At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese government withheld crucial information from the public, under-reported cases, downplayed the severity of the infection, and dismissed the likelihood of transmission between humans, an international rights group said on Wednesday.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party detained people for “rumor-mongering,” censored online discussions of the outbreak, and curbed media reporting, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its annual report on human rights in 2020, published on Jan. 13.
“In some areas under lockdown, they failed to ensure appropriate access to medical care, food, and other necessities,” the report found.
“Beijing also pressured the World Health Organization (WHO) to delay declaring a global warning on the virus, and restricted international experts’ access to investigate its origins,” it said.
The report came as police across China handed out administrative punishments to social media users for “spreading rumors and false information” linked to a resurgence of Covid-19 across a number of cities in northern and northeastern China.
Police in the northern city of Tangshan handed out an administrative punishment to a man they accused of changing the result of his COVID-19 test from negative to positive, and posting the results on social media, “having a negative impact.”
“Chen has been administratively punished by Fengnan district police,” a report on the state-approved Bohai News Network said on Tuesday.
A resident of Hebei’s provincial capital Shijiazhuang, who gave only the surname Wang, said the government is particularly worried about people posting information about the pandemic independently.
“They are worried that people doing citizen journalism will disrupt their pandemic response, but basically they want a monopoly on public speech,” Wang said. “If you report something true, they will shut you up.”
“They insist on a unified message on pandemic reporting, and one that is in their own interest,” he said.
‘Disturbing public order’
Meanwhile, police in Hebei’s Baoding city held three people — surnamed Hao, Zhang, and Zhou — under administrative detention for “spreading rumors, invasion of privacy, fabricating information, and disturbing public order,” online reports said.
“People should not spread rumors about the pandemic that create dangerous situations, disrupt public order, and sow panic,” the police said, without giving details of the information that the three detainees had posted.
And police in the eastern province of Jiangxi detained a man surnamed Wang in Fuzhou city after he posted a claim to social media that a man the authorities claimed was free of COVID-19 had died five days later.
Wang received a five-day administrative sentence for “fabricating information to disrupt public order,” the police department said on their public WeChat account.
Police in China can hand down administrative jail sentences of up to 15 days to those regarded as troublemakers without the need for a trial.
Beijing-based rights activist Ni Yulan said the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) now insists that only information approved by the government can appear in public.
“I think the aim is to prevent anyone from speaking out, regardless of what is happening,” Ni said. “They want everyone to keep quiet.”
Fang Liang, an academic from the northern city of Taiyuan, said detentions had also been reported there on similar grounds.
“The reason is that there is a resurgence of the pandemic across the country, but this isn’t being officially admitted to the public,” Fang said.
“[This will only happen] when they can no longer hide it.”
Control of public information
Police in Hebei’s Hengshui city have also issued a warning against “rumor-mongering” linked to the pandemic after a local internet user surnamed Lu was “punished” and forced to make a public apology for “spreading rumors” on WeChat.
Last week, police in Hebei handed an administrative 10-day jail term to a man surnamed Han after he warned people on WeChat of new COVID-19 cases in Hebei’s Donzhuchang village.
And in Changchun, capital of the northeastern province of Jilin, police handed a seven-day administrative sentence to a WeChat user, also surnamed Han, for “rumor-mongering” after he posted that there was an asymptomatic case of COVID-19 in his local district.
Academic Guo Baosheng said the CCP is intent on gaining total control of public information.
“The CCP insists on controlling all sources of information and clamps down on any information coming from different sources,” Guo said.
“It then ruthlessly punishes, detains and sentences people using rumor-mongering as an excuse.”
Meanwhile, Brazilian researchers said that a coronavirus vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac was found to be 50.4 percent effective in clinical trials, significantly less effective than previous results have suggested.
However, researchers at the Butantan Institute said the vaccine was 78 percent effective against most cases of COVID-19 cases, but was less effective in patients who didn’t require medical attention in the first place. They said it was 100 percent effective in staving off moderate to serious cases.
Last month researchers in Turkey said the Sinovac vaccine was 91.25 percent effective, while Indonesia found it to be 65.3 percent effective.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Xiaoshan Huang and Chingman for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.