As Shawn Yuan reports at Wired, the Chinese government knew that a new SARS-like pneumonia had appeared in late 2019, yet they worked hard to keep this deadly virus a secret from their population and the world. As citizens shared accounts of the devastation with one another on social media, as reporters wrote and published stories about the outbreak, the Chinese government’s censors vigilantly deleted their posts and their accounts. Why? To conceal the extent of the outbreak and the inadequacy of its response, so that China could portray itself as a benevolent savior to its people and a generous friend supplying medical equipment to the world.
That night, just when Yue was about to log off and try to sleep, she saw the following sentence pop up on her WeChat Moments feed, the rough equivalent of Facebook’s News Feed: “I never thought in my lifetime I’d see dead bodies lying around without being collected and patients seeking medical help but having no place to get treatment.”
Yue thought that she had become desensitized, but this post made her fists clench: It was written by Xiao Hui, a journalist friend of hers who was reporting on the ground for Caixin, a prominent Chinese news outlet. Yue trusted her.
She read on. “On January 22, on my second day reporting in Wuhan, I knew this was China’s Chernobyl,” Xiao Hui wrote. “These days I rarely pick up phone calls from outside of Wuhan or chat with friends and family, because nothing can express what I have seen here.”
Unable to contain her anger, Yue took a screenshot of Xiao’s post and immediately posted it on her WeChat Moments. “Look what is happening in Wuhan!” she wrote. Then she finally drifted off.
The next morning, when she opened WeChat, a single message appeared: Her account had been suspended for having “spread malicious rumors” and she would not be able to unblock it. She knew at once that her late-night post had stepped on a censorship landmine.
It’s not hard to see how these censored posts contradicted the state’s preferred narrative. Judging from these vanished accounts, the regime’s coverup of the initial outbreak certainly did not help buy the world time, but instead apparently incubated what some have described as a humanitarian disaster in Wuhan and Hubei Province, which in turn may have set the stage for the global spread of the virus. And the state’s apparent reluctance to show scenes of mass suffering and disorder cruelly starved Chinese citizens of vital information when it mattered most.
While articles and posts that displease Chinese censors continue to be expunged across the Chinese internet, the messages that thrive on television and state-sanctioned sites are rosy: News anchors narrate videos of nurses saying how honored they have been to fight for their country despite all the hardships and video clips of China “generously” shipping planeloads of medical equipment to other countries hit hard by the virus are playing on a loop.
As the outbreak began to slow down in mainland China, the government remained cautious in filtering out any information that might contradict the seemingly unstoppable trend of recovery. On March 4, a Shanghai news site called The Paper reported that a Covid-19 patient who had been discharged from the hospital in late February later died in a post-discharge isolation center; another news site questioned whether hospitals were discharging patients prematurely for the sake of “clearing all cases.” Both stories vanished.