Last week China unveiled a new law effectively banning its Internet users from posting negative content about their country. The Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem rule, announced in December 2019, came into effect last Sunday. It prohibits such acts as “dissemination of rumors,” “disrupting economic or social order,” and “destroying national unity.” It encourages positive content.
The law’s vague terms have legal and human-rights experts up in arms. China Law Translate, a law website, describes it as “distressingly vague and easily abused.” Others fear the provision will be used specifically to target those chronicling the spread of the deadly Coronavirus – and how Beijing has handled the outbreak.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) has come under fire from its own citizens, and the international community, for its stuttering, heavy-handed approach to the COVID-19 outbreak, which is believed to have originated in a Wuhan food market last year.
Early social media messages announcing the virus’ arrival were stifled, and medical professionals were threatened with jail for breaking an unofficial silence. Almost four dozen phrases were added to censors’ blacklists, including “SARS variation” and SARS outbreak in Wuhan.” Foreign citizens and VPN providers reported harassment by Chinese censors for posting content about family members affected by the virus.
The death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor whose attempts to break news of the virus were suppressed by party officials, sparked widespread outrage against President Xi Jinping’s regime. Censors responded to posts demanding free speech, on platforms like Weibo and WeChat, by swifty shutting them down.
That reaction almost certainly increased the virus’ spread. It has now registered almost 100,000 confirmed cases, and over 3,000 deaths in dozens of nations. Beijing’s addiction to misinformation has continued regardless. This week its leading propaganda journal, “Seeking Truth,” wrote that Xi, the “People’s Leader,” was a “calming balm” for a world in disarray over Coronavirus. The CPC has also blamed the epidemic on its arch-nemesis, the United States (whose own governmental response has been widely criticised).
This week’s law, then, represents yet another attempt by Xi’s underlings to strangle the truth regarding a virus whose spread is accelerating worldwide. That will lead to more deaths in China and abroad. “What is significant about this case, is that this event is more of a public-health issue rather than just a party congress or political events that do not affect a wider range of people,” Lotus Ruan, a research fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab told The Globe and Mail.
Stymying factual information amid an outbreak “limits public awareness and response,” the report concluded. It is unlikely Beijing will relent on its pursuit of propaganda. That may be disastrous not only for millions of Coronavirus sufferers worldwide, but for the future of its grip on power. Dissent has been growing since the outbreak began.
Organized samizdat on VPN-accessible platforms like GitHub has already become widespread. “The epidemic, in turn, has only exposed the extent of the party-state’s sickness,” historian Geremie R Barmé writes in the New York Times today. Like the face masks it is forcing its citizens to wear, Beijing’s smothering of public dissent may have little more than a psychosomatic effect on China’s public health – and political strength.