Coronavirus survivors want answers, and China is silencing them

BEIJING: Text messages to Chinese activist came from ordinary residents, making the same extraordinary request: Help me sue the Chinese government . One said that his mother had died after being rejected from various hospitals. Another said that his father-in-law had been quarantined.

But after weeks of planning back and forth, the seven residents who had approached, the activist, suddenly changed their minds in late April or stopped responding. At least two of them had been threatened by police, Yang said.

Chinese authorities are cracking down as grieving family members, along with activists, pressure the ruling Communist Party to report on what went wrong in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus killed thousands of people before spreading to the rest of China and the world.

Lawyers have been warned not to file suit against the government . Police have interrogated bereaved family members who connected with others like them online. Volunteers who tried to thwart the state's censorship apparatus by preserving reports about the outbreak have disappeared.

They are concerned that if people defend their rights, the international community will know what the real situation is like in Wuhan and the true experiences of families there, said Yang, who lives in New York, where he fled after he was briefly detained for his work. in China.

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The crackdown underscores the party's fear that any attempt to stop what happened in Wuhan, or hold officials accountable, will undermine the state's narrative that only China's authoritarian system saved the country from a devastating health crisis.

To inspire patriotic fervor, state propaganda has portrayed the dead not as victims, but as martyrs. Censors have removed Chinese news reports exposing officials' first efforts to hide the severity of the outbreak.

And as more voices abroad call on China to compensate the rest of the world for the pandemic, the party has presented its internal critics as tools that foreign forces are using to undermine it.

The party has always been cautious with public pain and the dangers it could pose to its government.

In 2008, after an earthquake in Sichuan province that killed at least 69,000 people, Chinese authorities offered silence to parents whose children died. Following a fatal train accident in Wenzhou city in 2011, authorities prevented family members from visiting the site. Every June, Beijing authorities silence the families of protesters who were killed in the 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.

Now, some say the government is imposing the same kind of collective amnesia around the outbreak.

Three volunteers involved in Terminus2049, an online project that archived censored articles about the outbreak, went missing in Beijing last month and are believed to have been detained.

I had previously told him: ‘You guys are probably at some risk doing this project. But he didn't know how much, said Chen Kun, whose brother, Chen Mei, is one of the volunteers who went missing.

I said maybe the police would call him to speak and ask him to tear down the site, he said. I didn't think it would be that serious.

Chen said he had no information about his brother's disappearance. But he had spoken to the relatives of one of the other missing volunteers, Cai Wei, who said that Cai and his girlfriend had been detained and accused of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," a vague charge that the government often uses against dissidents.

Contacted by phone, an employee of a police station in the Beijing district where Chen Mei lives said it was not clear about the case. The group's site on GitHub, a popular platform among coders, is now blocked in China.

Volunteers for similar online projects have also been questioned by authorities in recent days. In blog posts and private messages, members of these communities have warned each other to scrub their computers. Organizers of another GitHub project, 2019ncovmemory, which also republished censored material about the outbreak, have privately set up their archive.

To the authorities, it seems that no public criticism can be left unchecked. Police in Hubei, the province that includes Wuhan and was the worst affected by the outbreak, arrested a woman last month for organizing a protest against high vegetable prices. A Wuhan hospital official was removed from his post after criticizing the use of traditional Chinese medicine to treat patients with coronavirus, which the authorities had promoted.

The repression has been very irritating for people who mourn family members. They say they are being harassed and closely watched as they try to calculate their losses.

The coronavirus killed nearly 4,000 people in Wuhan, according to China's official figures. Some residents believe the true toll is much higher. The government fired two high-ranking local officials, but that is not enough for many grieving relatives, who say they want fair compensation for their losses and harsher punishment for officials.

Zhang Hai is certain that his father, who died in February, was infected with the coronavirus at a Wuhan hospital. He says he still supports the party, but believes that local officials should be held responsible for initially hiding the fact that the virus could spread among humans. If he had known the risk, he said, he would not have sent his father to the hospital for treatment.

Zhang said that several Chinese reporters who had interviewed him about their claims later told him that their editors had removed the articles before they were published. He posted calls online to establish a memorial honoring victims of the epidemic in Wuhan, but censors quickly erased the messages. The authorities pressured him to bury his father's ashes, but so far he has refused; He says they have insisted on assigning him to caregivers, which he believes will be there to make sure it has not caused problems.

They spend a lot of time trying to control us, Zhang said. Why can't they use this energy to address our concerns?

In March, police visited a Wuhan resident who had started a chat group of more than 100 people who lost family members to the virus, according to two members of the group, one of whom shared a video of the encounter. The group was ordered to disband.

Yang, the activist in New York, said at least two of the seven Wuhan residents who had contacted him about taking legal measures against the government dropped the idea after being threatened by police.

Even if the other plaintiffs were willing to move forward, they might have trouble finding lawyers. After Yang and a group of human rights lawyers in China issued an open call in March for people who wanted to sue the government , several lawyers around the country received verbal warnings from judicial officials, Yang said.

Officials told them not to write open letters or create riots by filing compensation claims, according to Chen Jiangang, a member of the group. Chen, who fled to the United States last year, said he had heard from several attorneys that they were warned.

"If anyone dares to make a request and the government fails to meet it, they immediately are seen as a threat to national security," Chen said. "It doesn't matter whether you're a lawyer or a victim, it's like you're imprisoned."

Some aggrieved residents have pressed ahead despite the government clampdown. Last month, , a civil servant in , a city in Hubei province, became the first person to publicly attempt to sue authorities over their response to the outbreak.

Tan, who works in the city's parks department, accused the provincial government of "concealing and covering up" the true nature of the virus, leading people to "ignore the virus's danger, relax their vigilance and neglect their self-protection," according to a copy of the complaint shared online. He pointed to officials' decision to host a banquet for 40,000 families in Wuhan in early January, even as the virus was spreading.

He urged the government to issue an apology on the front page of the Hubei Daily, a local newspaper.

In a brief phone call, Tan confirmed that he had filed a complaint with the Intermediate People's Court in Wuhan, but declined to be interviewed because he is a public official.

With China's judiciary tightly controlled by the central government , it was unclear whether Tan would get his day in court. Articles about Tan have been censored on Chinese social media. Calls to the court in Wuhan on Thursday rang unanswered.