The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus in Wuhan in Hubei province, China has fuelled concerns and fears worldwide. A fatal period of hesitation regarding information-sharing and action spawned anxiety, panic, fear, and widespread speculation and rumour-mongering across different online micro messaging sites in China.
New cases were increasingly recorded in China in the past 24 hours, raising the worldwide total to nearly 20,628 infected, according to the Chinese government and World Health Organization. The vast majority of the cases are inside China with 98 cases having been confirmed in 26 Countries. The new coronavirus has killed more than 427 people in China with the first death outside China being reported in the Philippines on February 2, 2020.
Many medical experts are openly criticising the Chinese government’s inaction exacerbated by the absence of an effective response mechanism to the initial outbreak which contributed to the ongoing crisis. Authorities’ response to the coronavirus outbreak was initially kept confidential by silencing information from the public, underreporting cases of infection, downplaying the severity of the infection, and dismissing the likelihood of transmission between humans.
When SARS outbreak occurred in 2003 in China, a much less portion of the Chinese population had internet access, and state media played an active role in curbing information on the disease circulating on various electronic and print media platforms. The media blackout coupled with the government’s slow response and bureaucratic hurdles had led to the initial official denial and inaction at that time. Seventeen years later China, instead of learning from its previous experiences, has chosen to repeat those same mistakes.
China today has the world’s highest internet penetration rate with 854 million internet users. When news about the outbreak came out, China’s multitude of internet users rapidly consumed and disseminated the information. The state government’s initial kneejerk reaction, as usual, was to heighten surveillance followed by monitoring and censorship of news about the disease outbreak. Only when the facts became impossible to cover, the state came out of the garbs of confidentiality and started sharing information.
Since the outbreak occurred, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported that Chinese authorities have detained people for “rumour-mongering,” censored online discussions of the epidemic, curbed media reporting, and failed to ensure appropriate access to medical care for those with virus symptoms and others with medical needs.
Few Chinese internet users from Wuhan were arrested for spreading news of the epidemic on online forums. What makes these arrests notable and disturbing is that they were preceded by emphatic official announcements by China’s top leadership that the party would tighten its ideological control on the masses which were followed by a strong endorsement from China’s legal authorities on the validity of prosecuting individuals for online rumor-mongering and defamation.
China’s Firewall: Isolation in a time of crisis
Authorities have censored numerous discussions on social media posts about the epidemic including a cry of help for treatment from a patient who openly condemned the government’s incapability of handling the crisis and inadequacy of timely medical support.
Chinese netizens have expressed their indignation toward the stringent surveillance, screening and blocking of information related to the deadly disease. Tech savvy individuals have used softwares to penetrate the great firewall of China with Virtue Private Networks (VPN) being the mainstay of activists and journalists in anonymously gaining unrestricted access to the internet and securely spreading information that would otherwise have been censored.
Whistle-blowers came forward to discuss the silencing of criticism online with one netizen saying, “Rather than accepting deserved criticism, the Chinese government is acting like a petulant child and spreading outright lies about its poor response to a coronavirus epidemic.”
Another Chinese netizen boldly expressed concern over the severe internet latency in China and appealed to all oversea Chinese to help disseminate the message to create public pressure on the Chinese Government. He explicitly narrates, Chinese netizens were not brainwashed and wished to browse the internet without VPN. While further adding that the current situation in Wuhan is hopeless and helpless, he made a plea for help on behalf of the voiceless to the international community to create pressure and awareness regarding the coronavirus epidemic.
Moreover, Chinese netizens have also begun using images, and memes in particular, to spread information on the outbreak and also to overcome China’s highly advanced censorship regime which can ban the use of certain words and phrases. There has been a flood of photos, videos, and witness accounts from Wuhan hospitals that undermine the state’s narrative of having the situation firmly under control.
The Tibet Connect
Tibet was the last region in China to report confirmed case of coronavirus. The scattered Tibetan communities, separated by oceans and mountains, yet thriving as a virtual global village with the help of internet and social media, anxiously waited for news and reports on the epidemic from inside Tibet.
In the midst of the outbreak, a group of Chinese Buddhists and devout followers of the Dalai Lama from mainland China sought his spiritual advice on ways to contain the spread of the disease. In response, the Dalai Lama observed that chanting the Tara mantra as much as possible could help contain the spread of the epidemic while sharing an audio file of the Tara mantra chant in his own voice.
The private office of the Dalai Lama also issued a public appeal urging Tibetans worldwide to observe prayers aimed at overcoming the effects of the epidemic. This was followed by an appeal from the Department of Religion and Culture, CTA to all Tibetans to observe and chant the prescribed prayers as much as possible and collectively pray for the speedy resolution to the crisis and for the wellbeing of humanity. Many Tibetan lamas also reached out to their followers, which include Chinese in mainland China, and recommended chanting of specific mantras to prevent the spread of the virus.
In this moment of crisis and fear compounded by lack of information, Tibetans everywhere have been using the limited and highly censored internet space inside Tibet to try and connect and share these mantras and spiritual advices.
As the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to spread within and outside China, the World Health Organization declared the epidemic as a global health emergency. The Chinese government is preventing mass gatherings and mass travel to control the virus spread. In Tibet, major public gathering sites such as the Jokhang temple, the Potala palace and the Norbulinga are remain closed.
Freedom of expression has always been limited in China. Although social media platforms are allowing a democratic spread of information that has never previously been a phenomenon in China, stringent internet censorship laws and heavy-handed tactics against state opposition is blunting the progress and jeopardizing the safety of netizens. Adding to this is China’s state media which lacks plurality and regularly fails to report on public incidents fearing damage to the government’s image.
As the world looks at how China manages and emerges from this crisis, China should realise that 17 years since the outbreak of SARS, containing the spread of information could be as challenging yet equally unrewarding as containing the spread of virus. Rather than using the tools of secrecy and censorship to spawn this viral outbreak into an epidemic of fear, the Chinese government must embrace the voices of its people and engage with the civil society in overcoming this crisis.
*Tenzin Dalha is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.