Coronavirus: China tries to contain outbreak of freedom of speech, closing critics’ WeChat accounts
- Authorities censor intellectuals who have criticised officials’ handling of the outbreak
- Posts calling for freedom of speech after the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor punished for alerting people about the virus, are removed
The intellectuals had said the impact of the coronavirus – which had caused more than 78,000 confirmed infections and 2,715 deaths in mainland China as of Wednesday – might have been alleviated if people had been free to raise warnings when there were early signs of an outbreak.
Qin Qianhong, a law professor from Wuhan University, a top-ranking institution in the city that has been the epicentre of the outbreak, said his WeChat account had been disabled since last Wednesday.
His posts mocked Wuhan officials, three of whom said they felt “guilty” after being reprimanded by central government officials sent to oversee containment of the outbreak.
“If only one day they might feel guilty after being criticised by the public [rather than by officials],” he wrote in a post on February 12.
Qin also criticised the decision to boost the scores of medical workers’ children sitting the high school entrance exam in June. He said no official explanation had been given for the suspension of his WeChat account.
“Maybe it is because I am critical and straightforward, which the authorities regard as unacceptable,” he told the South China Morning Post. “The public has a lot to say, but they are not allowed to express it … and the epidemic is getting serious.
“If we had let people raise society’s alarm and the government had taken prompt measures, this outbreak may not have turned into a big crisis.”
He’s article – despite it being handwritten in an attempt to bypass state censors – was soon deleted, and his WeChat account was suspended.
Zhang Qianfan, another Peking University law professor, also had his WeChat account suspended for three days last week after reposting He’s article.
“Suspending WeChat accounts shows that there is no freedom of expression,” he said.
Chinese authorities have stepped up their efforts to suppress dissenting views during the epidemic.
The official WeChat account of Dajia, an opinion blog run by internet giant Tencent Holdings, was removed on Wednesday last week and its homepage was unavailable. The blog had featured posts about social issues by some of China’s leading intellectuals and independent thinkers since its inception in 2012.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced earlier this month that it had punished a range of platforms and publishers for content it deemed unsuitable and misleading.
CAC said it had “supervised and guided” companies including Sina, Tencent and ByteDance – owners of the country’s most popular social platforms Weibo, WeChat and Douyin (known outside China as TikTok) respectively.
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