Two COVID pandemic workers in PPE standing outside a closed building. One worker is standing over a man lying on the street, presumably incapacitated by his infection.
Picture and gif animation by Elena Lacey; GETTY IMAGESImage Caption: Two COVID pandemic workers in PPE standing outside a closed building. One worker is standing over a man lying on the street, presumably incapacitated by his infection.

It Only Takes Three People to Create a Tiger

China and Censorship in the Age of COVID-19

Online activism has radically changed the way human rights violations are documented, especially in environments where records of abuse are difficult to obtain. The capacity to mass share content, multiplied by the ability to restart entire communities quickly even after being shut down, has allowed civic journalism to thrive and continue to grow despite censorship efforts. As Amnesty International explains, “combined with powerful tools such as Google Earth, investigators now have hundreds of potential crime scenes at their fingertips.” At the same time, it’s important to note that the increased level of connectivity online has also given governments more tools to track down protestors and crackdown on dissent. The internet is in a constant arms race to bring freedom to the oppressed and to censor the efforts to do so. As David Kaye, the United Nations special reporter on freedom of expression and opinion confirmed, “anonymity is essential to the exercise of free expression online” (Solomon). In countries such as China, it is vital to continue to support citizen reporting of human rights violations, especially in moments of crisis such as the novel coronavirus pandemic. Although civic online engagement is not the only way to obtain data on major public issues, it is a good way to gauge the levels of censorship happening under repressive regimes.

China has seen unprecedented behavioral changes in censorship and local versus centralized oversight during COVID-19, which sets a dangerous precedent for future censorship efforts during public crises. It is vital to understand that although social media and internet civil policing are important countermeasures to government censorship, the nation of China is uniquely talented at manipulating data and news. As such, any information coming from official sources in the Chinese government or its mouthpieces should be thoroughly examined before endorsement.

Pictures of Li Wenliang before and after being hospitalized for COVID-19. The left picture shows Li on a breathing machine in a hospital bed. The right picture shows Li in a mask and his medical coat.
Image Caption: Pictures of Li Wenliang before and after being hospitalized for COVID-19. The left picture shows Li on a breathing machine in a hospital bed. The right picture shows Li in a mask and his medical coat.

The Beginning

Li Wenliang, a doctor in his thirties working in the city of Wuhan, became an accidental coronavirus whistleblower overnight. On December 30th, he messaged his medical school alumni WeChat group about seven patients that had been diagnosed with a SARS-like illness at his hospital, intending to remind them to be careful during their shifts in the next few days (CNN, Yong Xiong and Nectar Gan). Without his knowledge, those messages were then screenshot and spread around the internet, going viral in just a few hours. When Li saw them online and realized his name had not been blurred, he recognized that he would most likely be punished. Soon after his messages went viral, Wuhan police and government forces publicly denounced Li’s message, claiming he was spreading rumors. At the same time, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission had given emergency notices to all health institutions in the Wuhan area about an “unknown pneumonia,” but stated that “Any organizations or individuals are not allowed to release treatment information to the public without authorization” (CNN, Yong Xiong and Nectar Gan). On December 31st, Wuhan authorities announced an outbreak and notified the World Health Organization.

Despite a public statement about an outbreak, Li was not immediately vindicated. On January 1st, the Wuhan police declared they were taking legal measures against those who had spread rumors online, and stated that “the internet is not a land beyond the law…Any unlawful acts of fabricating, spreading rumors and disturbing the social order will be punished by police according to the law, with zero tolerance” (CNN, Yong Xiong and Nectar Gan). On January 3rd, Li was called into a local police office and admonished for “spreading rumors online” and “severely disrupting social order.” Li was then forced to sign a statement recognizing his “misdemeanor” and promising not to commit further “unlawful acts” (CNN, Yong Xiong and Nectar Gan).

Chinese scientists identified the novel coronavirus on January 7th but claimed there was no evidence of human to human transmission. After being forced to care for a patient with the new virus, Li became sick and was hospitalized on January 12th. Despite the fact that health care workers were getting sick, Wuhan authorities didn’t admit the true numbers of infections until January 20th, when the central government took over. Three days later, authorities locked down the entirety of Wuhan. On January 27th, Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang stated that he did not disclose information about the novel coronavirus because “under Chinese law on infectious diseases, the local government first needs to report the outbreak to national health authorities, and then get approval from the State Council before making an announcement” (CNN, Yong Xiong and Nectar Gan). After testing positive for the novel coronavirus on February 1st, Li Wenliang died on February 7th in the early hours of the morning (CNN, Yong Xiong, Hande Atay Alam and Nectar Gan).

Censorship Before and After

The Lead Up

Censorship in the People’s Republic of China has been an issue for decades, but the pursuit of national blacklists has only grown in the age of the internet. These efforts have even become infamous in the creation of ‘the Great Firewall,’ which prevents Chinese citizens from communicating outside as much as it blocks signals from coming in. In fact, “seasoned journalists in China often say ‘Cover China as if you were covering Snapchat’ — in other words, screenshot everything, under the assumption that any given story could be deleted soon” (Yuan). Journalists and citizen activists alike have learned lessons from previous experience, it’s better to assume that everything you say is forbidden than to assume you are safe to speak your mind. Although the beginning stages of the pandemic began in 2019, investigation of its origins and live accounts of people on the ground in Wuhan were kept secret until late in the year. In fact, “according to Caixin’s reporting, the provincial health commission began actively suppressing scientists’ knowledge about the virus as early as January 1 [2020]” (Yuan). Already, the government knew that something big was coming and their systems would not be able to handle the strain if public awareness got out of hand. Although officials pushed the narrative that China’s ‘quick action’ bought the world time to prepare for the pandemic, the coverup of the outbreak by the regime instead gave the virus time to grow into the global disaster it eventually became.

Although the Chinese government tried to completely crack down on information about the virus being spread online, it soon realized that in its own attempts to censor it had created interest in the topic. In an effort to address the criticism, “on January 20, 2020, Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese infectious disease expert, essentially raised the curtain on China’s official response to the coronavirus outbreak when he confirmed on state television that the pathogen could be transmitted from human to human” (Yuan). Although this action may seem like a state agent going rogue, this televised statement was planned to release some of the pressure building in the bottleneck online. 

Image Caption: An artist’s rendition of the famous picture of Li in a medical coat and with a mask. This art is in watercolor and has a depiction of a screaming mouth drawn on Li’s mask. The caption on the poster reads “Who…Dr. Li Wenliang.”
Poster in PragueImage Caption: An artist’s rendition of the famous picture of Li in a medical coat and with a mask. This art is in watercolor and has a depiction of a screaming mouth drawn on Li’s mask. The caption on the poster reads “Who…Dr. Li Wenliang.”

Right after Zhong’s speech, major news organizations were allowed into Wuhan to report on the situation with surprising amounts of leeway. Despite this seeming victory, “two days after that, the government shut down virtually all transportation into and out of Wuhan, later extending the lockdown to other cities” (Yuan). This type of strategic opening and then swift closing allowed the Chinese government to control when the outbreak ‘began’ and also manage the potential issues with information suddenly spiraling out of control when reporters began to investigate some of the messier parts of the government response.

The Middle of the Pandemic

By January, it was becoming publicly clear that the government of Wuhan had badly mishandled the virus outbreak. Xi’s statement on January 20th that there was a need for “timely release of information” seemed to be a public approval for even state media to provide commentary on the failings of the Wuhan government (Xinhua). Social media and official news sites alike grew bolder in their statements, even though most articles and posts were quickly censored. Growing anger motivated China’s Supreme Court to publicly criticize Wuhan police on January 28th for their censorship actions, leading to the department to release a statement partially apologizing for their treatment of whistleblowers such as Li (CNN, Yong Xiong and Nectar Gan). Despite this step forward, Li’s passing on February 7th saw topics like “Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology,” and “We want freedom of speech” trending on Weibo, China’s Twitter platform (BBC News).

Created by Chinese programmers, 996.ICU has become a popular repository of workers’ rights campaign materials on the website GitHub. Image Caption: A red screen with an icon of a medical table and needle as well as text beneath. The title text reads “996.ICU” and the following text gives details of the initiative in Chinese.


Although the initial wave of cases in China is gradually slowing, the government censorship and propaganda machine are just as busy as ever. Because the problem is now supposedly ‘solved,’ officials have been pushing for citizens to show their gratitude for the Chinese government’s efficiency and quick thinking (Yuan). At the same time, authorities are continuing to crack down on COVID-19 related content online, suppressing any posts that accuse the government of mishandling the situation. In efforts to try to spread awareness, activists have resorted to using blockchain and sites like GitHub to spread screenshots, data, and news articles for as long as they stay accessible (Huang). Internet users are also attempting to get beyond the Great Firewall, using VPNs and other private networks to access this information, despite the national clampdown. Those who cannot access VPNs due to strains on the system resort to inventive pidgin languages, and “create their own vocabulary to discuss ‘sensitive issues.’ This language keeps evolving as the government constantly adds new topics and terms that are prohibited” (Amnesty International). Many of these new words and phrases seem strange out of context, but for those familiar with the acronyms and text speech of online communication, the transition is almost seamless. The internet has already evolved its own language, but now those skills are being utilized for work in human rights activism. For example, “since China’s National Red Cross and its ability to distribute supplies has been questioned, netizens anticipated ‘Red Cross’ would be censored and replaced it with ‘red ten’ (the Chinese character for ten ‘十 Shí’ resembles a cross)” (Amnesty International). Using combinations of English, Chinese characters, individual letters, and numbers, Chinese citizens are able to navigate around regulation by outpacing the systems designed to censor them. However, because of the complexity involved in the invisible Chinese censorship machine, individuals are never sure if their words will be blacklisted or not. Some users can use words that others cannot, and others are immediately banned for posts that were actually innocuous. As Amnesty International explains, “China’s censorship system is perplexing. The list of ‘sensitive’ words is constantly changing, and is never publicly revealed…As a result, people are always self-censoring in an attempt to beat the system.” Even with clever techniques to get around the system, the fact that censorship itself exists prevents individuals from expressing themselves to their fullest extent.

In addition to online activism, academia in China has been trying to tackle the problem of researching the novel coronavirus without tripping government sensors. Already, there has been a crackdown on the publication of academic research looking into the origins of COVID-19, and recent records coming from Chinese universities have shown an unusual lack of documentation on these issues. As Professor Steve Tsang from the SOAS China Institute in London explains, “‘in terms of priority, controlling the narrative is more important than the public health or the economic fallout…It doesn’t mean the economy and public health aren’t important. But the narrative is paramount’” (Kirchgaessner, Graham-Harrison, and Kuo). Because the Chinese government relies heavily on public opinion and perception, it is important for them to control the official narrative as much as possible in crisis situations. In fact, “Around a month ago senior Chinese diplomats, officials and state media all publicly encouraged speculation that the new coronavirus could have come from outside the country” (Kirchgaessner, Graham-Harrison, and Kuo). It is better for the Chinese government to posit outright absurdities as it achieves their goal of distracting citizens from the real problem at hand: the censorship of actual coronavirus reporting and information. Through experience, officials have learned that by creating smoke, they can hide behind the outrage and confusion and continue their actual goal of obscuring the truth of their actions on the ground.

Future Projections

The true danger of censorship, especially online, is that the original message gets lost. Part of this effort is in the smoke screen tactic, where government officials spread obvious lies and slander to cause chaos and bide time for real censorship to take down the more dangerous posts. Another tactic is to pressure citizens to praise government workers or employees for their hard work, even though those employees may have caused current issues through their silence and inaction. An example of this is, “similar to other countries, medical staff were soon heralded as the contemporary ‘heroes’ in China” (Zhang). The framing of health workers as heroes allows the government to acknowledge the hard work that individuals are doing on the ground without addressing the problems that forced those individuals into that situation in the first place. In addition to this, “under the new policy, all academic papers on Covid-19 will be subject to extra vetting before being submitted for publication… and must be approved by central government officials, according to the now-deleted posts” (Gan, Hu and Watson). This type of obscurification and redirection is a pattern that Chinese officials have learned through practice, and their true intentions are then shown through censorship of incredibly important documentation. Already, the Chinese government has shown that it is ready to clamp down on vital academic and scientific research to avoid public pushback, and that cycle is likely to continue and escalate as more information is revealed over time.

A bright red background with a yellow speech bubble. A person in a military uniform is using a paint-roller to draw black strips on the yellow speech bubble.
Art by D. ThompsonImage Caption: A bright red background with a yellow speech bubble. A person in a military uniform is using a paint-roller to draw black strips on the yellow speech bubble.


Even before the outbreak of COVID-19 China had a very robust censoring mechanism in place. Now officials have simply pivoted their efforts to covering the novel coronavirus as well as containing other activism online. Even now, the CCP has started to propagate ‘news’ that China has ‘won’ in the battle against the novel coronavirus, even as scientists and health officials warn of a potential second wave of cases in the fall (Cook). As has been seen in other locations such as the United States and Italy, countries that started reopening too early have struggled to contain secondary outbreaks, and China is very likely to suffer from the same problems. Further complicating things, overall China is some three months ahead of the rest of the globe, meaning that they truly are the test case for the world on asymptomatic transmission, immunity, and the nature of the disease (Cook). China will continue to lead the way in strategies for nations to contain transmission, guide social distancing, and allocate resources, so it is vital that the data coming out of the country is as accurate as possible.

Now the question becomes that, if precedence has been set, whether that information predicts anything for censorship in China’s future. The problem really comes down to the scientific, news, and academic community’s reliance on the statistics that are pre-approved by the Chinese government. As Zhang explains, “That is, there are concerns that in a time when global research collaboration is most needed, China, the country that accounts for 36% of the world’s scientific papers in the life sciences, and has the largest volume of data on COVID-19, would turn into a secretive operation.” There are real concerns that COVID-19 numbers are being altered to ‘save face’ for the Chinese government, but at the same time the international community acknowledges the importance of the data that Chinese researchers and organizations are collecting. To go even further into this quandary, “given the necessity for ministerial level approval, to what extent will this divert competent researchers into politically less sensitive topics or at least ask politically less sensitive questions” (Zhang)? Chinese researchers, news organizations, and academics are vital to the lifeblood of trustworthy data and information as a whole. It is a concerning thought that the knowledge that the international community is being given may be altered on a government’s whims, even after the current public health crisis that the world is experiencing.

Conclusions and Analysis

The internet creates connections, can be utilized as a tool, and can build up societies to make them a better place. However, technology can also be used against human rights in ways that even platform and service designers could not have predicted. The truth is, for over a decade “governments, trolls, and extremists have weaponized social media to manipulate public opinion, spread hatred, harass marginalized communities, and incite violence” (Human Rights Watch). Whether those vulnerabilities were planned or not, social media is far more dangerous to human rights than it appears to be. Although there are important milestones made through civic reporting online, “we have to be careful not to view social media (and accompanying mobile apps) as a universal solution to tackle the challenges of human rights monitoring” (Amnesty International). Despite the confusion surrounding the origins of the novel coronavirus, China’s reaction and containment programs have been unprecedented. Xi’s statements, the criticisms by China’s Supreme Court, and the effects of online backlash have also been unusually powerful compared to similar situations in the past. It will be important to track how China reacts to future resurgence of COVID-19 to see if the nation continues to ramp up its censorship, in line with its current trajectory. It remains to be seen if these effects will resonate long term in Chinese censorship policy, and how international backlash against the Wuhan fumble will aid or abet these changes.


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