China's leaders have declared the coronavirus outbreak largely under control within its borders. Now, the authorities are working to control the narrative of how the country contained the virus by questioning and even detaining people who might possess information that challenges the official line.
Those being questioned include Internet-savvy archivists; families and their legal counsel suing the state for damages from the coronavirus epidemic; and even lauded volunteers who staffed critical emergency services from the epicenter city of Wuhan.
In February, during the peak of the outbreak in Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated, thousands of volunteers delivered supplies to hospitals, drove medical workers around the city and staffed online mental health services.
But now public security agents are questioning these volunteers over suspicions they provided foreign organizations with documentation that has led to accusations that China intentionally covered up the full extent of its coronavirus epidemic, according to two people familiar with the matter. They requested anonymity because those questioned were told by security agents to keep the matter confidential.
Some of the volunteers questioned ran a telephone hotline that became a well-known resource offering both counseling services and help finding open hospital beds as Wuhan's health care system became overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.
Hotline volunteers kept active counts of hospital beds and emergency cases of the coronavirus across Wuhan — information that could be used for estimating fatalities.
"The police say they have been investigating whether different Chinese volunteer groups provided U.S. intelligence agencies with the real death number of COVID-19 in China," said a person familiar with the police questioning who declined to be named for fear of retribution.
Another Shanghai-based volunteer group said a prominent organizer of theirs had also been questioned by public security agents in connection with possibly leaking information to foreign agencies and was asked to provide a list of names of other volunteers. The group, which denies leaking any information, said the organizer refused to identify the volunteers.
Official messaging from China's Communist Party insists the authorities in Wuhan and Beijing acted swiftly and efficiently to implement lockdown measures and contain the outbreak.
This effort to silence those who might provide information contradicting the official Chinese narrative comes as U.S. intelligence officials have been warning the White House that China vastly undercounted its coronavirus death toll, according to various U.S. news reports. The stakes are high: Missouri and Mississippi are suing China over damages from the coronavirus pandemic, and U.S. citizens have filed several related class-action lawsuits alleging China covered up the scope of the initial outbreak in Wuhan.
China has strenuously denied the allegations. "The sole purpose for some U.S. politicians trying to fool others with their obvious lies is to shift the blame of their own incompetence," a foreign ministry spokesperson said last month. A day later, China's state broadcaster ran a segment on its widely watched evening news program that featured footage of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with "liar" stamped in red letters across his visage, in response to unfounded allegations from Pompeo that the coronavirus was leaked from a Wuhan lab.
Current efforts to conceal unfavorable information contrast with Chinese leaders' transparency pledge following the 2003 SARS epidemic, which health officials initially tried to hide, according to Susan Shirk, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of California, San Diego.
That year, Shirk points out, Chinese leadership changed hands — Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao took over as president and premier — and promised to do things differently. "It was the new broom sweeping out the old ways of doing things and made a point of creating a new image emphasizing transparency," Shirk said.
But China's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak seems to revert to old ways. "[Chinese leaders] decided to not go with transparency but to go with a whitewash," Shirk says. "That's very different from SARS."
In several cases over the past month, China has outright detained those suspected of challenging the official version of how the outbreak was quickly brought to heel.
Eyes on GitHub
For the past three months, Beijing tech worker Chen Mei and more than a dozen other tech-savvy volunteers used GitHub, the open-source programming platform, to archive copies of nearly four dozen, often critical, journalistic reports and essays put together by Chinese writers, journalists, freelance bloggers and writers deleted by China's Internet censors.
Among the articles Chen and others archived was a widely read profile of Ai Fen, a Wuhan doctor who first forwarded a medical report in early January — nearly three weeks before Chinese leader Xi Jinping warned the public about the epidemic — to other doctors describing a mysterious SARS-like pneumonia arising in hospitals. GitHub, which is not blocked in China, is widely used by programmers and companies to collaborate on writing software.
Then on April 19, Chen was suddenly detained, say three people close to him. Two friends — Cai Wei, who helped update the GitHub archive, and Cai's girlfriend Xiaotang — were also detained in Beijing on the same day as Chen for "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," according to a police notice seen by NPR. Lawyers for both Cai and Xiaotang say they have been unable to meet or communicate with their clients.
"Chen Mei used his personal ID on GitHub, so I sent him a message saying his ID was public and to be careful," said Lucy Qiu, a friend of Chen's. "That was our last contact."
NPR's calls to Beijing's Changping district police department, near where Chen lives, and calls and texts to the Chaoyang district police department, where the three are reportedly being held, were not answered.
Suing the city
Families demanding justice from the state have also been subject to sustained pressure from China's security apparatus.
"It is all part of social stability management," said a lawyer who has been providing legal aid to Wuhan residents. He requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. "They made a mistake, and they will not allow people to take them to court."
He is part of a group of about 20 lawyers who helped Wuhan residents seeking to sue the city and provincial government for allegedly mishandling the outbreak. They say that local officials failed to notify the public early enough about the virus' contagiousness and the extent of the outbreak in Wuhan.
In mid-April, several of the lawyers were called in by Chinese justice ministry officials and were told to stop their pro bono work. They were also asked to name the other lawyers in the group and plaintiffs. At least three plaintiffs have since dropped their cases after being coerced by police, according to those who were providing them legal assistance.
But a handful of Wuhan residents say they are pressing ahead with their lawsuits despite the danger in doing so. "What happened in Wuhan was a warning for the entire country. Leaders here created havoc for the entire country," one of the plaintiffs, whose mother died in February from the coronavirus, told NPR by phone. He vowed to continue with his lawsuit, saying it was his responsibility to push for an accurate accounting of human suffering during the lockdown.
Then he hung up abruptly, saying his phone was being monitored.