First came the pleas for help, posts to social media describing failed efforts to get medical care for relatives showing symptoms of a deadly virus spreading through China. Then came the shared videos of police dragging away people suspected of infection or chaining them into their homes. Then came the outrage, the demands for free speech and the digital essays – eloquent and searching – examining the frailties of modern China exposed by an outbreak that has now killed nearly 1,400.
For nearly as long as China has allowed digital information to penetrate its borders, its authorities have sought to control what can be said and seen online by its people. Chinese companies and government censors wield the world’s most sophisticated tools for expunging unsanctioned content.
But the spread of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, and the depth of national anxiety it has provoked have shown the limits of the country’s ability to control its online spaces, where the ubiquity and speed of internet communication have provided a platform for public expression. For three weeks now, an online outpouring of anger and frustration has underscored how the internet has, over more than 15 years of rapid development in China, reshaped the dynamics of power, eroding the state monopoly on information and opening avenues for the rapid spread of ideas authorities consider dangerous – including unsettling questions about the competence of Communist Party leadership.
“With social media you cannot hide things anymore,” said Christian Goebel, a scholar at the University of Vienna who studies the interaction between the Chinese government and public complaints.
In the early days of the virus outbreak in December, Chinese reporters and citizen journalists exposed official bumbling and provided unsparing glimpses of death and despair that sharply undermined assurances the epidemic was under control. An entire country joined in fury after the death of Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who died from the COVID-19, after initially being detained by police for telling friends about a frightening new illness.
Media outlets have now been commanded to report authorized news. Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, two men who posted videos from the outbreak epicentre of Wuhan in Hubei province, have disappeared. Censors block messages about Dr. Li.
But some of the most damning disclosures have come not from everyday people and experts. Doctors writing on China’s Twitter-like Weibo have described weaknesses in virus testing and the virus’s unreported toll on health-care workers. Desperate children seeking medical care for parents have described systemic failures to diagnose the sick. People in quarantine have documented and shared video of masked authorities chaining doors for 14 days, with little thought to what might happen if fire broke out.
Geremie Barmé, an independent scholar who has studied China since the Mao Zedong era, cited an ancient aphorism: “It’s easier to dam a river than it is to silence the voice of the people.” For many in China, the Communist Party’s handling of the virus crisis has shown ”elements of the Chinese government that are definitely not in the favour of [President] Xi Jinping’s one-man rule,” Mr. Barmé said.
What’s happening “is less a demonstration of public empowerment than of the limitations of official control,” said Samuel Wade, deputy editor of China Digital Times, which documents Chinese internet censorship. He cited Han Han, a dissident blogger, who made a grim observation in 2011, following the deadly bullet train crash in Wenzhou that similarly provoked an airing of public dissatisfaction.
“You feel everyone’s really angry, you feel like you could go open the window and you would see protesters on the street,” he told The Economist at the time. “But once you open the window, you realize that there’s nothing there at all.”
Still, the virus is the latest in a series of crises that have “reminded people of the importance of basic freedoms,” said Zhou Lian a philosopher at Renmin University.
Digital publishing has provided space for an outpouring of critical commentary, whose rapid spread can outpace censors.
The COVID-19 has shown the “hazards of totalitarian government,” wrote Xu Zhangrun, a Tsinghua University professor already under punishment for speaking out against the removal of term limits for Mr. Xi, whom he called “clueless.”
“The mess they have made in Hubei province, and the grotesque posturing of the incompetents involved, has highlighted a universal problem. A similar malaise has infected every province and the rot goes right up to Beijing,” Prof. Xu wrote in the essay, translated by Mr. Barmé. It’s time, he wrote, to end restrictions on publishing and internet censorship, and for people in China to be granted freedom of assembly and the right to vote.
The chief judge of the Supreme People’s Court in China posted a lengthy essay by Duan Zhanjiang, a former business executive, who said the virus has exposed problems with a government that seeks full control. Instead, Mr. Duan wrote, China should allow independent media and grant the right to vote. In the current system, he said, “We are only allowed to speak falsely.”
China’s digital spaces have never been fully obedient to the dictates of the state. Content minders have generally employed a looser hand toward the venting of angers and frustrations, so long as top leadership is not directly criticized – and so long as people make no attempt to organize against authorities.
Still, the coronavirus is the latest example of the mark the internet has left on governance in China.
“One of the great boons for the Chinese authorities has actually been the voicing of dissent online, it gives the central government much greater insight into the problems the country is facing,” said James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China.
“This has given ordinary people a certain amount of power undoubtedly, and there are ways in which they can effect change in this manner, but only through very defined, tightly managed means.”
Prof. Zhou at Renmin University remains pessimistic a virus outbreak alone will produce anything long-lasting.
But, he said, the virus has “allowed more people to see the institutional factors behind the outbreak and the importance of freedom of speech,” he said. And “if the government continues to provide good people with reason to be angry, then there will be wave upon wave of these incidents.”
With a report from Alexandra Li