Chinese citizens turn to VPNs for coronavirus information due to China’s censorship of facts. They are also using VPNs to disseminate coronavirus information from behind China’s Great Firewall to the rest of the world.
China’s Censorship of Coronavirus Information?
The coronavirus outbreak has been linked to the seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan, China. It is in Wuhan where the first case of the coronavirus was reported on December 8, 2019. Then, on December 30, after noticing an unusual rise in unexplained pneumonia cases, Dr Li Wenliang from Wuhan sent messages to his colleagues via WeChat, a Chinese social media platform. He warned his colleagues to be careful as initially he thought he was witnessing another outbreak of SARS.
Doctors’ censored and reprimanded for warning people
Dr Li Wenliang and his colleagues shared their experiences on WeChat. They also warned others to stay away from Huanan seafood market, where patients said they had gone before getting sick. This all came to the attention of the authorities.
Consequently, the doctors’ WeChat group was banned, and they were brought in for questioning by Wuhan police. They were accused of “spreading rumors” and disrupting social order. The doctors were silenced, and hospitals were warned to keep the outbreak quiet. “Without authorization, no units or individuals shall release treatment related information to the outside,” a translated document presented on the Australian 4 Corners program revealed.
Authorities acknowledge outbreak but play down severity
Thanks to the doctors’ actions, authorities were forced to acknowledge the existence of unexplained pneumonia cases. They also acknowledged a possible connection to the seafood market and informed the World Health Organization (WHO). Crucially, however, they denied that the coronavirus could be spread from human-to-human. In a contradictory move, Chinese authorities nevertheless closed the seafood market.
“They [the local government] adopted the policy of concealing the truth from the public but starting to control the epidemic internally,” Dr Wu Qiang, Chinese Political Commentator states on the 4 Corners program. “This contradiction prevented them from properly mobilizing to deal with the spread of the epidemic… The information kept from the public caused the outbreak of the disaster and the spread of the disease.”
Thanks to Chinese information censorship and surveillance, the authorities essentially lost two to three weeks of crucial time. Time when the virus was still emerging and thus could still be traced and possibly checked, stopping the outbreak.
Outbreak worsened by the start of Chinese New Year
The outbreak was then worsened by the coming of the Chinese New Year. For the New Year festivities, hundreds of millions of people crisscross China and travel in from overseas. However, despite evidence to the contrary, local officials at this crucial moment stated that the disease was under control. Consequently, people continued with their planned Chinese New Year trips.
Then on January 9, 2020, a 61-year-old man who had visited the market, became the first to die from the coronavirus. The death was kept quiet for two days by authorities due to political concerns. Then, on January 22 the government finally acknowledged the gravity of the situation at a press conference in Beijing.
The next day the whole province of Hubei, which has a population equivalent to that of Italy, was placed under forcible quarantine.
Chinese Citizens Voice Anger against Censorship?
On February 7, 2020, Dr Li Wenliang dies from the coronavirus, the very virus he tried to stop. The doctor’s death and the governments mishandling of the epidemic sparks outrage in China. This leads to a rare outburst of online anger with Chinese citizens taking to social media to vent their frustrations.
Dr Qiang states that the people of China are more dissatisfied than they have been for 80 years. “They [more than 900 million Chinese people equipped with smartphones] have been tremendously dissatisfied with Wuhan local government’s ineffectiveness in epidemic and disaster relief. The predicament that the Wuhan people have been put into from the city lockdown, the paralysis of local medical institutions and the huge risk they have to face,” all have played a part to rise people’s anger he says.
Chinese people’s voice heard thanks to VPNs
Video footage has appeared online showing apartment building doors being welded shut, effectively forcibly quarantining people inside their buildings. There is also footage that has been posted of police entering people’s homes and forcibly removing anyone with a fever. Where they are taken, no one knows, as the hospitals are already overflowing.
In China, authorities quickly pull down any social media posts criticizing the government as soon as they appear. This has sparked further outrage and has seen an unprecedented call for freedom of speech.
To circumvent censorship and make their plight known, Chinese citizens have begun copying and gathering social media messages before the authorities have a chance to delete them. These are then posted on sites blocked by China, such as YouTube and Twitter, by using VPNs.
Furthermore, Chinese citizens have grown increasingly distrustful of state coverups and some are turning to VPNs to access alternative sources for news of the outbreak.
However, the Financial Times reports that “China’s most popular VPN services, which allow foreign businesses and locals to circumvent internet censorship have faced an onslaught of government attacks in recent weeks. As a result, some users are finding it more difficult to access censored websites, such as Google, Twitter and most foreign newspapers.”
Chinese Citizens at Risk for using VPNs
Although VPNs may allow Chinese citizens to access the open uncensored internet to voice their thoughts, these people are putting themselves at great risk. They are using VPNs to inform the rest of the world of the outbreak and to make the world aware of the extreme measures the government is using against its population.
Chinese officials, however, do not take kindly to public criticism. Therefore, China’s government has ramped up efforts to punish locals for “spreading rumors” and harshly criticizing the government about the coronavirus.
According to the South China Morning Post, new guidelines have been issued by China’s judicial and law enforcement agencies. The guidelines named ten new categories of criminal charges that can be brought against people. People can now be charged for jeopardizing disease control, undermining social stability by spreading fear about the virus and criticizing the governments’ handling of the outbreak.