China's Coronavirus Censorship Hurts Public Health

Efforts to control the flow of information fail, but they muddle the quality of what people share in defiance of the censors.


Unsurprisingly, the Big Brother-ish Chinese government's first response to the outbreak of a new and troubling variety of coronavirus was to try to muzzle anybody who publicly discussed that illness. But, accustomed to censorious authorities, Chinese citizens are responding with clever workarounds including using euphemisms for the outbreak in online discussions and leaking information to overseas outlets.

The result, as anybody could have predicted, is a steady trickle of news and rumors of uncertain quality. That's inevitable when governments try to control information and the public fights back.

Not that you'd know by the mutual stroking among political officials. "The Committee welcomed the leadership and political commitment of the very highest levels of Chinese government, their commitment to transparency, and the efforts made to investigate and contain the current outbreak," the World Health Organization (WHO) announced in a January 30 eye-roller of a statement.

OK, so WHO has to play nice if it wants the Chinese government to cooperate with international efforts to control the spread of what we can only hope gets a better name than 2019-nCoV. And if the 800-pound gorilla wants to be told it's pretty, you tell it that it's pretty.

But the reality is a little bit different—especially when it comes to "transparency."

Early on, Chinese officials arrested eight people for "publishing or forwarding false information on the internet without verification" with regard to the 2019-nCoV outbreak. As it turned out, those eight people were all medical personnel, including at least one who contracted the virus himself, according to China Digital Times, a U.S.-based online operation 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, himself admits should have been shared and the suppression of which he blames on Beijing's heavy hand. 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.

"The Chinese government's attempts to protect its image proved costly, because they undermined initial containment efforts," Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College commented. "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."

That kind of criticism of the Chinese government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak, coming from a private citizen within the country, could result in a prison sentence. But after years of such official threats, the public appears accustomed to such threats and in finding creative workarounds to evade and overwhelm the censors.

Muzzling hundreds of millions of people is no easy task, and government algorithms and agents are generally stuck looking for forbidden key words or phrases. If you want to criticize Chinese leader Xi Jinping's reaction to the outbreak, but you use "Trump" instead of his name, and "Chernobyl" instead of coronavirus, censors get stuck playing whack-a-mole with critics who are always one step ahead of them.

The Chernobyl reference must be especially galling for Chinese leaders since the 1986 nuclear disaster encapsulates everything you might want to say about a communist regime's incompetent and authoritarian response to a crisis.

Using euphemisms for forbidden subjects is a well-established tactic in China. Three years ago, the government censored social media conversations about Winnie the Pooh after officials realized that the beloved character was a stand-in for pudgy Xi Jinping in exchanges criticizing government policy and mocking political leaders. The move left officials looking thin-skinned and ludicrous without depriving the population of its desire to sound off or of its access to a world of other potential euphemisms.

Clever workarounds become especially effective when public disdain for official policy simply overwhelms the most intrusive efforts of government censors.

"The sheer amount of criticism … have made it difficult for Beijing to control the message," The New York Times reported last week. Officials can't arrest everybody, especially when they've grown skilled at voicing their discontent without explicitly saying what they mean.

In this continuous information battle between officials and the people, writes Ian Johnson, who lives in Beijing and writes about the country, the government "knows the people don't trust it in these cases and assume there has been a cover-up."

Unfortunately, when censors battle the public, truth isn't so much suppressed as muddled. You can search online and find any number of tweets, articles, and videos purporting to portray what's "really going on" in Wuhan and elsewhere in China, but it's difficult to verify many of the reports because of the government's efforts to control information, as well as its draconian travel controls and quarantines.

Official reports have to be taken with a grain of salt given the Chinese government's history of hiding the facts during the SARS scare.

Beijing has been "lying about the spread of the Wuhan flu virus from the start," charges Peter Cordingley, who worked for WHO during the 2003 outbreak. "I say this because I was the WHO spokesman in Asia at the time of the 2003 Sars outbreak, and I'm seeing precisely the same reckless behaviour now."

Far from salvaging its public image by suppressing criticism, discussion, and reports of a sensitive subject, the Chinese government has left much of its own population and the world beyond assuming it's hiding the truth and that the 2019-nCoV outbreak is more serious than it probably is. It has also worsened the actual impact of the outbreak by trying to control the flow of information.

Chinese officials set out to control news about the latest coronavirus outbreak. Instead, as censors always do, they've bred distrust in their judgment and their official pronouncements. And rather than control the conversation, they've driven people to defy their efforts by sharing information from wherever they can find it, no matter how reliable it may be.