The coronavirus cover-up: A closer look at internet censorship in China
I am writing this in transit between Helsinki and Vilnius. I’ve got a mask on, and it’s uncomfortable. But I shouldn’t complain – the mask itself was a godsend – given the nationwide shortage of masks, hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes in Singapore.
My flight taking me from Singapore to Helsinki may as well have been a private jet for the number of people on board. One of the perks when travelling while the world is gearing up for a pandemic.
The coronavirus is quickly spreading through Asia, and onward into the US and Europe.
See live updates on the coronavirus global spread
What does this have to do with freedom of speech? And how does this answer the question “Do I need a VPN?” Just about everything.
Dr Li Wenling - the coronavirus whistleblower - is now dead.
I landed in Helsinki to the news of Dr Li Wenliang’s death.
Dr Li was one of the first people who tried to issue the first warning about the coronavirus outbreak.
On the 30th of December, he sent a message to fellow doctors in a medical-school alumni group. In this message, he warned his fellow medical practitioners that seven patients had been quarantined at Wuhan Central Hospital after coming down with a respiratory illness similar to the SARS coronavirus.
Four days after this, he was summoned to the Public Security Bureau where he was coerced to sign a letter. This letter claimed that he was “making false comments”.
According to the BBC, the letter he was told to sign read:
“We solemnly warn you: if you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice – is that understood?”.
Dr Li contracted the coronavirus himself, after treating people who had it.
After contracting the virus, Dr Li continued to post to his Weibo account. “I was wondering why [the government’s] official notices were still saying there was no human to human transmissions, and there were no healthcare workers infected,” Dr Li wrote on January 31 from his hospital bed.
Officials in Wuhan initially played down the threat and censored information on the spread of the disease. “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency”, Dr Li told the New York Times. Dr Li was one of the eight people arrested for speaking out on social media. The death of Dr Li Wenliang is a heartbreaking moment for China and a neon sign pointing at the failure of Chinese leadership.
The following are censorship instructions on how to deal with reporting on Dr Li’s death – issued to the media by the Chinese authorities. If you’re asking yourself the question, “Do I need a VPN?”, this is an indicator you should consider.
The rapid-fire spread of the coronavirus in China, alongside with this sad event, is a clear example of how transparency and openness can save lives, while censorship can lead to global disaster.
Keeping a deadly disease hidden from the public consciousness only lets it fester and spread silently. Censorship has fed this infection to pandemic proportions.
The state of the internet in China
The internet first arrived in China as a tool for the emerging “socialist market economy”. In 1998 the Golden Shield project was created. The Golden Shield project was a database project which gave the Chinese government the power to not only access the records of each citizen but to delete any comments online that were considered harmful to the Chinese government.
The image above showcases a simplified topology of the great firewall of China. In a white paper, released by the government of China, it clearly states that “within Chinese territory, the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected”. Here’s a direct link to a copy of the whitepaper. I call bullshit. And so do a growing number of “dissidents” of the Chinese government.
Looks like the citizens of China are finally getting woke - after decades of attempted brainwashing.
Government agencies have weakened the check-and-balance function that true journalism brings. “The local government’s tolerance level of different online voices is way too low,” wrote Hu Xijin on his social media – editor of the Global Times, a nationalist and party-controlled outlet.
“The current system looks so vibrant, yet it’s shattered completely by a government crisis…We gave up our rights in exchange for protection, but what kind of protection is it? Where will our long-lasting political apathy lead us” – writes a user on Chinese social media. This post was shared over 7000 times and liked 27,000 times. Then it was deleted [censored].
Zhang Ouya, a senior reporter at the state-run Hubei Daily wrote that “For Wuhan, please change the leadership immediately” – on his verified Weibo account. This post was shortly deleted, but not before a screenshot was circulated widely. This was followed by a leaked official document where the newspaper apologised to Wuhan officials with a promise that its staff would only post positive content. Only positive content – with a growing death count in China. 🙄🙄🙄
This outbreak is not only a national crisis – it’s a global health crisis with epic repercussions. On China Central Television, the state broadcaster shows a banquet held by leadership to celebrate the country’s successes.
“Chinese social media are full of anger, not because there was no censorship on this topic, but despite strong censorship, it is still possible that the censorship will suddenly increase again, as part of an effort to control the narrative,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. Critics are finding new ways to dodge censors, referring to Xi Jingping, China’s top leader as “Trump” and/or comparing the coronavirus outbreak to the Chernobyl catastrophe.
This week, police in the port city of Tianjin detained a man for 10 days for “maliciously publishing aggressive, insulting speech against medical personnel”. He had been critical of the response to the coronavirus outbreak in a WeChat group he shared with his friends.
China’s online censorship system, unaffectionately known as the Great Firewall, is also censoring any information the Chinese government deems a rumour.
What is classified as a rumour?
Posts of families with infected members seeking help
Posts by people living in quarantined cities documenting their daily lives
Posts criticising the way the Chinese government is handling this outbreak
The Chinese government has even announced that anyone attempting to disrupt social order by posting information with sources that are not from state-run media, will face three to seven years in jail. What the actual …fudge.
This censorship is not just a problem for Chinese citizens. It affects us all.
The World Health Organisation has declared a global health emergency. As the coronavirus spreads it becomes clear that one governments’ actions can have a global impact.
A choke-hold on transparency, openness and the free flow of information does not just affect the country being censored. This is one of the reasons we must take a global stance against internet censorship as more and more countries draw borders around the flow of information. China may be one of the worst offenders but it’s not alone. Still asking yourself “Do I need a VPN?” 😭
The internet as a means for openness and transparency
This is a very personal cause for me. I grew up in a country where freedom of speech wasn’t a given. The soft power that countries with authoritarian and totalitarian governments have increasingly global impact at the speed at which globalisation is moving.
This is one of the many reasons I wake up every day to work on Mysterium Network. You can’t put a price on the work that our community is doing to ensure an open internet for all. It’s not just so you can stream shows you like, it could save lives, prevent pandemics and overthrow totalitarian governments.
Mysterium Network is building a permissionless and distributed virtual private network. Mysterium Network will allow end-users in heavily censored regions access to the open internet. Our network is for the people, by the people. What do we mean by that? Most nodes in our network [nodes provide IPs that open up the internet for end-users using MysteriumVPN] are residential IPs, meaning they are run in the homes by our community of hacktivists across the globe.
Join us on our mission to open the internet for all. Run a node. In a region with internet censorship? Give MysteriumVPN a whirl – it’s free while we’re in the testing phase.