China has clamped down on civil society activists and access to information about the coronavirus outbreak after President Xi Jinping told authorities to strengthen control over online media as public outrage erupted over Beijing’s handling of the health emergency.
Prominent legal rights activist Xu Zhiyong, who had criticised China’s political system and its response to the coronavirus outbreak in a series of scathing essays, went missing at the weekend, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation.
Mr Xu, who was jailed from 2014 to 2017, had been in hiding for about 50 days, hopping between friends’ homes to avoid being detained following a pro-democracy gathering of activists and reformers that he helped to organise in Xiamen in late December.
While on the run, he had criticised China’s political system and its response to the coronavirus outbreak, saying the government’s obsession with stability prevented doctors from warning the public. “Nothing — not the freedom, dignity or happiness of the Chinese people — was more important than maintaining stability,” he said, saying the delay had led to a cover up of the seriousness of the health emergency.
Mr Xu had also called on Mr Xi to resign.
His arrest came against a backdrop of outrage at government censorship across Chinese social media following the death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who was punished after warning about the new virus before officials had spoken about it publicly.
Pang Kun, another labour-rights lawyer, was briefly detained last week after authorities accused him of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a crime in China. “The authorities used this crime as an excuse to detain him but questioned him about his involvement in a petition to commemorate the death of Li Wenliang and the Xiamen meeting,” according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation.
Two citizen journalists who were in Wuhan have also disappeared over the past two weeks and more than 350 people across the country have been punished for “spreading rumours”, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group.
Chinese authorities have tightened access to the global internet as its citizens look for uncensored news about the outbreak. China’s most popular VPN services, which are used by foreign businesses and locals to circumvent internet censorship, have been hit by an escalation in government blocks. This has made it more difficult to access overseas websites that are blocked, including Google and Twitter, as well as most foreign media.
At the same time, the number of Chinese users of FreeBrowser.org, a website that provides access to uncensored foreign news articles, roughly doubled after January 25, two days after Wuhan was put in lockdown. FreeBrowser logged up to 60,000 “events” per day, or links clicked on the homepage.