China’s disappeared: What happened to those who dared to speak up about coronavirus?


The fearsome knock on the door came after nightfall. Outside were two men in hazmat suits who told businessman Fang Bin they had come to take him into medical quarantine. But the textile trader, a gangly man in his early 40s, wasn’t ill and the men outside his Wuhan apartment weren’t doctors. They were police officers confronting a menace the Chinese Communist Party had been grappling with as ferociously as the coronavirus itself – ordinary people who bravely expose the truth about the outbreak and refuse to keep quiet.

Mr Fang’s ‘crime’ was to post a video he had filmed of people dying of the virus and the body bags piled up outside a hospital clearly overwhelmed by casualties at a time when China insisted that the virus was under control. It was seen 200,000 times before censors took it down.

When he demanded a search warrant from the officers on the doorstep of his high-rise apartment, they forced their way in and took him away for questioning, ordering him to stop spreading ‘rumours’ about the virus before confiscating his computer. He was later released in the early hours of the morning.

The crackdown began with reprimands issued to Dr Li Wenliang, 34, for warning  fellow medics about the virus. He died at Wuhan Central Hospital of Covid-19 on February 7

One week later – on February 9 – Mr Fang posted another video, this time featuring a scroll of paper bearing the words: ‘Citizens resist. Hand power back to the people.’ The police returned and he hasn’t been seen or heard from in two months.

Mr Fang, a normally diffident man, is an unlikely martyr. Nevertheless, moved to anger by the unimaginable horror of what was happening in his home city, he is one of three whistle-blowers ‘disappeared’ by the Chinese government for exposing the terrifying extent of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Their fate is unknown but human rights groups believe Mr Fang – along with lawyer Chen Qiushi and former state TV reporter Li Zehua – are being tortured and forced to write confessions in extrajudicial detention centres where, in more normal times, Chinese police secretly terrorise lawyers and activists who are seen as enemies of the state.

TV reporter Li Zehua

Mr Fang Bin

Human rights groups believe Mr Fang Bin (right) – along with lawyer Chen Qiushi and former state TV reporter Li Zehua (left) – are being tortured in extrajudicial detention centres where

Now a Mail on Sunday investigation has uncovered a cynical and orchestrated campaign by the Chinese regime to stop the country’s 1.4 billion citizens even discussing the appalling Covid-19 outbreak among themselves. We have discovered that:

  • More than 5,100 people were arrested for sharing information in the first weeks of the outbreak
  • Dissidents are being labelled as sick so the government can place them in medical quarantine
  • Health apps used by tens of millions to show they are clear of coronavirus are being used to monitor people’s movements and further tighten control

Hundreds of ordinary citizens are being detained and fined over innocuous online messages about hospital queues, mask shortages, and the death of relatives.

The unprecedented crackdown began with reprimands issued to Dr Li Wenliang, 34, and seven other doctors for sending messages to fellow medics on December 30 warning them about the outbreak of a SARS-like illness in Wuhan Central Hospital and advising them to wear protective clothing.

Dr Li was forced to sign a police document saying he had ‘seriously disrupted social order’ and breached the law before he returned to work at Wuhan Central Hospital where he died of Covid-19 on February 7, triggering grief and outrage across China. The country’s Communist leaders were shaken by a nationwide outcry which saw the hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech shared two million times in the space of hours. But they had already embarked on a ruthless tightening of a vice-like grip on social media with the first of a string of high-profile disappearances.

Billionaire property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, 69, (pictured) who vanished in March after calling President Xi Jinping a clown for mishandling the virus outbreak

Billionaire property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, 69, (pictured) who vanished in March after calling President Xi Jinping a clown for mishandling the virus outbreak

A day before Dr Li’s death, lawyer Chen Qiushi – whose videos of chaotic scenes in Wuhan hospitals with coronavirus victims lying in corridors were shared with an audience of more than 400,000 YouTube and 250,000 Twitter followers – went missing. His family was told the following day he was being held in medical quarantine at an undisclosed location.

Before his disappearance, Mr Chen realised police were closing in on him and told his followers ominously: ‘As long as I am alive, I will speak about what I have seen and what I have heard. I am not afraid of dying. Why should I be afraid of you, Communist Party?’ He vanished days later.

Three weeks later, Li Zehua, 25 – a reporter with Chinese state TV who went rogue to report on the death toll in Wuhan – live-streamed his own arrest when plain-clothes police officers arrived at his flat. Mr Li made a point of telling viewers he was healthy and well before he was taken away.

Earlier that day Mr Li, who filmed a series of videos showing desperate scenes of communities running low on food in virus-riddled areas of Wuhan, gave viewers a running commentary on how he was chased by police after visiting the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where it has been speculated the outbreak may have been started by a lab leak.

‘I’m sure they want to hold me in isolation,’ he said in a panicked video clip as he sped away from the institute by car. ‘Please help me.’

Lawyer Chen Qiushi – whose videos of chaotic scenes in Wuhan hospitals with coronavirus victims lying in corridors were shared with an audience of more than 400,000 YouTube and 250,000 Twitter followers – went missing

Lawyer Chen Qiushi – whose videos of chaotic scenes in Wuhan hospitals with coronavirus victims lying in corridors were shared with an audience of more than 400,000 YouTube and 250,000 Twitter followers – went missing

The Chinese government has been silent over the fate of the whistle-blowers but all three are believed to be in secret detention centres – a sinister form of extrajudicial imprisonment described by officials as ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’.

Frances Eve, deputy director of research at Hong Kong-based watchdog Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), said: ‘Everyone who has disappeared is at very high risk of torture – most likely to try to force them to confess that their activities were criminal or harmful to society.

‘Then, as we’ve seen in previous cases, people who have been disappeared will be brought out and forced to confess on Chinese state television.’

The secret detention centres usually hold dissidents such as human rights activists and lawyers, said Ms Eve. ‘In most cases we’ve tracked, people who go in have been tortured. You don’t have access to your lawyer or your family or anyone outside the police.’

Another critic silenced by China’s leader is law professor Xu Zhangrun, who was put under house arrest in Beijing and had his internet access cut off

Another critic silenced by China’s leader is law professor Xu Zhangrun, who was put under house arrest in Beijing and had his internet access cut off

China has denied knowledge of the disappearance of the whistle-blowers. The Chinese ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, has been asked twice in TV interviews about the fate of Chen Qiushi, insisting angrily in the second interview in March: ‘I have not heard of this person… I did not know him then, and I do not know him now.’

The only disappeared person China has made any official comment on is billionaire property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, 69, who vanished in March after calling President Xi Jinping a clown for mishandling the virus outbreak.

Weeks after his arrest, Beijing officials announced that Mr Ren was being detained for ‘serious violations’ of the law and Communist Party regulations – a euphemism for the trumped-up corruption charges used to ensnare any high-ranking critic of the country’s authoritarian leader.

Another critic silenced by China’s leader is law professor Xu Zhangrun, who was put under house arrest in Beijing and had his internet access cut off after writing a searing critique of Xi Jinping’s handling of the crisis which included the prediction: ‘This may well be the last piece I write.’

The stifling of any criticism of the Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak extends to every level of society. Police publicly announced on February 21 they had intervened and penalised people in 5,111 cases of ‘fabricating and deliberately disseminating false and harmful information’ in the first weeks of the crisis alone.

A detailed analysis by CHRD of nearly 897 police cases between January 1 and March 26 shows citizens commonly being given terms of detention ranging from three to ten days, fines of about £50, and reprimands for offences of fabricating or spreading false news and disrupting social order – accusations similar to those levelled at Dr Li.

In most attributed cases, punishments were for messages sent on WeChat – China’s equivalent of WhatsApp – to individuals or small groups of friends.

Many exchanges involved seemingly innocuous messages about the death of relatives, hospitals being overwhelmed, and people being sent home while sick. One man was even detained for suggesting a donation of masks to medical staff. It seems that if 99-year-old NHS fundraiser Captain Tom Moore had been in China rather than Bedfordshire, he would have had his walking frame confiscated and his JustGiving account frozen rather than being hailed a hero.

Ms Eve said: ‘All of that grief and fear that Chinese people were feeling in the early weeks of the lockdown have been deleted from the internet by the government. They detained people and punished them and sent out warnings to people to keep silent and not to share what they experienced.’

The reason for the crackdown was that China’s leaders viewed the outbreak as an existential threat and used the disappearance of high-profile critics as a way to terrify people into obedience, she argued.

She added: ‘There’s a Chinese phrase that you kill the chicken to scare the monkey. The arrest of the eight doctors, including Dr Li, at the beginning of January was a signal to people to be silent about the coronavirus.’

China is insisting that millions of people in cities affected by Covid-19 use smartphone apps with a barcode to show if they are infection-free. The app accesses other personal data, though, and can be used to increase the extent of social control through technology.

‘It’s unlikely that these new measures introduced for contact tracing will be rolled back and this government will have used this as an excuse to increase and further develop surveillance technologies,’ said Ms Eve.

Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson said the coronavirus safeguards were ‘a very convenient pretext for an authoritarian regime to silence people and deny them rights.

‘I wouldn’t be surprised further down the track to learn that other people had been taken off the grid and that a public health justification had been used.

‘We are increasingly of the view that the Chinese government’s goal is to effectively engineer a dissent-free society.’

Ms Richardson praised the disappeared detainees for having the courage to expose the truth even though they knew they would be arrested.

‘It is breathtakingly brave. And it is also an incredible indictment of the legal and political system in a country that claims to uphold the rule of law,’ she said.

US lawyers sue China for TRILLIONS of dollars as they accuse Beijing of negligence for allowing coronavirus outbreak to erupt before covering it up

  • Lawyers in the US have launched a landmark legal action to sue China 
  • Leaders accused of negligence for COVID-19 outbreak and then covering it up 
  • A second legal case accuses China of hoarding life-saving medical supplies 
  • Pressure is now on President Xi Jinping to account fully for his country’s actions 

By Ian Birrell for The Mail on Sunday

Lawyers in the US have launched a landmark legal action to sue China for trillions of dollars over the coronavirus pandemic, accusing its Communist leaders of negligence for allowing the outbreak to erupt and then covering it up. 

The class action, which involves thousands of claimants from 40 countries including Britain and the US, was filed in Florida last month. 

A second case launched this month on behalf of healthcare workers accuses China of hoarding life-saving medical supplies. 

The legal challenges – set to be followed by another from Israeli human rights lawyers who specialise in suing states for terrorism – ramp up the pressure on President Xi Jinping to account fully for his country’s actions. 

President Xi Jinping must answer tough questions over China’s actions on Covid-19, as lawyers in the US prepare to sue the nation for 'trillions' of dollars over the coronavirus outbreak

President Xi Jinping must answer tough questions over China’s actions on Covid-19, as lawyers in the US prepare to sue the nation for ‘trillions’ of dollars over the coronavirus outbreak

There are calls also for the United Nations to set up an inquiry to establish how the coronavirus broke out in the city of Wuhan and then spread so fast around the world. 

This follows a warning last week from Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is running the Government while Boris Johnson recovers from the virus, that it could not be ‘business as usual’ after the crisis. 

‘We will have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn’t have been stopped earlier,’ he said. 

China faces accusations that it suppressed data, blocked several outside teams of public health experts and silenced doctors trying to warn about the epidemic when it broke out late last year.

BRITS FEEL CHINA SHOULD PAY

Nearly three-quarters of Britons think the UK should sue the Chinese Communist Party for compensation over its handling of Covid-19, a poll reveals. 

The survey also finds that only a quarter support the Government’s plans to allow controversial Chinese tech giant Huawei a role in building Britain’s 5G network. 

In the Survation poll of 1,001 people last week, 71 per cent said Britain should pursue China through the international courts. 

Calls for an international inquiry into China’s handling of the outbreak were backed by 83 per cent, while 74 per cent blamed China for the pandemic. 

On a future role for Huawei, 40 per cent of those surveyed opposed the move, with just 23 per cent in favour.

It has also not been established if the source of the virus was a market selling live exotic animals, as first claimed, or if it is linked to research laboratories in Wuhan. 

The US legal claim was launched by Berman Law Group, a Miamibased firm that employs the brother of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as an adviser. 

Chief strategist Jeremy Alters said: ‘China’s leaders must be held accountable for their actions. Our goal is to expose the truth.’ Three years ago, the firm won a $1.2 billion (£960 million) case against China over the manufacture of defective building materials.

Lawyers argue that although nations have legal immunity, there are exceptions under US law for personal or property damages and for actions abroad that impact on businesses in their own borders. 

Plaintiffs include Olivier Babylone, 38, an estate agent from Croydon, South London, whose income has fallen by two-thirds and who was treated in hospital earlier this month for the virus. 

He said: ‘I have been financially hurt, but many people have lost their lives so I was lucky, and the NHS was fantastic. We need to know who is responsible.’ 

Joining him in the class action is Lorraine Caggiano, an administrator from New York who caught the virus along with nine other family members after attending a wedding. 

Her father and aunt both died last month. She said: ‘I am not expecting money. It is a symbolic gesture that we are fighting back. 

A woman wearing a protective mask is seen past a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a street as the country is hit with fresh accusations

A woman wearing a protective mask is seen past a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a street as the country is hit with fresh accusations

‘I want to know how the world has been turned on its head, with people dying and companies going down the drain. We must make sure it never happens again.’ 

A second legal case is being prepared by Shurat HaDin, an Israeli law centre that has represented victims of terrorism around the world. The centre’s Aviel Leitner said it would also launch its legal action in the US since ‘most other countries would be scared of China’s economic weight and retribution’. 

The lawyers will argue that Beijing’s negligence and reckless behaviour was so bad that, as with terrorism, the state cannot hide behind sovereign immunity. 

‘China will fight it tooth and nail. If proved negligent, it would be catastrophe for them,’ said Mr Leitner. 

Meanwhile, leading British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has called for the United Nations to set up an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. This follows claims that the World Health Organisation, its public health body, failed in its duty by slavishly following China, which has led President Donald Trump to cut all US funding. 

Mr Robertson, a former UN appeal judge, said the consequences of not tackling the virus at an early stage had been calamitous and facts were being distorted by propaganda and political point-scoring. 

‘Our international well-being demands an independent and objective report into this disaster, not to allocate blame but to write its truthful history and learn lessons,’ he said. He added that Britain should use its influence as a permanent UN Security Council member to urge a formal inquiry, forcing the WHO and China to co-operate. 

He said: ‘China would suffer international hostility and perhaps economic sanctions if it refused to explain all that had happened. It has a duty to tell the truth to a world that has suffered so much.’ 

Dr Yang Jianli, a leading Chinese dissident, called on democratic nations to back an inquiry, but doubted that the UN would ‘have the guts’.

‘I’ve seen better seals on my fridge!’ Shocking photos from inside Wuhan lab show broken seal on unit which stores 1,500 virus strains – including the bat coronavirus behind the deadly pandemic

  • Worrying photos have emerged from inside a Wuhan laboratory this week 
  • Pictures show a broken seal on the door of one of the refrigerators 
  • The fridge holds 1,500 different strains of virus including coronavirus samples
  • The images were originally published on Twitter in March, before being deleted

By Glen Owen for The Mail on Sunday 

It is a rare glimpse inside the Chinese laboratory at the centre of mounting inter-national suspicion about the Covid-19 pandemic – and will do nothing to dispel fears that it was caused by a catastrophic leak which has been covered up by Beijing.

Pictures from inside Wuhan’s secretive Institute of Virology show a broken seal on the door of one of the refrigerators used to hold 1,500 different strains of virus – including the bat coronavirus which has jumped to humans with such devastating effect.

The pictures, first released by the state-owned China Daily newspaper in 2018, were published on Twitter last month, before being deleted. One comment attached read: ‘I have seen better seals on my refrigerator in my kitchen.’

The Mail on Sunday revealed a fortnight ago that Ministers now fear that the pandemic could have started as the result of a leak. 

Pictures from inside Wuhan’s secretive Institute of Virology show a broken seal on the door (centre of shot, by medical worker's right eye) of one of the refrigerators used to hold 1,500 different strains of virus

Pictures from inside Wuhan’s secretive Institute of Virology show a broken seal on the door (centre of shot, by medical worker’s right eye) of one of the refrigerators used to hold 1,500 different strains of virus

The pictures, first released by the state-owned China Daily newspaper in 2018, were published on Twitter last month, before being deleted

The pictures, first released by the state-owned China Daily newspaper in 2018, were published on Twitter last month, before being deleted

 The Mail on Sunday revealed a fortnight ago that Ministers now fear that the pandemic could have started as the result of a leak

Last week, this newspaper also disclosed that the institute had undertaken corona-virus experiments on bats captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan, funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government. 

Sequencing of the Covid-19 genome has traced it to the bats found only in those caves. 

Our revelations led to Donald Trump being quizzed at a press conference last week about the leak theory, to which the President replied: ‘We are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation.’ 

Twitter was immediately awash with criticisms regarding the apparent lack of safety measures

Twitter was immediately awash with criticisms regarding the apparent lack of safety measures

Suspicions of a Chinese cover-up increased further after the Wash-ington Post reported that Us diplomats in Beijing had written cables about the Wuhan laboratory in 2018

Suspicions of a Chinese cover-up increased further after the Wash-ington Post reported that Us diplomats in Beijing had written cables about the Wuhan laboratory in 2018

Mr Trump also pledged on Friday evening to scrap Us funding for the Wuhan institute.

Meanwhile, Us secretary of state Mike Pompeo has demanded that Beijing ‘come clean’ over whether the virus had leaked from the lab. He said: ‘There is still lots to learn. 

The US government is work-ing diligently to figure it out.’ He added that one of the best ways that China could find to co-operate would be to ‘let the world in and let the world’s scientists know exactly how this came to be, exactly how this virus began to spread’.

Suspicions of a Chinese cover-up increased further after the Wash-ington Post reported that Us diplomats in Beijing had written cables about the Wuhan laboratory in 2018, warning the state Department that ‘the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARs-like pandemic’.

US intelligence sources say that shortly after the coronavirus outbreak began, officials at the lab destroyed samples of the virus, erased early reports and sup-pressed academic papers – and then tried to pin the blame on Wuhan’s wet market, where wild animals are sold for consumption.

The sources believe that ‘Patient Zero’ was an intern at the lab, who spread the virus into the local population after infecting her boyfriend. 

One source described it as ‘the costliest government cover-up of all time’. After initially accepting the wet market theory, intelligence officials in the US, Britain and Canada are increasingly focusing on the Wuhan institute, not least because of the level of coincidence required for the bats in Yunnan to have infected animals in Wuhan, which then passed it on to humans.

Following a video meeting of the G7 nations on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said: ‘There are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.’ 

The World Health Organisation, which faces allegations of complicity with Beijing over the pandemic, quickly accepted and propagated the wildlife market theory.

Although British Government sources say that the evidence suggests that the virus was ‘zoonotic’ – originating from an animal – that is still compatible with the theory that it first passed to humans as a result of an accident by scientists studying it in a laboratory. 

However, one political source said that there was ‘growing scientific curiosity’ over the symptoms of a marked loss of taste and smell in many victims of Covid-19. ‘This might – only might – indicate a level of human interference,’ the source said.

Beijing insists that the fact that the country’s primary virology institute is based in the city at the centre of the outbreak is just a coincidence, dismissing links to the laboratory as ‘baseless conspiracy theories’.

In a letter to The Mail on Sunday, a Chinese Embassy spokeswoman says: ‘There has never been any cover-up, nor was a cover-up ever allowed to happen. 

The relatively low Covid-19 death toll in China proves that the containment measures are effective. strict lockdown measures have effectively slowed down the spread of the virus and minimised the cases of infection.

 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk