02/27/2020, 17.30
CHINA
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Beijing goes after critics inside and outside the country

WeChat accounts of prominent intellectuals are shut down. In China, “The public has a lot to say, but they are not allowed to express it,” says one critic. Several blogs and social media accounts have been silenced. Some posts about Li Wenliang have been removed. For a Singapore scholar, China’s “Leninist” regime is the problem.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Chinese authorities have shut down the WeChat accounts of a number of Chinese academics who have criticised the way the government has handled the Covid-19 outbreak.

Their main contention is that censorship helped the coronavirus spread, and that the epidemic could have been contained more effectively had more information been made available.

One of the people affected is Qin Qianhong, a law professor at Wuhan University. In a post on WeChat, he criticised the authorities for the excessive restrictions on Wuhan residents (epicentre of the outbreak). “The public has a lot to say, but they are not allowed to express it,” he said.

Peking University law professor He Weifang's account has also been suspended. In a post on 17 February, later deleted by censors, he highlighted the government’s mistakes, noting that China needs press freedom to deal with emergencies such as Covid-19. In his view, without a free press people will suffer and the government lie.

Zhang Qianfan, another Peking University law professor, also had his WeChat account suspended for various days after reposting He’s article.

The government crackdown on freedom of expression has intensified as the current crisis unfolded.

Human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who taught as Peking University, was arrested on 15 February in Guangzhou (Guandong) during a "health check" to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

On social media, Xu had slammed President Xi Jinping for mishandling the coronavirus outbreak, the trade war with the US, and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Another law professor, Xu Zhangrun, of Tsinghua University, also criticised the authorities for failing to deal with the health emergency. For him, the government’s crackdown and strongarms tactic delayed the response, thus helping the virus to spread.

Since 2012, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has shut down various blogs carrying the opinions of prominent Chinese intellectuals.

Weibo, WeChat and Douyin (TikTok), which are owned by Sina, Tencent and ByteDance respectively, are the most popular social media apps.

Posts calling for freedom of speech and expression have been removed following the death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who died after he was infected. He had been the first to launch the alarm, which landed him in detention.

Attempts to squash criticism go beyond China's borders. The Chinese Embassy in Singapore attacked Bilahari Kausikan, head of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, for an article in the Straits Times.

For Kausikan, the Covid-19 outbreak highlights the strengths and weaknesses of China’s political system, showing how an information vacuum accelerated the spread of the virus.

But then, as the scholar noted, China is a Leninist state led by a vanguard party that claims the right to exert absolute control over every aspect of social and political life.

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