What the coronavirus is revealing about human rights in China

Posted on Saturday, May 23, 2020

Author: Margaret McCuaig-Johnston

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston

Senior Fellow, ISSP, uOttawa
Senior Fellow, University of Alberta’s China Institute
Distinguished Fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

The coronavirus is bringing to international attention the Chinese government’s disregard for transparency and the individual human rights of its citizens.

We’re all familiar with the fate of the Wuhan ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang who raised an early alarm about the virus in December. In fact, he was one of eight doctors who discussed it on a chat group. The next day Dr. Li was accused of “illegal behaviour” by publishing an “untrue discourse” that had “severely disrupted social order”. All eight were detained and interrogated, and Dr. Li and one other doctor later died of the virus. When one is detained in China, it is not a simple discussion and clarification. One is kept in a cell with the lights on all the time and subjected to six to eight hours of violent interrogation every day while sitting in a tiger chair – a metal chair to which your wrists and ankles are clamped in vises and a form of torture according to those who have experienced it. There is no access to lawyers or family for six months, and often longer.

On January 2nd, the Wuhan Institute of Virology developed the genomic sequence of the virus, which is important to understanding the virus and stopping it – but the lead scientist was detained. Chinese authorities did not publicly confirm the existence of the coronavirus until January 9th, two days after it was revealed by the Wall Street Journal whose journalists have since been expelled from China. It was not until January 12th that Chinese scientists were given permission to share the genome sequence and analysis.

Throughout this period the Chinese government said that the virus was not very dangerous and that it could be controlled. For six weeks it suppressed information about the actual situation. On January 23rd, all flights, trains and road travel from Wuhan, a city of 11 million, to other parts of China was stopped. However, flights continued for weeks after from Wuhan to other countries.

The organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) has said that 452 “citizen journalists” as well as professors were detained for writing or creating videos showing what was really happening, or “spreading rumours” as they call it, an illegal activity in China. Even a retired property tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, was detained for writing an essay criticizing Xi Jinping in the context of the virus. CHRD reported that as early as February 2nd, the Ministry of Public Security had already handled 5,511 cases involving “people fabricating false information about how the government was handling the coronavirus”.

In fact, the censorship minions in China went into overdrive, broadly censoring communications that were critical of the government, references to Dr. Li, and even neutral information related to the coronavirus, including on the widely popular WeChat. (It has been reported that for unknown reasons the censorship worked poorly for the first two weeks after the January 23rd Wuhan lockdown, and people learned that the doctors had been muzzled and were very angry about it, showing that the Party could lose public support quickly.) In message blocking, keywords are often targeted. According to Citizen Lab, this has had the effect of restricting vital communication related to disease information and prevention.

As it spread in Wuhan, Beijing pressured Wuhan officials to get on top of it and keep numbers low. Local officials do not like to give bad news to the central government, and officials in Beijing certainly do not like to receive it. Soon officials pointed the finger at a US military officer who had visited Wuhan in October to participate in military games. Then they said it was an Italian who had brought it from northern Italy; indeed, by then it was spreading in Italy as Chinese workers returned from visits home for Spring Festival in Wuhan.

Across China, those citizens with symptoms were quarantined in government-run facilities such as converted hotels and arenas. Some people were welded into their homes for not self-isolating. Others were publicly shamed for not wearing masks; police officers chaining them to a lamppost in the street as an example to others. There were no exceptions from immediate quarantine: a father was taken away and his son, who suffered from cerebral palsy, was alone for six days with only two meals, and he died.

Authorities required everyone to download a health app on their phones, with colour coding: green means you can be out in the community; yellow that you cannot leave your home, and red that you are to be quarantined in a government facility. It is unclear how people moved from one colour to another though apparently it draws inputs from other government databases. The company that created it is the same one that created an app for the police in Xinjiang to track Uyghurs. People were tracked using their cellphone location signals.

Reported deaths in China were so low at 3,318 that they were not believed given the context of videos and photos that had emerged showing long lines of people outside hospitals and people lying dead, and ignored, in the street where they fell. UK intelligence said the number of deaths was forty times the reported number. We do not know because of the lack of transparency, but in the face of international condemnation for suppressing the numbers, China recently changed the number of deaths upwards to 4,634 – but not the number of cases. Others have looked at the number of cremation urns given to Wuhan families – 3,500 per day over a 12 day period at the end of March. That is 42,000 dead souls. Another estimate assessed the number of cremation furnaces in Wuhan operating at capacity and put the number at 46,800. There were similar issues of accuracy of reported numbers with AIDS and SARS numbers in China. Evidently, transparency has not improved since then.

China is starting to get back to work now, but even as far away as Beijing, many schools are still not back in session. That is an important indicator of when the virus is considered to be over.

Now there is a fear of COVID-19 coming in from outside China, and there are disturbing anti-foreigner trends, especially against Africans, after five Nigerians in Guangzhou tested positive. Across China, black people have been evicted from their homes and beaten up, and not allowed to rent elsewhere. Other foreigners have not been allowed in many stores and hotels.

The Party can be expected to leave in place all the surveillance technologies they have used to control and track its citizens. There could be many future permutations of these technologies, just as the tracking of Uyghurs in Xinjiang using apps is being extended to others in the country.

In an interview with Nathan VanderKlippe in the Globe and Mail April 14, 2020, Dr. Wu Fei, Director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou said that China’s policy comes down to “human rights or human lives – and when it’s a matter of survival, human rights should be ranked less important.” In China, since 1949, individual human rights have consistently been ranked by the State as less important than almost anything else, and with the coronavirus, China is taking yet one more step backwards.

Back to top