Covid-19 gave President Xi a chance to crack down on dissent – he has not missed the opportunity
When Xu Zhiyong went on the run last year he must have known it wasn’t going to be easy. It was 26 December. He was on a train heading for Beijing, and in that city alone the Public Security Bureau – China’s police and secret police rolled into one – commands the services of 850,000 informants. It has access to a social credit system that tracks and controls Chinese citizens through their smartphones. And it can pick out individuals in huge crowds with a network of 200 million surveillance cameras hooked up to software that identifies people by their faces and, failing that, the way they walk.
On the train, Xu received a text. It said that four people he had recently invited to a weekend get-together in the coastal city of Xiamen had been arrested. All were human rights lawyers or activists (Xu is both), as well as being known critics of the Chinese Communist Party.
Xu immediately switched off his phone. He got off the train at the next station and boarded another in the opposite direction, heading south for Guangzhou. For the next 50 days he kept moving, staying with friends and communicating only by email.
He kept busy by writing. On 4 February this year, he released an 8,000-word open letter to Xi Jinping, taunting the Chinese president for a lack of vision compared with his predecessors and accusing him of “shambolic” leadership during the coronavirus crisis. “You have proved that you lack the most rudimentary competences, yet you remain perversely unaware of your limitations,” he wrote. “That’s made all the worse by a system that censors discordant views and leaves room only for fawning approval.” He ended by calling on Xi to resign. His last blog post – now scrubbed from the web – was dated 14 February. The police caught up with him the next day and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
“Xu is my close friend,” says Teng Biao, a fellow human rights lawyer, now based in New York. “He knew he couldn’t hide forever, so he used that time to call for international attention not only to himself but to the situation for other activists.”
That situation is dangerous even by China’s standards; and even though the regime seemed briefly to have relaxed. Early in the outbreak there was a spike in candid reporting as the coronavirus filled Wuhan’s hospitals and morgues. China Newsweek ran stories about official negligence and delay. Medics and citizen journalists followed the lead of Dr Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist who first alerted colleagues to what looked like a new Sars-like virus. When news of Li’s death broke on 7 February, two million people shared the hashtag #Iwantfreedomofspeech in the space of eight hours.
“The Communist Party and its information control were temporarily thrown off their game by the spread of the virus and the realisation that they were at fault,” says Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists. China watchers wondered if the outbreak could even become Xi’s Chernobyl; a catalyst for a catastrophic loss of faith in the regime.
But China in 2020 bears almost no resemblance to the Soviet Union in 1986. Its economy is strong despite the pandemic, and despite western efforts to hobble tech giants like Huawei. Its security apparatus is rocket-fuelled by artificial intelligence. Its global image – tarnished by campaigns of repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang – is of a formidably ambitious superpower. The party may have stumbled at first on information control, but it’s back in charge now, with a vengeance. Its strategy – to intimidate would-be critics into silence, fill the airwaves with a curated narrative of China as hero and seize on the pandemic to take a bold new step towards the dream of a dissent-free society – may well be working.
As 2019 ticked over into 2020, Fang Bin was a clothing salesman who liked to do some vlogging on the side. He lived in Wuhan and posted occasional enthusiastic clips about his city’s rag trade; then something about the outbreak and Dr Li’s deteriorating condition stirred his conscience. He started visiting local hospitals and medical supply stores to see how reality compared with what official media was saying.
Unschooled in reporting, he mixed amiable commentary with sometimes shocking reportage. On 1 February, a Saturday, he filmed himself taking a walk round his neighbourhood in an eastern suburb. (“This is where I live. No one is walking outside, [but] the birds are still flying.”) He proceeded to Wuhan’s central hospital, where no one stopped him wandering into wards or along corridors crowded with gurneys. He filmed patients clinging to life, and relatives sitting with loved-ones who had already died. On the way in, he counted three bodies in yellow bags in a van from the Wuchang Funeral Parlour. On the way out, he counted eight.
Fang posted rough edits online and quickly earned a following. On 7 February he filmed himself at home, struggling to hold back tears as he spoke of Dr Li’s death. He said his WeChat account had been suspended and admitted friends were worried about him.
Two days later he wrote a final message to his viewers in bold black calligraphy – “All citizens resist. Hand power back to the people!” – and filmed through a crack in his front door as the police arrived. At first they pretended to be concerned for his health in view of his hospital visits. When he refused to let them in they had the fire brigade break down the door. That was 9 February. There’s been no official word on Fang Bin since.
Three days earlier another self-taught journalist had gone missing in similar circumstances. Chen Qiushi isn’t from Wuhan, but he went there as others streamed out. By his own account he got the last train in before the city was locked down on 23 January. He started filming at once, outside Hankou station and a short walk from the Huanan Seafood Market to which many of the earliest Covid-19 infections were traced. “Why did I come here?” he asks, talking to his phone on a selfie stick. “I’ll be blunt. My responsibility as a citizen journalist. What kind of journalist are you if disaster strikes and you don’t rush to the front line?”
What might seem self-regarding comes across as endearing. Take a look. Chen, who is 34 and a lawyer by training, is psyching himself up.
He is also – and this is what bothered the authorities – talking to as many as 1.5 million followers on social media. He collected them over the course of 2019 by reporting honestly and energetically on floods in Ganzhou and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. He showed viewers that the protests were mainly peaceful, not the “riots” described in Chinese state media. In the process, he ensured he’d be followed wherever he went after that, digitally if not in person.
At first Chen enjoyed remarkable freedom in Wuhan, filming all over the city and talking into his phone in the evenings in his hotel room. He recorded images of nurses forced to work without PPE, quite unlike the state-sanctioned footage of fully-equipped medics broadcast on TV and round the world. He toured a convention centre converted into a field hospital and found “long rows of people” without access to testing, diagnostics or doctors. In one surreal sequence he spoke to a woman who had one arm round her dead father while trying to reach someone on her phone to help remove his body.
After a week, the police were calling and the pressure was getting to him. He was afraid and yet not afraid, he says in a clip recorded at the end of January. “In front of me is the virus and behind me is the legal and administrative power of China… [but] I’m not even afraid of death. You think I’m afraid of the Communist Party?” Choking up, he reaches for the off button.
China jails more journalists than any other country. The Committee to Protect Journalists officially lists and champions 48 currently imprisoned for doing their jobs, which may seem a low number in a population of 1.4 billion, but that’s the point. As Steven Butler of the CPJ notes, “you don’t have to disappear or arrest many to intimidate the rest”. Besides, there are more acknowledged victims of suppression.
By mid-February police were publicising the fact that they had penalised more than 5,000 people for “disseminating false and harmful information” about the virus. The message: sharing anything unofficial about Covid means risking arrest. Not all these cases have led to prison, but Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a California-based advocacy group, keeps track of the more serious ones. Between 1 January and 26 March it counted 897.
For everyone named in these cases the pandemic has been a personal crisis – perhaps the first since Tiananmen Square – in which they have put fear to one side and taken a stand. For the regime, what started as a disaster with the potential for national humiliation has morphed into an opportunity. Xi hasn’t let it go to waste.
In January, soon after claiming to have taken personal control of China’s coronavirus response, the president told officials to “strengthen the guidance of public opinion”. They did not need telling twice. As soon as the virus was under control domestically, Chinese doctors and crates of PPE began showing up in Europe to illustrate the new story of China to the rescue. It has not gone over well in Washington, but the presidents of Italy, Serbia and the EU have thanked China effusively for its support.
Internally, Butler says China is back to the status quo in terms of information control – back to “a steady trend since the Beijing Olympics of step by step suppression”.
That trend started picking up speed in 2015. On 9 July that year more than 200 lawyers and human rights activists across China were rounded up without warning. Many were exiled, disappeared without explanation or put on trial on charges of subverting state power and jailed for long terms.
The date gave rise to the name of the purge – the 709 crackdown. Why then? There seems to be no good reason, which itself reveals much about how Xi’s security state works.
“The regime has a checklist of things that have to be done,” says Minxin Pei, a Chinese political scientist now at Claremont McKenna College in California. “Xi gives general instructions and the specifics are drawn up by others. In essence, he scribbles in the margins of briefing documents and his underlings interpret.”
So the timing was not that significant – except in one respect. “Xi wanted to build political momentum towards the 2017 Communist Party Congress, when he prevented the designation of his successor.” This was the moment when Xi, like Vladimir Putin last month in Moscow, confirmed for anyone still in doubt that he intended to remain president for life.
As a full-blown authoritarian, Xi attaches huge importance to information control. In an often-quoted 2016 speech to ranks of deferential state media staff, he reminded them of their duty to “strictly adhere to the party’s leadership…speak for the party’s will and its propositions, and protect the party’s authority and unity”.
This year, that authority cracked under the strain of Covid-19. “Xi lost control for about two weeks,” Pei says. “When he got the first reports of the outbreak in early January he either made the mistake of taking local party officials at face value” – they have since been shown to have hidden the spread of the virus in Wuhan – “or he panicked.”
If panic had taken hold the history of the pandemic might have been very different, but by 10 February, Pei says, Xi had reasserted control “and started firing people”.
A third well-known figure who felt this reassertion of control was Li Zehua. Young, good-looking and well-placed in the ziggurat of state TV, he had much to gain from toeing the official line. Instead he went rogue. He quit China Central Television early in the pandemic and rebranded himself as Kcriss – rapper, YouTuber and citizen journalist.
On or around 11 February, Kcriss sneaked through the Wuhan cordon in search of Chen Qiushi, whose disappearance was by then a big story in the riskier reaches of social media. He never found Chen, but he did find fame in a car chase that he filmed on his phone as he fled police who tried to stop him in the middle of Wuhan. He was detained later that day (26 February), put in “quarantine” for a month despite showing no symptoms of Covid, and released to his family. A month after that, chastened and stilted, he reappeared online in a clip that bears all the hallmarks of a coerced confession.
“For me, everything has been a little bit different these months,” he begins. He describes the chase, the scrupulous care taken by police to respect his rights and keep him safe, and his own “countless, chaotic thoughts”. He ends with a plea to “uphold the doctrine of the golden mean of Confucian orthodoxy”.
So there are ways to “reappear”, but it may be that you have to cooperate to take advantage of them. Some of Chen Qiushi’s supporters think he remains incommunicado because he’s refusing to record this sort of confession. Others fear for Chen’s life.
China’s apparatus of suppression is so huge that outcomes can be hard to predict when it sucks people in. In addition to the Public Security Bureau and its always-on electronic surveillance machine, Chinese taxpayers fund separate bureaus responsible for propaganda and censorship; a full-service cadre of professional spies in the State Security Bureau; a parallel universe of military intelligence.
In addition, Minxin Pei lists five layers of informants plying the organs of state with information on every aspect of its citizens’ lives, from casual remarks in a university seminar room in Beijing to a Uighur’s choice of food in a market in Urumchi. These layers comprise a system of “defence in depth” around a core of regular police. The inner layer consists of paid informants, often ex-criminals, who according to a police manual studied by Pei are supposed to be personally recruited by police, two informants per officer.
Outer layers include volunteer workplace snitches, Crimewatch-style neighbourhood patrols and party members for whom informing on fellow citizens is supposed to be the most natural thing in the world.
And then there are the Xie Jing – police “contractors” or auxiliaries, Teng Biao explains, who are retained by local forces to do their dirty work and can be impossible to spot until they target you.
Teng tells the story of someone who fell foul of them, the brother of a fellow exile. “His name was Chen Hejian and he lived in Wuhan. One day during lockdown he got fed up with being inside, so he left his apartment to meet a friend for drinks. He didn’t tell anyone what he was doing, and on his way home he was caught by Xie Jing guards and beaten to death.”
This is the street-level reality of Xi’s dream of total conformity, and it’s not the same as his predecessor Hu Jintao’s dream of a “harmonious society”. That gave way to something altogether more absolutist when Xi took control of the politburo eight years ago.
“It’s even more serious than the fact of police contractors beating people to death,” Teng says. “It’s the fact that ordinary citizens have implicitly been given the power to detain and torture people, and that’s what reminds us of the Cultural Revolution.”
Teng has felt the hard edge of the Chinese state. He’s been tortured physically and psychologically for his activism during 70 days in extreme solitary confinement, but even that was before Xi’s rise to power.
“Xi cannot tolerate potential rivals,” he says. This may seem obvious in a one-party autocracy, but it highlights a contrast with his predecessor’s relatively relaxed control of the politburo – and it echoes Xu Zhiyong’s caustic, comedic open letter to Xi; the one that mocks his insecurities and his instinct to fall back on high-tech authoritarianism.
What have Xi’s people hidden? What have the truth-tellers found? How have they suffered? What Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi uploaded to the net (until it was taken down) was clear evidence of a system more concerned to contain information than the virus. In two crucial weeks straddling January and February they witnessed a cover-up that delayed the red alert the rest of the world needed to head off disaster. We got the message in the end, but too late to save hundreds of thousands who are now dead or suffering the lingering after-effects of a disease still poorly understood.
Fang, Chen and Xu are being held under what police call “residential surveillance at a designated location”. It sounds comfortable, but isn’t, and the risks to the Chinese state were they to be released could be too high to contemplate. Wherever they are, they may be there some time.
Photographs Greg Baker/AP/Shutterstock, Chen Qiushi & Li Zehua via Youtube, Getty Images