In her last report posted to YouTube on May 13, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan stood outside a train station in Wuhan and described conditions in the city where the coronavirus pandemic began.
Wearing a surgical mask and talking into the camera on her mobile phone, the 37-year-old former lawyer noted how “human rights had suffered” as curbs on movement continued even after lockdown had officially ended.
Two days later, Ms Zhang was detained by police at her parents’ home in Shanghai, charged with “provoking quarrels and making trouble”, according to a document seen by the Financial Times. Several people close to her have confirmed her detention.
Ms Zhang joined a cohort of activists, journalists, lawyers and social media personalities arrested after documenting the outbreak of coronavirus in China or questioning the Communist party’s handling of the ordeal.
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The detentions took place in the days and weeks before the National People’s Congress, China’s most important political event of the year, which opened on Friday in Beijing and continues this week.
“The government has been trying to control the circulation of information and build a narrative that hides the wrongdoing of the government,” said Doriane Lau, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International.
“Curbing freedom of expression and press . . . only fuels frustration and blocks people’s access to information that can be crucial for fighting Covid-19.”
The crackdown has swept up people from many walks of life in China.
In March, tycoon Ren Zhiqiang vanished after penning an essay critical of the Communist party’s handling of the outbreak. Citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin were also taken away by police around the same time.
Chen Mei, who was archiving articles on coronavirus, was detained in late April while Xie Wenfei was taken into custody after publicly raising questions about the disappearance of other journalists.
Ms Zhang’s reporting contrasted sharply with the government line on the outbreak. Many of her news reports, which were often posted on YouTube and Twitter, focused on the number of coronavirus cases in Wuhan. She routinely cast doubt on the official numbers, stating that, based on her research, the figure should be higher.
When the FT spoke to Ms Zhang in mid-April, she was gathering information on the economic conditions in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. She said that many small businesses were failing and unemployment appeared to be rising quicker than local governments had let on.
“It’s not uncommon in recent months for people to get arrested, even for posting things that seem harmless,” said Fu King-wa, a professor of media studies at Hong Kong University.
“The government is pushing very hard on their narrative about the outbreak internally — but also internationally,” he added.
Beijing is very sensitive about its international image since the outbreak, and has vigorously rejected the claim that China was responsible for the pandemic that has killed more than 350,000 people.
In May, state controlled China Daily censored a reference to the virus originating in China in an editorial cosigned by EU ambassadors to China. Few reporters have been allowed to attend the National People’s Congress, which normally offers a rare opportunity for foreign journalists to question senior leaders.
China’s struggle to control the narrative now regularly takes place beyond the confines of the “Great Firewall”, the system of censorship that blocks Chinese internet users from viewing foreign websites deemed dangerous for party rule.
Chinese citizen journalists and human rights activists who use tools to evade censorship, such as virtual private networks to post on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, are increasingly targeted.
At the same time, Chinese officials and state media have taken to western media to push Beijing’s line and attack critics. That has led to bouts of mudslinging between Beijing and Washington as officials spar over who is to blame for the fallout from Covid-19.
Frances Eve, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group based in Washington, wrote: “While the Chinese government systematically denies Chinese people their right to express themselves freely on the internet, . . . the government has aggressively used blocked western social media platforms like Twitter to promote its propaganda.”
Even the collection and archiving of information is risky.
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In April, activists Chen Mei, Cai Wei and Mr Cai’s girlfriend, who ran a digital archive of Covid-19 articles and social media posts, were arrested by Beijing police, according to a family member who declined to be named.
The three used the open-source coding sharing website GitHub, which is not blocked in China, to record content scrubbed by censors. Police notices said they had been placed in “residential surveillance at a designated location”, a form of detention and interrogation usually reserved for crimes deemed to endanger national security.
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