China silences reporting on COVID-19, expands surveillance and arrests Hong Kong protest leaders

China silences reporting on COVID-19, expands surveillance and arrests Hong Kong protest leaders

The Chinese Communist Party has continued to censor reporting about the coronavirus (COVID-19) and targeted journalists, doctors, activists, academics and critics in recent months in order to control the narrative. The coronavirus is also being used as a pretext for accelerating mass surveillance across the country. In Hong Kong, the authorities arrested 15 pro-democracy politicians and activists in April 2020, were accused of torture or ill-treatment of protesters and expelled US journalists. Human rights groups also reported on the use of an app to conduct mass surveillance by the Chinese government on Uighur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang province.


Citizen journalists in Wuhan go missing after their coverage of the coronavirus

Citizen journalists Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi went missing after they shared videos and stories about COVID-19.  Fang Bin began posting videos about the outbreak, uploading his first video on 25th January 2020 to YouTube, which is banned in China but accessible through virtual private networks. On 1st February 2020, he filmed a video appearing to show eight corpses piled in a minibus outside a hospital. He was allegedly arrested on 9th February, the same day he posted a 12-second video of a piece of paper with the words “resist all citizens, hand the power of the government back to the people”. He has not been heard of since.

Chen Qiushi, a former human rights lawyer turned video journalist, decided to travel to Wuhan to report on the worsening situation in late January 2020. He visited different hospitals in Wuhan, looking at the conditions and speaking to patients. On 7th February 2020, a video was shared on his Twitter account featuring his mother, who said he had gone missing the day before.

Whistleblowing doctor goes missing after criticising coronavirus censorship

On 30th March 2020, Radio Free Asia reported on the disappearance of Dr Ai Fen, the head of Emergency at Wuhan Central Hospital, following an interview that she gave to the Ren Wu magazine that is part of the People’s Daily group of publications. In the interview she apparently criticised Beijing’s censorship of information about the coronavirus epidemic.

This particular edition of the magazine, published on 10th March 2020, was quickly removed from the newsstands and the interview itself was deleted from the magazine’s website. The doctor’s family had expressed fears that she may have been arrested.

Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia bureau said:

“We urge the Chinese authorities to display the utmost transparency about her situation and, if she has been arrested, to immediately free her and all other journalists and information sources detained in China.”

Ai Fen had been the earliest to share a diagnostic report in late December 2019 for a patient suffering from what would later become known as COVID-19. The diagnostic report shared by Ai Fen had resulted in harsh police reprimands for eight doctors, including her colleague Li Wenliang, who had later died of the disease,

Academic arrested for criticism of handling of COVID-19

On 14th April 2020, Chinese authorities arrested retired academic Chen Zhaozhi for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”. Chen previously taught at the Beijing University of Science and Technology and was arrested for his vocal criticism of the Chinese Communist Party and its handling of the coronavirus.

The 68-year-old professor has further alleged that the police attempted to “extract a forced confession” from him and that he had rebuffed their attempts.

A few days before he was taken into custody, police searched his home, checking the contents of his mobile phone and taking away his computer. Chen’s lawyer has stated that his client has chosen to plead not guilty and said concerns about his detention, citing his client’s ongoing battle with dementia and high blood pressure.

China engaging in censorship of COVID-19 research

On 11th April 2020, multiple news portals around the world reported a larger crackdown by the Chinese government on research publications related to COVID-19.

A spate of recent policies requiring academic papers on the coronavirus to obtain government clearance before publication were reported by science journal Nature, following which several pages containing information on this notification were hastily deleted.

This fits with media reports that at least two Chinese universities have posted notices online stating that research on the virus’s origins needs to be approved by the university’s academic committee and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) or Ministry of Education (MOE) before being submitted for publication.

These actions have left the science community concerned about academic freedom within the country and has raised doubts about the final output of research emerging.

Right to information activists detained

On 19th April 2020, the Beijing police detained Chen Mei, Cai Wei, and Cai’s partner, a woman surnamed Tang. Cai Wei and Chen Mei are volunteers for Terminus 2049, a crowd-sourced project that archives materials published on Chinese media outlets and social media platforms that have been removed by censors.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Cai and Chen have posted news articles, interviews and personal accounts related to the coronavirus. Access to Terminus 2049’s page appeared to have been blocked in mainland China after the three were detained.

Authorities accused Cai and Tang of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and placed them under “residential surveillance in a designated location,” (RSDL) a form of enforced disappearance in which police can hold individuals in undisclosed locations for up to six months. Chen’s whereabouts or condition are unclear. Front Line Defenders has raised concerns about their detention.

COVID-19 used as pretext to expand surveillance state

China's authorities are notorious for using technology for surveillance, unconstrained by privacy legislation. Its universal street camera system, first deployed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has been expanded all over the country's main metropolitan areas and has been recently upgraded with facial recognition capabilities. The authorities have been using this system to catch, shame and fine citizens going outside without face masks and to identify and quarantine individuals who show symptoms.

But the Chinese government has also been investing in new systems. For example, the local government has introduced a new scheme called Health Code, which, according to the Guardian, is currently being deployed in over 100 cities. Chinese citizens can sign up for a Health Code account using their Alipay or WeChat profiles. Once they have a Health Code account, they will be assigned a colour code -- red for infected, yellow for quarantined, and green for healthy.

Albert Fox Cahn, Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project said:

“Unfortunately, as you might expect, there's not much transparency about why an individual might get a yellow or red score and this leads to a lot of possible abuses where political dissidents and other historically marginalised groups can be targeted for punitive quarantine measures just as a way to cut them off from public life.”

The system leverages the vast quantities of mobile data and geo-location points Chinese tech companies have been collecting to map infection hotspots and then triage China's population based on their previous interactions.

Journalist jailed for 15 years for criticising the Communist Party

A journalist who worked for some of China’s most powerful state newspapers was jailed for 15 years on 30th April 2020 after being accused of attacking the ruling Communist Party, according to court documents.

Chen Jieren was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble, extortion, illegal business operations and bribery”, a court in central Hunan province said in an online statement. The charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” is a catch-all that Chinese authorities often use against people who criticise the regime.

After being sacked from various state newspapers including Southern Weekend, China Youth Daily, Beijing Daily and People’s Daily, Chen published online commentaries and investigative reports on social media, including WeChat and Weibo channels, called “Jieren Observation Viewpoint” and “Jieren Observation Heights”.

According to the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Chen and several of his family members and associates disappeared a few days after he disclosed on his social media channels alleged corruption by local Communist Party officials in late June-early July 2018. His detention was only confirmed on 7th July 2018. In August 2018, Chinese state media launched a smear campaign, accusing Chen of various crimes and quoted police as saying that his online speech “sabotaged the reputation of the Party and the government and damaged the government’s credibility.”

China is one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom. It was ranked 177 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index. According to a 2019 report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, China is the 5th most censored country in the world.

American journalists expelled

On 17th March 2020, China decided to revoke the press credentials of journalists working for three American newspapers, namely the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

The Chinese government stated that the move was in retaliation for the restrictions placed by the United States on Chinese state media representatives for “increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment and intimidation” of American journalists. On 2nd March, the US government imposed a personnel cap on four Chinese state media outlets – Xinhua News Agency, Chinese Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corporation and China Global Television Network – reducing the number of their Chinese employees in the US from 160 to 100.

The expulsion of American journalists came after they wrote a series of columns for their respective newspapers which were critical of the Chinese administration and its ability to contain the virus. This is the first time that the Chinese government has explicitly banned journalists from working in Hong Kong. The final decision led to the expulsion of at least 13 journalists and was condemned by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.

Peaceful assembly

Hong Kong arrests major pro-democracy figures

On 18th April 2020, the Hong Kong government arrested more than a dozen pro-democracy activists in connection with the pro-democracy protests that took place in Hong Kong in 2019. The move came hours after China’s top representative office in the city declared it was not bound by restrictions in Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, that bar the Chinese government from interfering in local affairs.

Fifteen activists and former lawmakers, aged between 24 and 81 years old were arrested under the Public Order Ordinance for suspicion of “organising, publicising or taking part in several unauthorised assemblies” on 18th August, 1st October and 20th October 2019 and are facing prosecution. All 15 were released on bail. They include:

  • Martin Lee, an 81-year-old barrister and founder of the pro-democracy Democratic Party;
  • Margaret Ng, barrister and former legislator;
  • Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon and publisher of the popular tabloid Apple Daily;
  • Raphael Wong, chairman of the League of Social Democrats, a leading pro-democracy party;
  • Leung Kwok-Hung, a veteran activist in Hong Kong;
  • Leung Yiu-chung, lawmaker;
  • Yeung Sum, leader of the Democratic Party between 2002 and 2004;
  • Au Nok-hin, Democratic Party member;
  • Richard Tsoi, long-standing member of the Democratic Party;
  • Sin Chung-kai, Kwai Tsing District Council chair;
  • Lee Cheuk-yan, labour rights activist;
  • Cyd Ho, former legislator for the Labour Party;
  • Figo Chan, the vice convener of the group Civil Human Rights Front;
  • Albert Ho, the chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China; and
  • Avery Ng a senior figure in the League of Social Democrats.

Five of them have since been handed down the extra charge of “incitement to knowingly take part in an unauthorised assembly”. They include Albert Ho Chun-yan, Lee Cheuk-yan, Leung Kwok-hung, Cyd Ho and activist Figo Chan. If convicted on that charge, the five could spend longer behind bars.

Their arrests have been criticised by human rights groups as well as the UN. On 13th May 2020, three UN Special Rapporteurs urged Hong Kong authorities to immediately drop the criminal prosecution of the activists. They said that the charges were brought under Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, which establishes an authorisation process for assemblies, contrary to international human rights standards. They further added:

“Nobody should be subjected to administrative or criminal sanctions for taking part in a peaceful protest, even if the regime governing protests requires an authorisation.”
Human rights groups protest arrests of human rights observers

On 11th February 2020, a group of human rights organisations issued an open letter to the Hong Kong Chief Executive regarding the arrest of five human rights observers whilst conducting their work at assemblies in Hong Kong in November 2019 and January 2020. At the time of their respective arrests, all five of the observers were wearing clothing and ID cards that clearly identified their role and the organisations they were working for.

On 17th November 2019, two members of Rights Exposure’s human rights observer team were deployed in the vicinity of the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong to monitor the protests taking place there. When they tried to leave the area on the morning of 18th November, they were both arrested on “suspicion of participating in a riot”.

On 1st January 2020, 16 human rights observers of Civil Rights Observer (CRO) were deployed to record and monitor a procession and assembly organised by the Civil Human Rights Front. Three observers were arrested in Causeway Bay during the police’s dispersal operation; together with a large crowd of citizens, they were detained outside the SOGO Department Store for around four hours until they were eventually informed that they were to be arrested for “taking part in an unlawful assembly”.

The groups called on the authorities to cease criminal investigations into all five in relation to their arrests, drop all charges and return all their personal belongings and monitoring equipment undamaged.

Abuses against pro-democracy protesters

On 5th May 2020, three pro-democracy protestors appeared in a pre-recorded video screening by pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung and alleged abuse at the hands of the Hong Kong police.

The protestors claimed the abuse happened while they were in remand custody at Pik Uk Correctional Institution in Sai Kung.On one occasion, protesters were caught singing the movement's anthem "Glory to Hong Kong". Guards took them out of sight of CCTV cameras and slapped them in the face. When the guards became tired, they were ordered to repeatedly slap themselves instead. The correctional services department of Hong Kong has yet to respond to the allegations.

In another report released by Civil Rights Observer in May 2020, they found cases of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of protesters by the police. This includes allegations of being beaten, kicked, strip searched, sexually assaulted and denied access to medical treatment, among others. The group interviewed 45 people who have been arrested by the Hong Kong Police Force or otherwise come under police control at the sites of assemblies from July to November 2019. 


Human rights lawyer released and reunited with family

On 28th April 2020, Wang Quanzhang, a well-known Chinese rights lawyer, was finally reunited with his family in Beijing after being released from prison following almost five years in jail. Wang was among more than 200 lawyers and legal activists swept up in 2015 in what became known as the 709 Crackdown for the date, 9 July, when most of them were detained.

After being released on 4th April, the authorities used the pandemic as an excuse to hold Wang Quanzhang under de facto house arrest. The authorities had sent him to his hometown, Jinan, in the north-eastern province of Shandong (400km south of Beijing) for quarantine.

As previously documented, on 28th January 2019, Wang Quanzhang was found guilty of “subverting state power” and sentenced to four and a half years in prison by a Chinese court. His trial on 26th December 2018 followed more than three years in pre-trial detention.

Before his detention, Wang Quanzhang worked on defending religious freedom and representing members of the New Citizens’ Movement, a network of grassroots activists who promote government transparency and expose corruption. Due to his role in representing such cases, Wang often faced intimidation.

Hong Kong bookseller jailed for ten years

On 25th February 2020, former Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison in China for “illegally providing intelligence to foreign entities”. The court notice stated without additional explanation that Gui had reapplied for Chinese citizenship in 2018, having been a Swedish citizen since 1996.

According to Amnesty International, Gui was one of five Hong Kong-based publishers and booksellers who disappeared in 2015 after printing books critical of the Chinese government. Having gone missing in Thailand, he reappeared on Chinese state media in 2016 giving an apparently forced confession to a hit-and-run incident several years earlier. He was released in 2017 but appears to have been under tight police surveillance, with his freedom of movement curtailed. He was seized by plainclothes police while travelling to Beijing for medical reasons with two Swedish diplomats in January 2018.

New report on China’s surveillance machinery in Xinjiang

On 1st May 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its report on mass surveillance by the Chinese government on Uighur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang province.

The report provides a detailed description and analysis of a mobile app that police and other officials use to communicate with the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, one of the main systems Chinese authorities use for mass surveillance in Xinjiang.

HRW found that officials use the IJOP app to fulfill three broad functions: collecting personal information, reporting on activities or circumstances deemed suspicious, and prompting investigations of people the system flags as problematic.

According to HRW “many—perhaps all—of the mass surveillance practices described in this report appear to be contrary to Chinese law. They violate the internationally guaranteed rights to privacy, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and to freedom of association and movement. Their impact on other rights, such as freedom of expression and religion, is profound”.

As documented previously, there has been mass arbitrary detention, torture and mistreatment, and increasingly pervasive controls on the daily life of Uighurs in Xinjiang. The population of 13 million are being subjected to forced political indoctrination, collective punishment, restrictions on movement and communications, heightened religious restrictions and mass surveillance.