Police in the northern Chinese city of Xi’an have arrested dozens of people for spreading “rumors” online after the authorities banned the city’s 13 million residents from posting negative reports from coronavirus lockdown. At the same time, a string of other arrests suggests growing public anger over restrictions that have left many without access to adequate food, daily necessities and urgent medical care.
Song Wentao, a high-ranking official with the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, was fired after posting critical comments about the harshness of Xi’an’s lockdown.
“Following an investigation, Comrade Song Wentao has been removed from the post of deputy director of grassroots construction department’s organization section,” the federation said in a brief statement on its website on Jan. 6.
Song had allegedly written that the Xi’an lockdown was “inhumane” and that its residents were more at risk of death and disease as a result of the measures than they were before it started.
His post came after reports of at least five people dying after being denied medical care, after hospitals were given strict orders to avoid nosocomial infections — those acquired in hospital — at all costs.
Sources told RFA that hospitals were sometimes not even admitting people who were able to provide a green health code on China’s COVID-19 tracker app, which has crashed on a number of occasions amid a huge spike in traffic as lockdown regulations barred anyone from moving around the city without a green code.
An official who answered the phone at the Xi’an municipal health commission said that, similar to Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic, local health officials in residential compounds and communities are charged with deciding if a person should go to hospital.
“The health personnel in the community will contact the hospital on our behalf, and you must have a negative PCR test to go to hospital,” the official said. “That’s a test within the past 48 hours if you are in a controlled area.”
But the official declined to comment when asked to confirm the number of lockdown-related deaths in the last 10 days.
“Journalists need to call the propaganda department,” the official said.
Repeated calls to the health commission’s propaganda department rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday, or resulted in a fax-like signal.
‘Multiple online violations’
Meanwhile, the Xi’an branch of the Cyberspace Administration said it had jailed one social media user for 10 days and was currently investigating “multiple online violations linked to libel and rumor-mongering,” the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s law enforcement website Chang’an reported.
“The Xi’an Cyberspace Administration … is working with law enforcement … to intensively investigate and deal with online violations such as fabricating rumors, inciting regional discrimination and insulting others,” the report said, citing the case of a man surnamed Luo who was sentenced to 10 days’ administrative detention for “maliciously fabricating false information” and “libeling disease prevention personnel” in his friends group on social media.
In one case, a 32-year-old person with the surname Yu “used insulting language to make several inappropriate remarks in a WeChat group named “The Xi’an Steamed Bun Association,” Xi’an police said in a statement.
“The chat history spread, disrupting public order, with a negative social impact,” it said, adding that Yu was jailed for seven days’ under “administrative detention,” a sentence of up to 15 days that can be handed down by police without trial to deal with perceived “troublemakers.”
Two 33-year-olds surnamed Qin and Sun were handed a week’s administrative detention for using “insulting language” to discuss the recent rise in the price of steamed buns in a WeChat group, while a 30-year-old surnamed Ji was jailed for five days for claiming online that he had been forced to pay for donated supplies.
Account holders investigated
Many account holders are being investigated for reporting “false diagnosis of cases” during the two-week lockdown, during which thousands of residents have been forcibly removed from the city to stay in out-of-town quarantine centers and others have been forced to stay home and denied medical treatment if they can’t produce a green “health code.”
“Cyberspace and public security departments will strictly and promptly deal with … online rumors, malicious attacks, and related hype about the pandemic,” the Cyberspace Administration warned in a statement.
Conflicts and public anger on the ground are also reflected in a list of altercations during lockdown.
A man surnamed Bai was handed a 13-day administrative sentence on Dec. 27 after “insulting” disease prevention staff who prevented him from leaving his residential community.
Xi’an residents have repeatedly taken to social media during lockdown to complain that isolation rules are being enforced so strictly that they have been unable to buy sufficient food or daily necessities, with some reporting being turned away from hospitals with dire consequences.
Two people surnamed Wang and Guo were jailed by police in Lintong district for 10 days after shoving staff as they were lining up for a COVID-19 test, while a man surnamed Ke was handed a similar punishment for driving through an exit barrier at a residential garage.
A person surnamed Luo was jailed for 10 days on Dec. 25 for claiming that many people had “died on the street” during Xi’an’s lockdown, while a person surnamed Zhang got seven days for posting about a fight between residents of a village and police, who he said shot some people dead.
“Anyone refusing to comply with disease prevention and control measures and disturbing public order will be strictly investigated and dealt with in accordance with the law,” the report quoted law enforcement agencies as saying.
Private conversations targeted
Beijing current affairs commentator Ji Feng said China’s internet censors are particularly focused on what social media users are saying to each other in private conversation ahead of the Feb. 4-22 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“[They are targeting] any posts or comments about Xi’an, especially those posted by people in Xi’an,” Ji said. “You can’t talk about the pandemic, and even if you don’t talk about it, they are shutting down any groups that have any kind of negative energy.”
“It’s no longer just a question of killing the chickens to frighten the monkeys,” he said. “Now they’re killing the monkeys as well.”
The government sent out a mass SMS message to Xi’an residents on Jan. 4, announcing a ban on any “negative news” on social media, warning that the authorities are carrying out “background surveillance” on all WeChat groups.
The order came amid a wave of public dissatisfaction and online complaints, as local people have been prevented from leaving their homes to buy groceries and basic necessities, or turned away from hospitals for medical treatment because they come from a high or medium-risk area.
Ling Zhenbao, a current affairs commentator based in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, said the government’s “zero-COVID” strategy was leading to human rights violations.
“These compulsory lockdowns and ‘clearing’ of COVID-19 from the city don’t demonstrate the superiority of China’s governance model,” Ling told RFA. “The whole fiasco is closely bound up with the self-promotion of local governments to get a good performance score.”
“This makes it inevitable that there will be crude and brutal methods used, leading to human rights violations and even humanitarian disasters,” he said.
Current affairs commentator Bi Xin said many of the social media reports criticizing the government turn out to be true, despite being slammed as “rumors” by officials and law enforcement.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.