Li Zehua is 25 and has a stable job at China’s state broadcaster, CCTV. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, he quit his job and became a citizen-journalist in Wuhan to report on the real situation on the ground.
“I don’t want to remain silent, or shut my eyes and ears. It’s not that I can’t have a nice life, with a wife and kids. I can. I’m doing this because I hope more young people can, like me, stand up,” he says.
Because of his reporting, he found himself on the run from what he suspects are state security.
“I’m on the road and someone, I don’t know, state security, has started chasing me,” he says breathlessly. “I’m driving very fast. Help me.”
Li later posts a live stream of himself in an apartment, waiting for those same agents to knock on his door, probably to detain him.The live stream, posted on Weibo, where it was later deleted, and on YouTube, shows two men in plain clothes entering the apartment and then cuts out.
As the number of new coronavirus infections inside China has slowed, authorities say the outbreak will reach its peak by the end of the month and any economic shock caused by an almost two-month nationwide shutdown will be limited.
The propaganda machine has gone into overdrive, highlighting the government’s handling and the hard work of health workers and citizens.
But for many, especially young people like Li, the damage is done. A growing number have not only become disenchanted with their government, ruled by the powerful Communist party, but are calling for changes such as free speech and government accountability.
“In the past, I was afraid of running into trouble so I didn’t speak up much. Now I will speak out much more,” said Krejerk Liu, 30, who runs a bar in Beijing. He posts articles and opinions online and is increasingly critical of the government. “For me, being awake means I must keep speaking and keep seeing.”
More than 2,700 people have died from the virus in China, which has infected almost 85,000. Almost every citizen has been affected whether in Wuhan struggling to save a family member amid overrun hospitals, labyrinthine bureaucracy and supply shortages, or quarantined at home, worried about the virus and when their lives can return to normal.
Anger at the authorities has only solidified, helped by a steady stream of accounts of desperate families and health workers in Wuhan, allegations of corruption among state-run charities, and videos and photos of ordinary residents abused by local authorities in the name of epidemic prevention.
“The epidemic has exposed this country completely in its corruption, bureaucracy, information control and censorship,” said Phillip Wu, 25, a freelance writer in Beijing.
For many, the turning point came on February 06, when Li Wenliang, a doctor-turned-whistleblower – and national hero – died from the virus that he had tried to warn colleagues about. Many see themselves in Li, a regular citizen who was punished by police for trying to speak out.
Aware of these fissures, Zhao Kezhi, the minister of public security, said at a meeting last week that the country must “prioritise the maintenance of political security” during the epidemic and guard against “disruptive activities carried out by hostile forces at home and abroad”.
Officials have launched a “positive energy” propaganda drive, ranging from pledges from senior leaders, including Xi, to donate personal funds to help fight the virus, to emotive stories about the sacrifices of frontline medics. The effort has fallen flat. Internet users responded with such scorn to two recent mascots created by the Communist Youth League that the campaign was dropped.
Li Zehua, who went to Wuhan in hopes of following in the footsteps of disappeared journalist Chen Qiushi, has yet to resurface. Li started a “self media” channel called Disobedience TV in 2018 and is sometimes criticised as naive or emotional.
Yet he is also realistic. He says in his last video posting: “This isn’t about starting some kind of uprising.. That’s not it. I know idealism died that year, that spring” – an oblique reference to Tiananmen protest violently put down across China in 1989.
Standing outside the door he asks whether the “two large guys” on the other side remember studying the Chinese writer Lu Xun in school. Quoting him, Li says: “There have always been those who fight for the people, who ram through obstacles and pursue truth at all costs … In these people we discover China’s backbone.” (Source: The Guardian)