China: Protect Human Rights While Combatting Coronavirus Outbreak

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China: Protect Human Rights While Combatting Coronavirus Outbreak

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As of February 21, 2020, CHRD has documented 416 netizens punished for “spreading rumours.” (See full list in Chinese) The majority of these cases have been reported by state media in China, including from local authorities’ announcements, but not independently verified. In addition, there are cases reported by overseas media or cases verified by CHRD. This list is incomplete and the actual number of cases is likely much higher.

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders—January 31, 2020) The Chinese government must respect human rights in its response to the 2019-nCoV coronavirus outbreak, including lifting censorship, ceasing police intimidation and arbitrary detention, easing indiscriminate restrictions on movement, and countering social discrimination against Wuhan and Hubei Province residents. Human rights must not be a casualty of the government’s work to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has killed nearly 200 people and affected millions. Free flow of information in the press and on the Internet, participation of civil society, and facilitated movement of supplies and first responders, are necessary for an effective response to this global health emergency. 

The government’s draconian restrictions on freedom of information has seriously hampered early warning and rescue efforts needed to control the outbreak. CHRD has documented 254 cases of netizens penalized by authorities for “spreading rumours” about the coronavirus emergency between January 22-28 (full list in Chinese only). These cases have been reported on by Chinese media, including from local authorities’ announcements, but not independently verified. The majority of the individuals involved in these cases reportedly received administrative detentions ranging between 3-15 days. Some also received fines, verbal warnings, forced “education,” and forced confessions. Shandong Provincial authorities announced on January 27 that they had investigated and punished 123 individuals for sending “malicious rumours,” in an indication of the scale of police operations outside Hubei. 

Censorship Prevents Critical Information Flow 

Local government cover-up and lack of transparency on the spread of the virus, which dictated the under-reporting in state-controlled media, may have contributed to the rapid spread of the coronavirus before Xi Jinping’s public announcement on January 20 about its threat. The downplaying of the risks of the virus had been reinforced by widely publicized police action against individuals who spoke out online in December. 

China’s invasive digital surveillance system has been deployed by police to silence netizens and reinforce information controls. On social media sites, netizens reported being visited, detained, or penalized by police for “spreading rumours” after they posted comments on the outbreak, and in some cases, for volunteering in distributing face masks and other supplies. Several human rights defenders have reported being visited by police and threatened with criminal sanctions unless they stopped sharing international news reporting or tweeting information about the outbreak. Press have been restricted: in one incident, Wuhan police briefly detained Hong Kong journalists from RTHK, Commercial Radio, TVB, and NOW TV on January 14 outside Jinyintan Hospital and forced them to delete their footage. While misinformation could lead to panic, the authoritarian Chinese government’s systematic suppression of information and censorship on the press has led to a botched response to the coronavirus outbreak. 

State-run Xinhua News Agency stressed “maintaining a clear network environment” over “rumours” tied to the outbreak. Censors have deleted a number of articles, including by state media groups, which has prevented the flow of information and silenced public opinion and critical scrutiny of the government’s response. Social media platform WeChat announced the introduction of special measures for handling “rumours” on its platforms, including deploying “professional third-party rumour removal agencies.” One Hubei Daily journalist was forced to admit wrong doing for suggesting Wuhan leaders step down for mishandling the crisis. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention reportedly issued an order prohibiting medical personnel from speaking with reporters. On January 26, a hospital in Taizhou, Jiangsu Province, penalized a nurse for speaking out about the coronavirus in a WeChat group with her classmates. The hospital warned other staff not to speak with journalists or on social media. 

Police Intimidation Suppresses Civil Society Efforts

The only rapid response to this outbreak has been police in Wuhan and elsewhere swiftly intimidating Chinese citizens for reporting on potential cases, alerting the public, and providing donation or material assistance. On December 30, the Wuhan Health Commission confirmed an unknown virus and sent a directive prohibiting doctors and nurses from disclosing any information about the outbreak to the public. A doctor who shared information in a social media chat group was forced to sign a confession that he “released false information” and committed a “serious disruption of social order.” At the time of this press release, the doctor is in the ICU infected with the virus. 

Wuhan police sternly warned the public with a notice on January 1 that police had summoned and penalized eight people for “spreading false information” online about the virus. Two human rights lawyers took the risk to file government information disclosure requests over the fate of the eight individual penalized by Wuhan police. We are seriously concerned about their safety as human rights lawyers involved in seeking government accountability, such as in the tainted baby milk powder scandal, have been targeted by authorities with imprisonment and disbarment. 

Police across the country have visited activists and lawyers to threaten them into silence about the government’s handling of the virus outbreak. Guangzhou-based disbarred lawyer Sui Muqing received threats from police for posting information online; artist Wang Zang and his family have been harassed by police in Yunnan; Hunan activist Chen Siming reported being hauled into a police station and forced to delete tweets and promise to stop tweeting; and Changsha police seized Fan Junyi for sharing foreign media reports. Reportedly, Hubei resident Gao Fei has gone missing after posting a video message about police closing in on him and about ways to contact and help local residents in need of assistance. Gao had reported about the outbreak first-hand on social media and distributed face masks in local communities. 

Restrictions on Movement Leave the Needy Neglected 

Mass restrictions on the movement of millions of Chinese have been imposed without the government providing any clear evidence to the public about the effectiveness of such measures. In abruptly sealing off entire cities, the government has failed to provide timely adequate assistance to people with special needs and allow residents to stock up supplies. Residents in Wuhan, a city of 11 million regular residents, and Hubei Province, with a population of 59 million, were not given adequate advanced warnings before shutting down public transportation and enforcing a lock-down. 

Such drastic measures have left vulnerable individuals, including persons with disabilities, without assistance. A 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy reportedly died from hunger and cold due to neglect on January 29 in Huanggang, Hubei after his only caregiver, his father, was put under quarantine with a younger brother on January 23.  

As of now, practically all urban residents in Chinese cities have been locked down under a de-facto nationwide quarantine with inadequate information, dwindling supplies, and little assurance of the effectiveness of such measures in stopping the outbreak. 

Incidents of Discrimination against Wuhan-Hubei Residents 

There are several reports of Hubei or Wuhan residents who left before the lockdown being refused service at hotels or restaurants. Some were forced to go to rescue centers or homeless shelters. There are also reports of passengers refusing to board planes with Wuhan or Hubei residents on board, or airlines cancelling Wuhan-Hubei resident’s flights or refusing services to them. One Wuhan women said she was forced to undergo health tests to “prove” she had not been infected, at her own cost. Personal information of Wuhan residents has been leaked and posted online. A person originally from Wuhan, who ran a B&B in Yunnan province, reportedly received death threats online after offering space for stranded Wuhan and Hubei residents who had been kicked out of hotels. 

The government response to the reported incidents of discrimination so far has been inadequate. Though China’s Law on the Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases explicitly prohibits discrimination against patients or suspected patients of infectious diseases (art. 16), authorities have not enforced the law. It is also illegal under art 12 and 68 of this law to disclose private details of patients or suspected patients. The Ministry of Public Security said police would crack down on illegal activities like hoarding supplies and price hikes, but authorities have so far failed to respond to or call out discrimination as illegal acts. 

In response to a reporter’s question about discrimination, the Deputy Secretary of the Hubei Party Committee said he believed most people “would treat Hubei people kindly” but also reminded the public that people should report if they encounter a Hubei resident. Such official messages serve to reinforce social stigma. Local governments in other provinces set up segregated hotels for stranded Wuhan tourists, which has further entrenched social stigma.

Lack of Government Transparency a Critical Failure in Emergency Response   

Lack of transparency in China’s authoritarian political system led to a failure in warning the public and implementing a rapid response to a public health crisis of this magnitude. The first case in Wuhan was dated on December 8, tied to the Wuhan Seafood Market, though there are now reports of even earlier cases. Authorities did not close the market until January 1 and didn’t disclose that virus could spread through human-to-human transmission until January 20. Wuhan city and provincial Hubei authorities didn’t sound the alarm until after President Xi Jinping finally made a public announcement about the outbreak. The Mayor of Wuhan later claimed that he “could only disclose information after being authorized” by higher authorities. Even after state media reported on January 9 that a new strain of coronavirus had been identified, the government continued to tell the public that there was “no evidence” of human-to-human transmission. Medical staff had been infected as early as January 5. 

Wuhan authorities downplayed the number of cases, likely to hide “negative” stories from Central authorities. Wuhan Health Commission claimed that no new patients with the new virus had been detected between January 3-16, despite numerous accounts being shared online of the city’s residents showing symptoms and being turned away from hospitals without being tested. Cases occurred during that time period, however, as later announced. That time period coincided with the lead up to the Hubei Province People’s Congress session, which was held from January 12-17.  Chinese authorities routinely suppress “negative” information under “stability maintenance” measures prior to political meetings. 

Failing to share information with the public has not been limited to Wuhan. In Shanghai, health authorities denied that there were any cases in the city on January 19 and claimed that “online information may not be true”, but then announced the next day, after Xi’s announcement, that they had confirmed one case. 

International Leadership Failure at the World Health Organization

The World Health Organization announced on January 23 that it would not declare the coronavirus outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” The world’s top public health agency said at the time it “welcomed the efforts made by China to investigate and contain the current outbreak.” The WHO failed to adhere to its own guidelines that, if a public health threat spread beyond a nation’s borders and affected people in other countries, and if concerted global actions are needed in response to the threat, then, the emergency meets the conditions for a “public emergency of international concern.” It belatedly made the declaration on January 30 after the virus spread to 18 countries.

The WHO has ignored reports of obstruction of information flow and police intimidation against sharing information online and stated on January 30 it welcomes China’s “commitment to transparency.” It appears to consider only transparency with the WHO and not the lack of transparency to the Chinese public. Chinese state media has used WHO statements to defend the government’s delayed and inadequate response. The WHO praise the Chinese leadership following a visit by the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to Beijing without expressing any concern about the Chinese government’s serious violation of human rights in its reaction to the outbreak, including restrictions on freedom of expression, information, press, movement, suppression on civil society efforts, and failure to counter discrimination. 

Recommendations

To the Chinese government:

  • Lift censorship and allow the free flow of information, press and media reporting, and free expression;
  • Ease indiscriminate mass quarantine and ensure respect for the right to free movement based on evidence and proportionality; provide special assistance to vulnerable residents, including persons with disability;
  • Lift all restrictions on independent civil society organisations, both domestic and international, to welcome non-governmental efforts, including charitable donations and voluntarism to combat the outbreak;
  • Restrict police power to end the harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary detention of netizens, and ensure respect for due process rights;
  • Take immediate anti-discrimination measures to ensure that Wuhan and Hubei residents are not discriminated against in other parts of China and eliminate violence and stigma against them. 

To the international community, including the World Health Organization and other UN human rights agencies:

  • Urge the Chinese government to end censorship on information, expression, and press reporting and respect the public’s right to know about the spread of the 2019-nCoV outbreak and the government’s response; 
  • Urge the Chinese government to lift indiscriminate restrictions on freedom of movement and public transportation lockdown that disproportionately burden vulnerable and disadvantaged residents and social groups, and ensure any restrictions are appropriate and in line with international standards; 
  • The WHO and relevant human rights bodies must raise concerns about alleged arbitrary detention and infringements of Chinese citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and information sharing and their right to participate in public affairs; 
  • Governments and international organizations must urge the Chinese government to take immediate measures to counter social discrimination against residents of Wuhan and Hubei Province and patients or suspected patients of the coronavirus, and speak out against xenophobic discrimination against Chinese people in other countries.   

Contacts

Renee Xia, Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012 reneexia[at]nchrd.org, Follow on Twitter: @ReneeXiaCHRD

Frances Eve, Deputy Director of Research (English), +1 661 240 9177 franceseve[at]nchrd.org, Follow on Twitter: @FrancesEveCHRD

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