Coronavirus: China arrests grieving relatives determined to expose cover‑up
The state is silencing bereaved families campaigning for answers, with threats of jail and worse
Philip Sherwell, Asia Correspondent
The Sunday Times
“Injustice” read the one-word message, handwritten in large characters on a piece of cardboard strung across Yang Min’s back as she walked through traffic in Wuhan.
It was Mother’s Day in China last month. But for the 49-year-old, there was no celebration, just raw loss and deep anger, combined with a defiant intent to pursue justice and accountability in one of the world’s most repressive states.
Yang’s only daughter, Tian Yuxi, died in February, aged 24, lying unwashed in soiled sheets in an overwhelmed hospital that had run out of the most basic supplies.
She had fallen sick to a debilitating new illness in mid-January. By then, senior communist cadres and health chiefs were well aware that the disease ravaging the city was a new and contagious coronavirus alarmingly similar to the Sars outbreak almost two decades earlier.
But the 11 million residents were assured that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. And so they continued their lives as normal, mixing without masks or distancing, as they prepared for the country’s largest holiday, lunar new year. Not until January 20 did Beijing finally admit that the disease was contagious.
The city was placed under lockdown, but it was too late for many. More than 50,000 people were infected and nearly 4,000 died, according to official tallies widely believed to be far too low.
Yang was determined that her daughter would not become just another statistic, snatched away by the pandemic and buried by state propaganda. Her campaign for justice was short-lived.
She walked along busy roads and sat squat-legged on the pavement, masked and bespectacled under her blue sun hat. Propped up against one knee was a portrait of Tian. On the other side was another handwritten message: “The government hid the truth of Covid-19. Bring me back my daughter.”
She handed out leaflets listing three demands: an open investigation into the cover-up, a public apology to families of the victims and financial compensation.
The response was predictable. Yang was carted off by police as the authorities reacted with all the sympathy of a dictatorship where even grief is political.
A final photograph — the images were rapidly deleted from her social media account — showed Yang behind the gate of her residential compound where she was locked under house arrest to muzzle her.
Yang was not the only bereaved resident who was rash enough to discuss suing the local government after losing a loved one. But intimidation silenced them. In one case, the parents of a 12-year-old girl were told she would be “hurt” if they did not rethink.
A small group of independent lawyers tried to take up the cause. One filed for access to government records on the handling of the outbreak. But they were ordered not to pursue their “disruptive behaviour”.
Activists who chronicled Wuhan’s plight in video postings, and volunteers who maintained an online archive of censored news coverage and social media posts, were detained for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and disappeared.
Before the crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), some families had contacted Chen Jiangang, a human rights lawyer who fled to America last year after threats to his young family.
“The families of the deceased no longer dareto communicate or to try to hold the government accountable,” he said. “The CCP can hurt them and their families at any time. They are in great fear and now almost nothing can be done. The families believe that the government has committed serious malfeasance and abuse of power. But the CCP regime does not allow anyone to speak publicly about it.”
Nonetheless, he insisted, for all the CCP’s relentless propaganda, “many Chinese know that there is no victory in the fight against the epidemic, only suppression and control of the people”.
The party’s official version of history was displayed for the world to see when Wuhan emerged from lockdown in April. Beamed in bright lights across skyscrapers was the “heroic city” title bestowed by President Xi Jinping amid patriotic proclamations of “victory” in the “people’s war” against the virus.
In this narrative, the dead such as Tian are not victims, but martyrs. Mission was accomplished. No dissenting voice can be brooked and no questions raised about the delays, cover-ups and bungling as China and America spiral into a new cold war over the crisis.
Yang’s calls for justice and compensation were unthinkable for a regime that has angrily denounced international calls for reparations for the damage wreaked on the world. Indeed, nationalist trolls have attacked anyone who dissents from the party line as traitors aiding foreign forces.
For Xi, the pandemic has provided an opportunity under the guise of a disaster as the US and Europe flailed about with their responses. Turning catastrophe to strength is a long-time party forte.
“Great historical progress always happens after major disasters,” Xi told university students recently.
“Our nation was steeled and grew up through hardship and suffering.”
It is a dramatic turnaround from February when public grief and frustration poured out after the death of Li Wenliang, 34, a whistleblower Wuhan doctor. What seemed like the greatest threat to the CCP since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 was transformed into the chance to portray Xi and his authoritarian rule as the nation’s saviour.
But the regime’s narrative took a fresh blow last week, even as officials declared Wuhan to be free of coronavirus after blanket testing.
Wuhan residents now know that doctors from the hospital raised the alarm online about the new disease in late December but were reprimanded by police and ordered not wear protective gear to avoid causing panic among the public, even as wards filled with patients.
Beijing has not only been misleading its own people. Leaked recordings last week revealed the frustration of senior World Health Organisation (WHO) officials as Beijing refused to share data about the new virus and its risk to the world during the crucial early weeks.
Using samples from patients, Chinese laboratories had identified the mystery virus as a highly infectious new pathogen by late December. But they were instructed to halt tests, return or destroy samples and suppress the news. Five months later, health chiefs claimed the instructions were issued on grounds of bio-security.
China is no stranger to such medical cover-ups. During the Sars epidemic in 2003, the authorities ordered doctors to hide the scale of the epidemic from a visiting WHO delegation. At one stage, 30 patients with the virus were driven around in ambulances and another 40 were moved out of a hospital into a hotel to hide their existence from the WHO team.
And it has brought the tools of its surveillance state into play against grieving relatives who refused to toe the line, such as Zhang Hai.
His father Zhang Lifa, a former People’s Liberation Army soldier who had served in China’s remote plant 221 on its nuclear weapons programme, died of the coronavirus aged 76 in Wuhan in February.
Even as he suffered health ailments from long-term exposure to radiation, he told family members of his pride in his patriotic service. “Sometimes he envisioned himself back on the battlefield,” his son recalled. “He’d be shouting, ‘Let’s fight for our country!’”
He was only in Wuhan because his son had brought him back to his hometown for unrelated medical treatment in January, unwittingly delivering him into the grip of the epidemic.
His son went online last month to raise funds to build a memorial bearing the names and pictures of victims of the virus in Wuhan. It would be a reminder, he said, of those died because they were not warned.
The WeChat group he established for families attracted more than 100 members. Not all of those online had lost loved ones, it turned out. Big Brother was also lurking.
Zhang was summoned by the police who showed him a copy of the group’s chat history. The group was monitored and then scrubbed because it was suspected to be infiltrated by “anti-China elements”, he was told.
There will be no memorial to Zhang Lifa and others who died because they were not warned. Zhang Lifa should have been the right sort of hero for the Communist Party to honour. But he died the wrong sort of death.