China’s crackdown on COVID19 content continues as three volunteers were arrested in Beijing

Since the beginning of the COVID19 outbreak, China has increased its crackdown on relevant online activities. According to the US-based Chinese Human Rights Defender, close to 900 Chinese citizens have been punished by police for sharing content related to the coronavirus outbreak or commenting on the pandemic online. On April 19, three volunteers of a GitHub site reportedly went missing, and on Saturday, two of them were confirmed to have been put under RSDL by Chinese police in Beijing.

Even though the coronavirus outbreak in China seems to have plateaued over the last few weeks, the Chinese government’s crackdown on sharing relevant content and information online hasn’t really slowed down. On April 19, three volunteers of a GitHub site, terminus2049, reportedly lost contact with their families. And on Saturday, it was confirmed that at least two of them, Cai Wei and his girlfriend surnamed Tang, had been put under residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL) by the Chinese police.

Cai and Tang’s families have received official notification from local police station in Beijing City, but the family members of the third person, Chen Mei, has not received any official notification about the whereabouts of Chen.

Chen and Cai were both volunteers of terminus2049, which is one of the many GitHub projects that collects media reports and content on Chinese social media platforms. Since the start of the COVID19 pandemic, terminus2049 started collecting and disseminating content related to the pandemic as well. Part of the purpose of the campaign is to preserve memories about the pandemic. However, Chen’s family said it was not clear if all three of them were arrested due to their connection to terminus2049.

According to people with knowledge about their arrests, the three of them lost contacts with family and friends on April 19, but before they disappeared, they were in regular contact with people around them. Several days after they disappeared, Cai and Tang’s family members received official notification that confirmed they had been arrested by the police.

According to the notifications, both Cai and Tang were put under RSDL at an unknown location. The notification said Cai was arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Tang was arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and “crime of harboring criminals.”

Cai and Chen have both been actively volunteering for a long time, and news about their arrests triggered some responses from prominent academic figures in China. Kuo Yu-Hua, a professor at Tsinghua University’s Sociology Department, tweeted that both Cai and Tang were sociology graduates from top universities in China, and she called on the authorities to provide proper legal evidence to prove why they were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”

More COVID19 content in China removed from GitHub

The Beijing trio weren’t the only ones targeted by the Chinese government for preserving COVID19 content on GitHub. Another COVID19 content-aggregating project, nCoVMemory, also disappeared from GitHub on Sunday. One Weibo user later shared that the team behind nCoVMemory clarified that the project was set to private rather than being removed from GitHub. According to them, all members behind nCoVMemory are safe.

“In order to avoid breaking some underlying rules, we have decided to set the GitHub site to private,” wrote the team in the e-mail. “We are sorry for causing any inconvenience, but this is a necessary protective measure. All of our members are safe. If situation changes in the future, we won’t rule out the possibility of setting the site back to public.”

According to a research done by Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), at least 897 Chinese citizens have been penalized by the police for commenting on the coronavirus outbreak or sharing relevant information online. One of them is Chen Chiao-Chih, a retired professor from the University of Science and Technology in Beijing.

Chen was arrested for “intentionally making up and spreading fake news” on April 17, after he shared some tweets that said “the Wuhan virus in not a Chinese virus. It’s a CCP virus” in February. The prosecutors later changed his crime to “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”

According to Leo Lan, a Research and Advocacy Consultant for CHRD, he thinks the behaviors of the three volunteers don’t constitute “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”

“The decision to arrest them shows that the Chinese government can’t even tolerate such minimum level of freedom of information,” said Lan. “The Chinese government is obviously concerned about being questioned about the authenticity of the information about coronavirus, as well as the government’s handling of the pandemic.”

Lan also points out that the government’s decision to put Cai and Tang under RSDL may have violated China’s Criminal Procedure Law. According to him, RSDL is usually applied to offenses of endangering national security and terrorist activities. Since Cai and Tang are charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” Lan thinks the decision to put them under RSDL is questionable.

However, he thinks the decision will still send shock waves through China’s civil society, making it less likely for Chinese citizens to continue collecting content about COVID19. “The arrests definitely have a chilling effect on others, as it could scare off others from documenting news about the virus,” Lan said.

This article first appeared in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.



William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

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William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.