Masked men in hazmat suits came in the night and knocked on Fang Bin’s door in Wuhan, China, demanding to put him in quarantine.
“You went to such a dangerous place, couldn’t you have been infected?” one of them asked. “What if your sickness spreads to others?”
Fang grew suspicious. He wasn’t sick, and none of them was a doctor.
“My temperature is normal,” argued Fang, who recorded the encounter. “Come back with an inspection warrant.”
They barged into his home, confiscated his electronic devices and took him away — not to a hospital, but to a police station. Such was the perilous turn for a clothes seller turned social media activist who posted online about his nation’s secrecy and mishandling of the coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 420 and infected more than 20,000.
Fang was interrogated about videos he’d posted online, including one in which he spotted eight corpses within five minutes at public hospitals in Wuhan, the center of an outbreak that has claimed more lives than the SARS crisis did in 2002-03.
“There wasn’t a single doctor” who interrogated him, Fang said in a phone interview Sunday. “They were all police.”
He said authorities accused him of receiving money from foreign organizations to make online videos, and ordered him to stop posting “rumors” that would “spread panic” online. Fang’s videos were potent. In one, he counted several body bags outside a hospital, then went into a room where a man was gasping and sobbing as doctors spoke over a patient who had apparently just died:
“It’s over. It’s over,” a voice says.
“Who is he to you?” Fang asks the man.
“My father,” the man cries.
As the new strain of coronavirus that originated in China spreads across the world, authorities are cracking down on Chinese activists’ attempts to investigate the severity of the outbreak. More than 300 Chinese citizens have been detained, fined or otherwise punished by authorities for “spreading rumors” about the coronavirus crisis so far, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a nonprofit coalition that tracks human rights in the country.
China’s inability to contain the virus in the early days of the outbreak has embarrassed it abroad and ignited a backlash at home as President Xi Jinping tries to calm panic at a time he is consolidating his power. Beijing has attempted to present an image of transparency and control, urging foreign diplomats to not evacuate their citizens and uncharacteristically allowing domestic media a modicum of freedom to report on the outbreak in the last two weeks.
Social media posts criticizing local government officials have been permitted to gather momentum, along with devastating stories of Wuhan and Hubei residents trying and failing to save family members’ lives because of the government’s failure to provide information, resources or access to medical facilities.
Harsh criticism has been directed at the local police decision to punish eight whistleblowers, including at least one doctor, who tried to alert the public about a contagious new virus on Jan. 1. They were detained briefly for “spreading rumors” and made to sign a promise to stop “making untrue comments” that “severely disturbed the social order.”
One of them, Dr. Li Wenliang, was later diagnosed with coronavirus after treating patients at the front line.
In an unusual admonishment of a government institution, the Supreme People’s Court reprimanded the Wuhan police last week in a WeChat post, saying the whistleblowers should not have been criticized. Li and the others have since been heralded as heroes online and by a high-ranking scientist.
“The coronavirus outbreak requires a swift and comprehensive response that respects human rights,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, in a report on China’s coronavirus response.
“Authorities should recognize that censorship only fuels public distrust, and instead encourage civil society engagement and media reporting on this public health crisis,” Wang said.
But such openness runs contrary to the Communist Party’s instincts for secrecy and top-down rule. In recent days, censorship and propaganda have again intensified. Doctors and nurses in Wuhan and other localities reportedly have been ordered to stop speaking to the press. Many of the social media posts from sick individuals or their family members have disappeared.
Foreign journalists have been forced to delete video recorded near hospitals and escorted away from affected areas. State news channels, meanwhile, broadcast stories celebrating China’s swift construction of new hospitals, factories producing face masks to fill the shortage and medical personnel holding hands with patients in hospital beds, singing patriotic songs to soothe them.
One of the most popular articles in more independent-leaning local media, a report by business publication Caijing about the “uncounted people” who had died without being tested or reported as potential coronavirus victims, was wiped off the Chinese internet on Monday.
Fang, who runs a traditional Chinese clothing shop in Wuhan, said he’d decided to try “citizen journalism” because of a dearth of reliable information, especially for Wuhan residents stuck in their homes and afraid to go outside.
“I wanted to go and see what’s actually happening. It’s what any normal citizen should do,” he said.
He put on a mask and a hanfu, the traditional outfit he usually sells, and ventured into ground zero.
Fang spent the morning visiting public hospitals in Wuhan and posting videos online. In a video recorded at one of Wuhan’s hospitals, one of the designated locations for treating coronavirus patients, he counted eight corpses within five minutes, including bodies in bright yellow and orange bags.
“How can there be so many?” he said.
That night, the men in protective suits came to his door.
Fear spread across the community of Chinese civil society activists in Wuhan, many of whom have been organizing volunteer efforts to share medical supplies and donations from other “online friends” across the country who don’t trust the official channels.
A group of them went to Fang’s residential compound. Unsure of which building he was in, they shouted his name to the sky in the dark. There was no response.
Panicked, they began sharing videos of Fang’s confrontation online — and as their posts went viral, the police questioners’ tone changed, Fang said.
Around 12:30 a.m., the police let Fang go with just a warning, though they kept his computer. He found a bike, made his way home and posted another video online, thanking the other activists and calling for more citizens to speak up.
“There’s no use if you’re afraid and you’re begging. The more afraid you are, the more they’ll act like this,” he said. “Only if everyone stands up together — that’s why I say our movement right now, all the people saving themselves, should become all the people saving one another.”
“You’re the ones who saved me,” he said.