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The spread of novel coronavirus in China has stabilized, but a battle between the country’s people and its government over information continues. In fact, several Chinese activists who raised alarm over the outbreak and the official response to it are now missing. Critics say the Communist Party is seeking to contain not just the virus, but also the details surrounding it. Nick Schifrin reports.
As we reporter earlier, the spread of the coronavirus in China has stabilized. But Chinese activists who first sounded the alarm about the outbreak and the official response are still missing.
Nick Schifrin has more now on the battle over information between the Chinese people and their government.
When Chen Qiushi traveled to Wuhan to expose what the government hid, he knew the risks were medical and political.
Chen Qiushi (through translator):
In front of me is the virus, and behind me is the legal and administrative power of China. But as long as I live in this city, I will continue to report.
For two weeks, Chen documented hospitals that were overwhelmed, a pool of vomit on the waiting room floor, patients on stretchers unattended. In another video, he criticized the care at a makeshift hospital set up in a convention center.
Putting everyone into a space like this one, where patients aren't completely separated, there will definitely be the possibility of cross-infections.
This temporary hospital looks a lot like a military field hospital or an emergency shelter set up in response to an earthquake or a flood. But it's not great for housing patients with an infectious disease.
The World Health Organization says the disease's spread in China has stabilized. And, today, some other regions have begun to normalize.
But Chen documented the beginning of the outbreak, unafraid of the consequences.
I will only report what I see, what I hear. I really want to be blunt, right? Today, I'm going to say something blunt. Mother (EXPLETIVE DELETED) I'm not even afraid of death. You think I'm afraid of the Communist Party?
That language apparently got Chen detained. He hasn't been seen since. His mother took to social media to ask for help.
Woman (through translator):
I have not been able to get in touch with him. I'm here pleading that all people, especially those in Wuhan, please help me find my son. Help me find out what happened to him.
Chen is only one of the critics arrested in the last two months in a battle over information. Authorities detained lawyer and human rights activist Xu Zhiyong after he accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of trying to cover up the outbreak.
A Wuhan resident told "PBS NewsHour" residents critical of the government's response have suddenly disappeared. But activists continued their work, posting videos of overcrowded Wuhan hospitals, patients lying unattended on the corridor floor.
The Chinese government is not only just trying to contain the virus. They're also trying to contain the coverage of this entire story.
Xiao Qiang is the editor in chief of the U.S.-based China Digital Times, a news site that focuses on content suppressed by China's state censors. He says the Chinese government could have decreased the outbreak's size.
By containing the coverage, by providing the censorship and denial and information withheld and propaganda, it destroyed the public trust that is very much needed at the time of fighting with the epidemic.
The Chinese government describes all of its efforts as necessary vigilance.
And this is what Chinese media highlight: energized health workers fist-bumping patients, the formerly sick cured, flowers in their hands, thanking hospital staff. Nurses shaving their heads to increase hygiene. Chinese media called them — quote — "beautiful warriors."
And people back in factories protecting their fellow workers. There is now a message of cautious optimism from the top. Last weekend, President Xi Jinping congratulated health workers, Chinese army commanders, and masses of people he called united in a people's war.
The phrase hearkens back to Communist Party founder Mao Zedong mobilizing the masses to defeat a common enemy. Xi has acknowledged the virus posed a serious threat. More than 760 million people have had restrictions on when and how often they can leave their homes.
Thousands of neighborhoods across he country have been on lockdown. Visitors to office and residential buildings scan Q.R. codes and fill in forms about travel history and body temperature. The World Health Organization has praised China's efforts as successfully reducing the virus' spread.
Those measure on movement restriction have delayed the dissemination of the outbreak of two or three days within China and a few weeks outside China,
But, inside China, residents know state media portray only the positive. And that has helped fuel social media videos that question the government's respect for human rights.
This clip apparently shows a woman arrested for leaving her home without a face mask. Another shows a group of people dragged out of their home and quarantined. And this clip shows officials demolishing a game room to stop group gatherings.
These tactics create mistrust and resentment, says Qiang.
Chinese people have now reached an understanding that it's this government failed them. This disaster, by and large, is manmade, and the authority, both the local authority and the central authority, bear a big responsibility for what's happening.
Fang Bin was a Wuhan businessman when he picked up his phone and began filming the city. He secretly filmed this video outside a Wuhan hospital.
Fang posted another video saying government officials could sweep up anyone.
Maybe they won't go after me. It's possible. But I can't stay silent. If they don't come after me, they will come after you.
Another of Fang's videos was just 12 seconds' long, a scroll of paper with the words, "All citizens resist" and "Power back to the people." The same day, he was arrested and hasn't been seen since.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
Now, President Trump is expected to speak about the U.S. response to coronavirus at the White House shortly. We will bring you the latest on that and examine the administration's response later in the program.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Layla Quran is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour. She was previously a foreign affairs reporter and producer.
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