Government targets academic critics of COVID-19 response

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Originally published by University World News on May 12, 2020

Two Chinese academics are under investigation by their universities and a third has been arrested in recent weeks for criticising the handling of the coronavirus outbreak and lockdown in China. COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, in China’s central Hubei province, at the end of last year. 

Legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong was seized from his home in Shanghai by police on 10 May after he posted an open letter on social media the day before, addressed to National People’s Congress (NPC) deputies saying the outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 epidemic was a good illustration of backward Chinese governance and called on NPC members to draft a new constitution. He included his own draft proposal for a new constitution describing the current national constitution as “fake”.

The NPC is due to open its annual meeting on 22 May after being postponed from March. Zhang was reportedly released the following day, although the conditions of his release are still unclear. 

Referring to Li Wenliang, a Wuhan ophthalmologist who alerted alumni and colleagues to the emergence of the virus in late December, and who was accused by police of making false statements, Zhang had written in his letter: “Twenty-two days before the [lockdown] in the city, Wuhan was still investigating and punishing citizens who had disclosed the epidemic, including Dr Li Wenliang … showing how tight and arbitrary the government’s suppression of society is.”

Since first being reported in Wuhan in late December, the coronavirus has infected over 4.1 million people globally, killing more than 282,000. In China there have been almost 83,000 officially confirmed coronavirus cases – 67,800 of them in Hubei province and officially around 4,600 deaths, 3,212 in Hubei. 

Li, who died of COVID-19 on 7 February, was posthumously declared a hero by the authorities after a huge public backlash in China. But other health workers, civil society activists, journalists, lawyers and academics have been targeted since then to silence criticism of the government’s approach. Some journalists have been forcibly ‘quarantined’ to prevent them gathering information, rights groups said. 

Scholar Zhang’s letter said the Chinese political system had resulted in a lack of transparency and scrutiny. Zhang said the way government handled this prevented independent voices from the medical field, as well as the media, from providing more information to the public about the dangers of the coronavirus.

Zhang, who teaches an online constitutional class, was removed from his teaching post at East China University of Political Science and Law in 2013 after writing critically about China’s constitution. He was expelled from the faculty four months later. The university accused him of “forcibly spreading his political views to the school staff and teachers, and also using his position to spread his political views among students”. 

State media has referred to a university notice as saying Zhang’s book New Common Sense: The nature and consequences of one-party dictatorship was published on the university platform.

Fang Fang supporters investigated

Other academics have been investigated by police and their universities in the past few weeks for expressing support for respected Chinese author Wang Fang, who writes as Fang Fang and whose popular ‘Wuhan Diary’ on life in the city during the outbreak has been critical of the government in handling the crisis. 

Fang Fang maintains in her writings that abuse of power by the authorities and social injustice prevented rapid and effective action against the coronavirus. She says the real heroes in the fight against the pandemic are the people stuck at home, as well as doctors, nurses and volunteers.

Hubei University said on 26 April that it was investigating Liang Yanping, a professor of language and literature at the university, for supporting Fang Fang’s work on social media.

“Fang Fang’s writing is human-centred, for the people, and for humanitarianism and humanism,” Liang wrote in an article titled “Fang Fang is facing the shock head-on”.

According to official media, Hubei University previously said Liang was investigated for her “anti-government” comments published in previous years.

At the end of April, Hainan University started an investigation into Wang Xiaoni, a retired professor and poet who had posted support for Liang’s remarks on social media. Wang was reportedly under investigation already for publishing “improper” online comments in support of Hong Kong protesters posted at the time of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement protests in 2014.

Chen Zhaozhi, another retired professor, of the University of Science and Technology Beijing, who also expressed support of Fang Fang’s views, was arrested by Beijing police on 14 April and charged with “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”, a vague charge often used against non-violent critics of the government. 

Chen had made comments during an online debate about the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, saying it should be described as a “Chinese Communist Party virus”.

Haidian District police initially criminally detained Chen for “fabricating and deliberately disseminating fake information” on 11 March but changed the charge after formally arresting him, according to rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.  

The detentions and investigations of academics comes amid a nationwide backlash, both by nationalistic netizens seeking to malign and undermine government critics, and by law enforcement. 

A surge in online calls for freedom of speech in February and more transparency about the coronavirus triggered by the death of Dr Li Wenliang, have largely died down, an indication of swift censorship, activists said. 

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