Xu Zhangrun, the professor who published a rare public critique of President Xi Jinping over China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak was placed under house arrest, barred from social media and has lost internet access, his friends have told the Guardian.
A friend of Xu’s who spoke on Sunday on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals said police placed Xu under house arrest soon after he returned to Beijing from his lunar new year break at his home town in Anhui province.
“They confined him at home under the pretext that he had to be quarantined after the trip,” the friend said. “He was in fact under de facto house arrest and his movements were restricted.”
During those days, at least two people stood guard in front of his house around the clock and a car with a signal box was parked in front of his residence. Security agents also went into his house to issue warnings to him, the friend said.
Those restrictions were lifted late last week, but his internet connection has been cut off since Friday, the friend added.
“He tried to get it mended but found out that his IP [internet protocol address]has been blocked. He lives on the outskirts of Beijing and is far away from shops and other services. Under the current [coronavirus]situation, things are very difficult for him.”
Xu’s passionate attack on the government’s system of controls and censorship titled Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear, which was published this month, is a rare and bold expression of dissent from the liberal camp under Xi’s rule.
Friends say that since publication, Xu’s account has been suspended on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, and many have been unable to get in touch with him for days. His name has been scrubbed from Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog, with only articles from official websites several years ago showing up on the country’s biggest search engine, Baidu. Calls to his mobile phone went unanswered on Sunday.
Phone calls to the Ministry of Public Security also went unanswered on Sunday. The staff member who answered the phone at Changping branch of Beijing Public Security Bureau said she had no knowledge of Xu.
Another friend who also spoke on the condition of anonymity had managed to correspond with him through text messages but said his situation was worrying. “I fear he might be under surveillance,” said this friend. “He has not directly responded (to my queries) but just told me not to worry.”
When Xu published his essay, he warned that he was likely to be punished. He said he had already been suspended from teaching and had “freedoms curtailed” over critiques published nearly a year earlier.
“I can now all too easily predict that I will be subjected to new punishments; indeed, this may well even be the last piece I write,” he wrote at the end of his latest essay.
Xu’s criticism of the country’s leadership came shortly before a widespread debate on freedom of speech convulsed the country. The death on 7 February of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, who had tried to warn colleagues about the virus but was reprimanded and silenced by security forces, triggered an outpouring of grief and anger and an unusual public discussion about censorship.
In a further reminder of the government’s strict controls, two citizen journalists who were reporting from the epicentre of China’s coronavirus outbreak have vanished this week, apparently detained.
Since he took power in late 2012, Xi has tightened ideological control and suppressed civil freedoms across the nation, reversing a trend under his predecessor to give Chinese media some limited scope to expose and report regional corruption and lower-level officials’ misdeeds.
Under Xi’s crackdown on speech and academic freedoms, a number of prominent liberal intellectuals, journalists, rights lawyers and NGO workers have either been silenced, jailed or escaped abroad. (Source: The Guardian)