Following a Feb. 3 high-level meeting, China’s leaders reportedly called for stricter controls on information relating to the coronavirus outbreak.
During the early stages of the outbreak, China was criticized for suppressing vital information about the deadly virus which many analysts said contributed to the devastating epidemic.
At the Feb. 3 meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, Communist Party leaders called for authorities to “strengthen Internet and media control” related to the coronavirus.
“The outbreak is a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance, and we must sum up the experience and draw a lesson from it,” a meeting statement warned.
Privately owned Chinese news outlets Caixin and Caijing had published several reports documenting the victims and spread of the virus. But Chinese-language articles have now been removed, including a Feb. 1 Caijing article that claimed the number of cases and deaths was being underreported.
While supreme leader Xi Jinping has vowed that China will slay the “devil virus,” he has not been the face of Beijing’s response to it, analysts say.
“The Communist Party seems intent to steer criticism of its slow initial response — and responsibility should its current steps prove inadequate — away from Xi,” Dave Lawler noted in a Feb. 4 report for Axios.
The Washington Post has reported that China’s censors have allowed frustrated citizens to criticize local leaders in Wuhan, but they’ve scrambled to block anything targeting Xi directly.
State media also stopped stating that Xi “personally directed” Beijing’s response, in favor of a message that it was “collectively” directed.
As news of the virus spread, the U.S.-based China Digital Times reported that Chinese authorities arrested eight people for “publishing or forwarding false information on the Internet without verification” with regard to the outbreak.
Those eight people were all medical personnel, including at least one who contracted the virus himself, according to China Digital Times, which frequently republishes articles that Chinese authorities have ordered censored, as well as other information from sources inside the country.
“The doctor says that he had warned a WeChat group of former medical school classmates about seven patients from a local wet market, suffering from what he at first described erroneously as SARS. Despite his requests for discretion, screenshots were reposted on social media, and the doctor was summoned to a police station and forced to confess his error and pledge not to repeat it,” China Digital Times noted. “Soon afterwards, he fell ill after treating an infected patient, and was admitted to an isolation ward, where he awaited test results to support a formal diagnosis. He described his own symptoms, the situation in the hospital, and his parents’ less severe infections.”
The doctor’s “error” would appear to be releasing potentially important information about a new illness that Mayor Zhou Xianwang of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, admits should have been shared and the suppression of which he blames on Beijing’s heavy hand, J.C. Tuccille wrote for Reason of Feb. 4.
“Censoring the reports left Wuhan residents unaware that they could be carrying the virus with them as they traveled around the country for the Lunar New Year holiday,” Tuccille noted.
“The Chinese government’s attempts to protect its image proved costly, because they undermined initial containment efforts,” Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College said. “China’s initial mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak means that thousands will be infected, hundreds may die and the economy, already weakened by debt and the trade war, will take another hit.”