China Cracks Down on Free Speech After News of Coronavirus Leaks


China’s online censors began scrubbing social media and shutting down messaging groups after an uncharacteristic period of online freedom in January.

Online discussions about the coronavirus and criticisms of local authorities’ handling of the crisis seemed to be unimpeded from Jan. 19 – Feb. 1, Reuters reported.

This past week, however, the Cyberspace Administration of China began to crack down on the period of liberation by shutting down WeChat groups and taking down social media posts, according to Chinese reporters.

Tech firms that refused to monitor online speech were also reprimanded.

“Xi Jinping has made it clear that he expects efforts to strengthen ‘the guidance of public opinion’ to be increased,” Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said.

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“We’ve already seen around 300 more journalists dispatched to Wuhan and surrounding areas to report on the outbreak. It’s highly likely their brief is to paint a rosier picture of the government’s relief efforts rather than engage in any muckraking or critical reporting.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has bolstered online censorship efforts in China, but questions of transparency around the coronavirus have created suspicion and mistrust.

This became evident after the passing of Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who was allegedly detained in China for trying to warn his fellow medics about the coronavirus outbreak and later died from the virus itself.

According to a notice sent to an online Chinese news outlet, seen by Reuters, editors were told they could report on Li’s death, but should “let the topic gradually die out from the hot search list, and guard against harmful information.”

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Li was an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital who sent out a warning about the coronavirus to his colleagues on Dec. 30, according to the BBC.

Li had observed seven cases of a virus that looked like SARS, and he cautioned his fellow doctors to wear protective clothing to avoid possible infection.

The Public Security Bureau summoned Li four days later and forced him to sign a letter saying that he was “making false comments.” Seven other people were investigated as well for “spreading rumors.”

Authorities later apologized to the doctor for their actions.

During January’s period of online liberation, people heavily criticized the officials in Wuhan for reprimanding Li and the other people accused of “spreading rumors.”

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The CAC announced last week that is has punished websites and social media accounts for publishing commentary on the outbreak and asked platforms to control “harmful information” related to the coronavirus outbreak.

Chen Qiushi, a Chinese citizen journalist who had been reporting on the outbreak over Twitter, also disappeared last week, according to The Associated Press.

He had posted pictures and videos of corpses and people infected with the disease crammed into Wuhan hospitals.

According to CNN, Chen has been forced into quarantine.

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Erin Coates was an editor for The Western Journal for over two years before becoming a news writer. A University of Oregon graduate, Erin has conducted research in data journalism and contributed to various publications as a writer and editor.
Erin Coates was an editor for The Western Journal for over two years before becoming a news writer. She grew up in San Diego, California, proceeding to attend the University of Oregon and graduate with honors holding a degree in journalism. During her time in Oregon, Erin was an associate editor for Ethos Magazine and a freelance writer for Eugene Magazine. She has conducted research in data journalism, which has been published in the book “Data Journalism: Past, Present and Future.” Erin is an avid runner with a heart for encouraging young girls and has served as a coach for the organization Girls on the Run. As a writer and editor, Erin strives to promote social dialogue and tell the story of those around her.
Tucson, Arizona
Graduated with Honors
Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, University of Oregon
Books Written
Contributor for Data Journalism: Past, Present and Future
Prescott, Arizona
Languages Spoken
English, French
Topics of Expertise
Politics, Health, Entertainment, Faith