How to Combat CCP Disinformation on COVID-19

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How to Combat CCP Disinformation on COVID-19

Frances Eve

“Why doesn’t the government give the poorest in society personal protective equipment instead of using resources to restrict individual freedoms?” asked citizen journalist Zhang Zhan on Twitter in mid-February while reporting from Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

“The cover-up of the unfolding crisis in Wuhan contributed directly to what is now a national disaster,” wrote legal scholar Xu Zhiyong in February while calling on Xi Jinping to resign.

“Chinese people know that this epidemic and all the unnecessary suffering it brought came directly from a system that strictly prohibits the freedom of press and speech,” wrote tycoon Ren Zhiqiang in early March. In September, a Beijing court sentenced Ren to 18 years in prison, effectively a death sentence for the 69-year-old.

“Wuhan pneumonia is not a Chinese virus but Chinese Communist Party virus” posted 68-year-old retired professor Chen Zhaozhi on WeChat in March.

As a result of these comments about the COVID-19 pandemic in China and other speech or conduct protected by human rights, all four of these individuals has been arrested by Chinese police and denied their basic due process rights, like access to a lawyer or to be free from torture.

This Thursday, on International Human Rights Day, we can combat the CCP’s disinformation on COVID-19 by speaking out and raising awareness of Chinese reporters and writers who have been detained as a part of the Chinese government’s crackdown on COVID-19 expression.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, China, has ripped through the globe and to date killed over 1.5 million people and infected over 67 million. It is the biggest human rights crisis of 2020. The Chinese government spent most of January covering up the outbreak, suppressing crucial information that the virus was spreading through human-to-human transmission and not registering cases, thus allowing the virus to spread throughout China and the globe.

The CCP’s response to the pandemic reinforces that freedom of expression is essential to protecting public health globally.

As people started dying from the new virus and in desperate need of information, Chinese authorities swiftly began muzzling independent reporting, ramping up censorship, and detaining and punishing doctors, activists, writers and ordinary people who spoke out about the truth on the ground at a time. Wuhan resident Fang Bin’s simple act of recording overwhelmed hospitals in January-February was enough to land in him a detention center for the past 10 months. There has been no credible independent investigation into the cause of the outbreak and we likely don’t even know the true number of deaths or confirmed case of COVID-19 in China.

This, according to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, constituted “transparently releasing information on the coronavirus situation.” Meanwhile, China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats have aggressively pushed propaganda and disinformation about the pandemic on social media which has been further amplified by fake accounts.

Instead of valuing human life above all else, as Xi Jinping claimed is the number one priority of the CCP, the Party has gone after the victims of the pandemic in Wuhan and Hubei. Bereaved families and their lawyers trying to file claims for compensation against the government for suppressing vital public health information have faced threats and harassment from national security police.

To the Chinese Communist Party, uncensored expression about the pandemic is dangerous. The legitimacy of the unelected, one-party system rests on the Party’s ability to keep its citizens alive and prosperous. From billionaires to retirees, Chinese who spoke out about the COVID-19 pandemic faced severe repression from authorities because they exposed falsehoods told by the government to Chinese people and to the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic should be a wakeup call to governments around the world. The Chinese government’s suppression of its citizens’ rights has global ramifications. On Human Rights Day, governments should speak up and call for the release of these individuals by name. They should heed the unprecedented call of 50 UN independent human rights experts and over 300 NGOs and back the appointment of a special investigator at the United Nations to look into human rights abuses in China, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. A special session on China at the Human Rights Council should be arranged as a matter of priority.  

In the words of the late doctor Li Wenliang, “a healthy society should not have one voice.” In order to truly honour those in China who sacrificed everything to try and save lives, we must continue to raise awareness and speak out about those detained for speaking truth to power. Dr Li’s death on 7 February from COVID-19 and the subsequent outcry on Chinese social media showed that many in China yearn for free speech. The international community must work together to try and hold the Chinese government accountable for its human rights violations.

Frances Eve is the deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

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