Updated: March 3, 2021
Human Rights Watch on Friday accused the Chinese authorities of stepping up arbitrary detentions of journalists and activists reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic and other issues, or criticizing the government.
The international rights group said since the beginning of December 2020, the authorities have carried out new detentions of journalists and activists without providing any credible information to suggest that these individuals have committed legally recognizable offenses, adding that they should drop all baseless charges and immediately and unconditionally release those wrongfully held.
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“The Chinese government seems to have learned nothing from its information crackdown after the outbreak of Covid-19,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Detaining journalists and activists won’t make China’s very real problems disappear.”
On December 3, police in Zhuzhou, Hunan province detained activist Ou Biaofeng, 40, accusing him of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” under article 293 of China’s penal code. Conviction carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Ou has been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and recently voiced his support of Dong Yaoqiong, who was kept in a psychiatric hospital for over a year after she splashed ink on a poster of President Xi Jinping in 2018.
On December 7, Beijing authorities detained Haze Fan, a journalist for the Bloomberg News bureau in Beijing, on suspicion of endangering national security. Earlier this year, the government expelled a dozen or so foreign journalists, and detained Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist employed at a Chinese state media organization.
On December 16, the Beijing police detained Du Bin, 48, a journalist who worked as a freelance photographer forthe New York Times, on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Du’s friends believe the detention could be connected to his recent book projects critical of the Chinese government.
Since the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019, Chinese authorities have also detained a number of activists and citizen journalists for independently reporting on the pandemic. While some have been released, others remain in detention or their condition has not been revealed to the public.
On December 28 a Shanghai court is scheduled to try Zhang Zhan, 37, a citizen journalist, on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Shanghai police detained Zhang in May, after she went to Wuhan in February to report on the coronavirus outbreak. Zhang’s lawyer told the media that officials have been force-feeding her since she started a hunger strike soon after her detention, and that her health is deteriorating.
The whereabouts of Fang Bin, a Wuhan businessman who was detained in February for posting videos of city hospitals, has not been revealed. It is also unclear whether he has been charged. Chen Qiushi, a citizen journalist who was detained in February after he had gone to Wuhan to report on the coronavirus situation, has been released to his parents’ home and placed under close surveillance. Chen Mei and Cai Wei, detained in April for archiving censored information related to the coronavirus, are being held in a detention center in Beijing awaiting trial for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
Chinese authorities have sought to control the narrative of the coronavirus pandemic by silencing independent reporters, coupled with the use of specialized software, internet censors, and trolls.
The authorities should also unconditionally release and drop any charges against the activists detained since December 2019 for participating in a private gathering on human rights in Fujian province. In what has become known as the “12.26” crackdown, police across the country began to detain people who were at a December 7 and 8 gathering in the city of Xiamen, where they discussed human rights and China’s political future.
A year later, the prominent human rights lawyers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi remain in detention facing charges of “inciting subversion.” The authorities detained Chang Weiping, another lawyer, again in October after releasing him in January. He has been held under “residential surveillance” at an unknown location, a form of enforced disappearance in which police can hold individuals in undisclosed locations for up to six months. Other participants including Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya, Li Yingjun, and Chen Jiaping have been released on bail.
“The slew of detentions of those who speak out will only further impede the flow of information about the situation in China,” Wang said. “Governments around the world should press Beijing to release wrongfully detained journalists and activists immediately.”