‘Go get a warrant!’: Wuhan shopkeeper defies police over coronavirus videos

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Originally published by The Observers on February 07,2020

By Marie Genries

As the coronavirus epidemic continues to spread across China, a few courageous citizens have braved government censorship to document what is happening. One of them is a man known only as Fangbin, a Wuhan resident who was arrested on February 1 after sharing rare videos of the city’s overcrowded hospitals.

Fangbin was born and raised in Wuhan and runs a clothing store there. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, he’s taken on a new role – that of a citizen journalist dedicated to showing the world the grim reality in the city now under quarantine. He has been visiting hospitals, taking hard-to-watch videos showing both the ill and the bodies of the deceased. He then posts his videos on his YouTube channel.

After being taken away by officers who came to his home in protective suits, Fangbin was interrogated at a police station and released a few hours later. 

According to the US-based rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders , he is one of at least 325 people who have been detained or otherwise penalised by the Chinese authorities for allegedly “spreading rumours” about the epidemic on social media. Some were threatened in their homes, while others were arrested and then later released like Fanbing. Others, however, are still in prison, the group said.

“Imagine how many people are dying every day”

On February 1, Fangbin went to Wuhan’s public hospital No.5. In just five minutes, he came across eight different bodies. The video has garnered more than a million views on Twitter.  Blogger Jennifer Zeng has shared some of Fangbin’s videos along with subtitles.

The same day, Fangbin went to the Xiehe Hospital, one of the biggest in Wuhan, but said it was impossible to enter. “The hospital is blocked,” he said. “We can’t get in. No one told us. I came here on January 21, before the city was put under quarantine and, even then, there were a lot of people with fevers.”

Also on February 1, Fangbin went to another hospital in Wuhan where he took a video of an ambulance belonging to a local funeral home with three bodies inside. “Three bodies in this one place – imagine how many people are dying every day,” he says on the video.

Fangbin created a WeChat group (the Chinese equivalent to WhatsApp) that he called “The people must save themselves.”

“They don’t show what’s happening on TV… so I decided to go and film myself”

Fangbin told the FRANCE 24 Observers that the Chinese media’s silence prompted him to start documenting the situation himself.

I honestly didn’t know anything was seriously wrong until the town was put under quarantine. I went to the hospital and it was packed with people. That’s when I realised that Wuhan was the centre of the epidemic and that the hospitals were at the heart of that centre.

These hospitals are where the national television channels like Hubei and the local Wuhan channels should be going to interview people. But no one was going there. So I thought – if they don’t want to go there, then I’ll go and film what is happening.

“Fangbin was arrested! SOS”

But filming inside a hospital and sharing non-official information about coronavirus is forbidden in China. The government and the media tightly control what is broadcast – they rarely show doctors overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis and the dead. Instead, they show patients who have been cured or how fast new hospitals are being built.

On the evening of February 1, the day he filmed the hospital videos, Fangbin was arrested by the police, who he says entered his home on the pretext of wanting to take his temperature. He was taken to a police station and interrogated.

Worried about his disappearance, social media users immediately started calling for help on social media. One supporter made a video called “Fangbin was arrested! SOS”, which garnered more than 300,000 views when it was posted to YouTube.

The police finally released Fangbin at around 1am on February 2 and let him off with a simple warning. To get home, he had to ride on a bicycle for more than three hours. When he got back, he posted two videos thanking social media users for their support. “I rode my bike from Sixin [Editor’s note: the police station where he was taken] from 1am to 4am. I got thousands of messages of support. Thank you to everyone. Justice is in the hearts of people.”

Fangbin believes that his release was thanks to the support that poured out for him online.

In the videos he posted, Fangbin also talked about the interrogation he underwent: “When they arrested me, they said ‘you risk your life going into places like that!’” He also said the police accused him of being paid by anti-Chinese foreign forces.

Two days later, on the evening of February 4, Fangbin received two unexpected visitors. First of all, a woman claiming to be a local government official told him that she had come to bring him food. Fangbin was suspicious and started filming the encounter.

Just afterward, police officers rang his bell and asked him to open up. Fangbin told them: “If I open the door, you’re going to arrest me and put me in prison. Go get a warrant!”

In a video describing the arrival of the police, he asked his fellow citizens: “Now everyone has seen what I am doing. Tell the government about it, tell them to acknowledge that what I am doing is good!”

In another message, he said: “Don’t worry about me! Tyranny is the enemy of the people.”

Since February 4, Fangbin has posted several new videos on his YouTube channel.

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