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In China, Even Simple Online Campaign for COVID-19 Dead Is Target for Censorship

Medical workers in protective suits attend to novel coronavirus patients at the intensive care unit (ICU) of a designated hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, Feb. 6, 2020. (Credit: China Daily)
Medical workers in protective suits attend to novel coronavirus patients at the intensive care unit (ICU) of a designated hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, Feb. 6, 2020. (Credit: China Daily)

Wuhan resident Zhang Hai wants a monument to remember his father but Chinese government wants to silence him.

Wuhan resident Zhang Hai posted an announcement on a Chinese social media platform this week asking for donations to build a monument that would have the names and photos of all the coronavirus victims in China.

He chose the day to announce the memorial, May 4, because it is an important historic day for many Chinese people. The May Fourth Movement, widely known as the “new culture movement,” marked the political awakening of China’s youth, and movement towards a pro-democratic China back in 1919. Freedom of speech was among one of the key demands by the protesters then.

Zhang, who lost his father to the coronavirus that surfaced in Wuhan, said that 101-year old message has special relevance today.

"Because everyone who died, including my father, were victims of misinformation. A monument will remind us of this dark period, to make sure history won’t repeat itself." He told VOA in an interview.

Zhang said he still supports China’s ruling communist party but thinks local officials should be held responsible for initially hiding the fact that the virus could spread among humans.

Zhang Hai’s dad, Zhang Lifa, was a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army, who had spent decades working on China’s nuclear weapons program. He died on Feb 1 at a hospital in Wuhan from complications of the coronavirus.

Zhang Hai said that in January, his father fell and broke his leg. They traveled from Guangdong, where they lived, to Wuhan, their hometown, for surgery. The virus was spreading in Wuhan at the time, but local officials were playing down the risk of human-to-human transmission. Zhang Hai is certain that his father contracted the virus during his stay at the hospital.

“Had I known the risk, I wouldn’t proceed with the trip,” Zhang Hai said. “My father has contributed greatly to this country, and now he passed away because of a huge mistake by the local authorities. Why can’t we ask for accountability?”

This push for accountability from Chinese citizens is a theme U.S. officials have also highlighted in recent days, in an effort to reveal how Beijing has thwarted international investigations into the origin of the virus and how it continues to shut down any internal critics, no matter how small.

Matthew Pottinger, a top national security aide to President Donald Trump who worked as a journalist in China early in his career, praised two whistleblower doctors who were reprimanded by the police for warning their colleagues about the COVID-19 back in December.

While China was roundly criticized for silencing the doctors, and has since championed them as patriots, Beijing has not changed its stance on others who are critical of the government’s efforts.

“I owe it to my father,” activist says

Zhang Hai has not received his father's ashes so far, and is extremely dissatisfied with the way the authorities have been handling his father's death.

"It has been a long time since my dad passed away on February 1,” Zhang said, “No one is answering my questions about where his ashes are, but instead I am monitored -- my WeChat, my phone, my blog.”

He said that he was summoned to the police station for the second time on May 4, and the police showed him a list. “It was all my chat history on WeChat,” he said.

Zhang Hai said the police told him the reason for the intense monitoring is because he created an online group consisting of family members of COVID-19 victims.

“Anti-China elements might have infiltrated the group,” he said, the police told him.

Zhang Hai laughed at the excuse. He said that he and others were just mourning together online, and they didn’t break any law. On the contrary, he said, he is determined to hold responsible the local authorities that hid the information about COVID-19.

“I do not care the price I have to pay. I owe my diseased father an explanation,” he told VOA.

While authorities may succeed in shutting down the memorial, veteran rights activist Yang Zhanqing predicted criticism from Chinese people will intensify as the pandemic continues, and authorities may struggle to contain it if people like Zhang Hai keep speaking out.

“We should all admire Zhang Hai’s courage. He has spoken out about what other families wanted but dared not to say,” Yang told VOA. “It’s very rare.”

After Zhang posted his fund-raising announcement online, the authorities quickly deleted it. He reissued it one more time, and it was deleted again.

This sort of small-scale censorship, which is a fact of daily life in China, can lead to a bigger push for change, said Pottinger, the Deputy National Security Advisor to President Trump.

“When small acts of bravery are stamped out by governments, big acts of bravery follow," Pottinger said in his remarks delivered Monday at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

He said he hoped delivering the speech in Mandarin would “open up a conversation with friends in China and around the world.”

China’s foreign ministry Tuesday rejected Pottinger’s critique of the country’s COVID-19 crackdown, suggesting he “may not really understand China” and should instead focus on the U.S. response to the pandemic.