped in the heart of Hubei will have to pay for their outcries still remains to be seen.
Recent months have seen the world’s gaze fixed on ongoing protests against mainland China in Hong Kong. However, in the past few weeks, leaked documents have turned a certain amount of attention elsewhere, to the Xinjiang province in the West of the country. Limited reports have trickled out of the region since 2014, usually to be immediately denied by government officials. Such reports describe detention and concentration camps holding an estimated one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims throughout the province.
Recently, 400 pages of internal government documents were leaked to the New York Times, and last week saw the release of the China Cables, a cache of classified government papers obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). This Is Not Dystopian Fiction. This Is China reads the New York Times’ headline while the Guardian followed shortly with ‘Allow no escapes’: leak exposes reality of China’s vast prison camp network. The Embassy of China in London immediately responded to the Guardian’s reports: “First, there are no so-called ‘detention camps’ in Xinjiang. Vocational education and training centres have been established for the prevention of terrorism.”
The past few years have seen extreme crackdowns on terrorism and extremism—this often serves as an excuse for ethnic persecution and religious suppression. The Guardian reporters note: “Chinese authorities have split up families, targeted the Uighur language and culture for suppression, razed cultural and historic sites and criticised even mild expression of Muslim identity, micromanaging everything from beard length to babies’ names.”
The wider pattern of disinformation and doublethink is terrifying. The documents obtained and released in translation included answers for questions that authorities were expecting from students returning home from university, only to find their parents gone. Student protests have a long and complicated history in China. “The authorities in the Xinjiang region worried the situation was a powder keg. And so they prepared,” stated one of the many pages leaked.
One of the documents is titled Tactics from Turpan City for answering questions asked by the children of concentrated education and training school students. In it, “concentrated education and training school” is the euphemistic term used to describe the extensive network of indoctrination camps across the region.
“Where are my family members?” returning students are expected to ask. The scripted reply with “They’re in a training school set up by the government to undergo collective systematic training, study and instruction. They have very good conditions for studying and living there, and you have nothing to worry about.”
It’s worth reading through the translated documents in full, but a short extract illustrates the terrifying reality. The word ‘Orwellian’ is generally overused, particularly in recent years, but here it could not be more apt. “Did they commit a crime?” a student might ask. “Will they be convicted?”
The directed response has to be: “They haven’t committed a crime and won’t be convicted. It is just that their thinking has been infected by unhealthy thoughts, and if they don’t quickly receive education and correction, they’ll become a major active threat to society and to your family. It’s very hard to totally eradicate viruses in thinking in just a short time.”
In order to comfort students, camps promise the possibility of arranging video meetings, yet the Chinese Embassy has simultaneously stated that “trainees could go home regularly.” Authorities have promised that the camps offer useful vocational training, yet detainees include scholars, civil servants and entertainers.
This is not what one would expect from an anti-terror campaign; rather, it is what happens when an authoritarian government cracks down on a disenfranchised minority. These documents expose, as the Times put it, “the paranoia of totalitarian leaders who demand total fealty in thought and deed and recognise no method of control other than coercion and fear.”
‘Round up everyone who should be rounded up’ (‘ying shou jin shou’ in Chinese) is a phrase that has seen a resurgence since the appointment of Chen Quanguo to Xinjiang, a new party boss who has been accused of overzealousness in the past. This phrase was previously used to encourage officials to be focussed and careful when collecting taxes or harvests. Now, it is being used to describe the mass detention of citizens. “Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health.” This isn’t from ‘1984′—this is China under Xi Jinping.