Protecting the Truth About the Coronavirus in China

Since February 3, censors have deleted eight posts that I’ve shared on Weibo—all of them about the COVID-19 outbreak. Gone is an analysis of China’s governance written by high school students; a desperate message from a Wuhan resident to the rest of China: “Even if you don’t care about politics, politics will come after you”; screenshots of diary entries from a Wuhan native on how her parents’ health deteriorated and they eventually died from infection; and a plea from a rural Hubei health clinic for medical supplies.

As China clamps back down on speech, it saddens me that there are human stories about the crisis that might never be seen again. But I’m relieved to know that volunteers worked together to save so many accounts and so much of the courageous reporting. If the evidence always disappears, there can never be any accountability.

As of February 18, the pneumonia-causing virus that emerged in December in Wuhan, China, has killed more than 1,870 and sickened 72,528 in China. The World Health Organization reports 804 confirmed cases in 25 other countries. Getting around censorship on Weibo and Douban is a familiar cat-and-mouse game. But the outrage on these social media platforms is on a scale I’ve never seen before. The death of Li Wenliang, a doctor reprimanded for warning about a dangerous new virus that would later kill him, led to an outpouring of grief and rage and sparked demands for freedom of speech. Authorities responded by increasing censorship and launching propaganda campaigns.

For weeks, I have been glued to Chinese social media and Chinese-language media. Some nights, I can’t sleep as I stay up to read the pleas of health care workers for medical supplies and sick residents for treatment. I’ve also been riveted by brave reporting: Chinese journalists uncovered the government’s delayed response to the epidemic and the inability of the local Red Cross chapter to distribute donated products. After epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan confirmed human-to-human transmission on January 20 and before pervasive censorship began in early February, there was relative press freedom in China. During that window, I marveled at the depth and breadth of the coverage. Hard-hitting investigations revealed the extent of the crisis, and human-interest stories captured the range of emotions. Yet, as a journalist on the China beat and a Chinese social media user of over 10 years, I worried about the lifespan of the work; I knew that anything challenging the government’s narrative or questioning how authorities handled the epidemic could one day just vanish. Whenever I read a piece that I thought might be deleted, I saved it to the Internet Archive, a digital library that provides free access to collections of digitized materials.

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