As China Cracks Down on Coronavirus Coverage, Journalists Fight Back

When Jacob Wang saw reports circulating online recently suggesting that life was getting better in Wuhan, the center of the coronavirus outbreak, he was irate.

Mr. Wang, a journalist for a state-run newspaper in China, knew that Wuhan was still in crisis — he had traveled there to chronicle the failures of the government firsthand. He took to social media to set the record straight, writing a damning post last month about sick patients struggling to get medical care amid a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

“People were left to die, and I am very angry about that,” Mr. Wang said in an interview. “I’m a journalist, but I’m also an ordinary human being.”

The Chinese government, eager to claim victory in what China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has described as a “people’s war” against the virus, is leading a sweeping campaign to purge the public sphere of dissent, censoring news reports, harassing citizen journalists and shutting down news sites.

Chinese journalists, buoyed by an outpouring of support from the public and widespread calls for free speech, are fighting back in a rare challenge to the ruling Communist Party.

They are publishing hard-hitting exposés describing government cover-ups and failures in the health care system. They are circulating passionate calls for press freedom. They are using social media to draw attention to injustice and abuse, circumventing an onslaught of propaganda orders.

Many flocked to Wuhan before the city imposed a lockdown in late January, setting up makeshift news bureaus in hotels. Wearing hazmat suits and goggles, they ventured into hospital wards to interview patients and doctors, submitting nervously to tests for the coronavirus after their visits.

Some were overwhelmed by the pressures of censorship as well as the atmosphere of death and despair.

“You really couldn’t sleep at night seeing all these horrible stories,” said Mr. Wang, who reported from Wuhan during the lockdown. “It was really upsetting.”

The journalists’ stories have stoked widespread anger in China, painting a portrait of a government that was slow to confront the virus and worked steadfastly to silence anyone who tried to warn about its spread.

Profile, a general interest magazine in China, uncovered a severe shortage of testing kits in Wuhan, provoking fury from residents who demanded to know how the government could be so ill-prepared.

Caijing, a business magazine, published an explosive interview with an anonymous health expert who acknowledged that officials in Wuhan delayed warning the public that the virus could spread from person to person. “Why was no human-to-human transmission found?” the headline asked.

Caixin, an influential newsmagazine, detailed how health officials concealed early evidence that the virus showed striking similarities to severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which caused a deadly global outbreak in 2002 and 2003. “When was the alarm sounded?” it asked.

Many people hailed the Caixin report as a breakthrough.

“Voices like this are our only hope to shine light in the darkness,” one user wrote on Weibo, a popular social media site.

Mr. Xi, who rose to power in 2012, has worked to more tightly control the news media than his predecessors, demanding that it first and foremost serve as a party mouthpiece.

Under Mr. Xi, the government has moved swiftly to shut down critical reporting during major disasters, including the chemical explosion in the port city of Tianjin in 2015 that killed 173 people.

But the authorities have struggled to rein in coverage of the coronavirus outbreak that has affected the lives of 1.4 billion people nationwide, in part because the Chinese public has resorted to innovative methods to preserve a record of what has transpired.

“This time the government’s control of free speech has directly damaged the interests and lives of ordinary people,” said Li Datong, a retired newspaper editor in Beijing. “Everyone knows this kind of big disaster happens when you don’t tell the truth.”

Mr. Xi’s efforts to limit independent news reporting could undermine trust in the government, experts say. Many people are furious that the party, facing one of the most severe crises in its seven-decade rule, is tightening its grip on power rather than exposing itself to scrutiny.

“It is one thing to censor critical or even neutral online discussions,” said Lotus Ruan, an expert on Chinese censorship at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. “It is another to entirely change the narrative of the crisis and attempt to turn it into a paean.”

In January, as the government struggled to calibrate its response to the outbreak, reporters were granted unusual leeway to investigate failures by local officials to contain the virus.

Caixin published one of the first in-depth stories about the virus on Jan. 9, reporting that the mysterious outbreak was being traced to a neighborhood near a seafood market in Wuhan.

Within weeks, the authorities began tightening their grip, instructing both the state-run news media and more commercially minded outlets to limit negative stories, even on topics that once seemed straightforward, such as the economic impact of the virus.

The crackdown worsened after the death on Feb. 7 of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was silenced by the police after he tried to warn about the mysterious virus. Millions of people took part in an online revolt and demanded free speech, hailing Dr. Li, who had contracted the virus, as a hero for speaking out.

Many journalists were distressed after Dr. Li’s death, feeling they should have done more to stand up to propaganda orders. “I felt like I had become part of the evil,” said Jier Zhou, a reporter for a Chinese newspaper.

As the censorship has intensified, Chinese journalists have been forced to get creative.

Some have focused their stories on mistakes by local officials, instead of national leaders, to avoid censorship. Others have shared news tips and sources with colleagues at rival organizations, in case their own stories are suppressed.

The news media has been helped by the Chinese public, which has shown determination and inventiveness in squaring off with internet censors.

Profile, the magazine, this week published a damning interview with a doctor who was warned not to share information about the coronavirus as it first spread in Wuhan. The article almost immediately disappeared.

But Chinese internet users quickly brought the story back to life, using emojis, morse code and obscure languages to render the interview in ways that would evade censors.

The government has galvanized its enormous propaganda machine and harsh controls as it tries to drown out the dissonant messages. It has deployed 300 reporters to Wuhan to tell uplifting stories about the party’s fight against the virus. And it has tried to silence citizen journalists who live-streamed scenes of anger and despair from Wuhan; several have recently disappeared.

A well-known opinion blog, Dajia, was abruptly removed from the internet last month after it published a commentary by a renowned journalist calling for greater press freedom in China. “Chinese people across the country are paying the price for the death of media,” said the headline.

Jia Jia, a Chinese journalist who was a founding editor of Dajia, said the space for debate in China was rapidly shrinking.

“The Chinese media in the past probably had a room of 1,000 square meters in which to operate,” he said. “Now it is left with 60 square meters.”

Despite the restrictions, many Chinese journalists say they are emboldened and eager to demonstrate that a robust press can hold the government accountable for its mistakes and help China heal.

“Everyone is in a state of feeling held back and wronged,” said Tenney Huang, a reporter for a state-owned publication who spent several weeks in Wuhan. “Free expression is a way for us to fight back.”

Mr. Huang said that as censorship grew more rampant, journalists would resort to social media and other tools to continue to share their work.

“Facts are like firewood,” he said. “The more you pile on, the greater the force when a spark finally lights it.”

Albee Zhang contributed research.

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