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China issues strict curbs on coronavirus research

Coronavirus quarantine (leo2014/Pixabay)
April 14, 2020

A copy of an official directive now deleted from a number of Chinese universities and institutions informs researchers that any academic papers relating to the coronavirus pandemic are now subject to review by the authorities.

The directive, titled “Notice on the publication of academic papers related to the novel coronavirus epidemic,” was still visible on a cached version of a page on the website of Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University on Tuesday.

It said the orders had been issued following a March 25 meeting of the public opinion management team of the epidemic control and prevention taskforce of the State Council, China’s cabinet.

“Academic papers relating to the novel coronavirus epidemic need to be reviewed and filed according to their classification,” the directive, copies of which had been recently removed from several Chinese university websites, said.

Any research on tracing the origins of the virus “should be managed strictly,” the order said.

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Such papers must be scanned and emailed straight to the education ministry, while other coronavirus-related topics could be reviewed by the college authorities, it said.

A third area of concern was the centralized management of release for any developments in coronavirus vaccine research, the document said.

A Google search revealed that the directive was recently deleted from the School of Information Science and Engineering at Fudan University and the Institute of Science and Technology Development at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan.

Many taboo subjects

An employee who answered the phone at Fudan University on Monday said they didn’t know about the directive, and referred inquiries to the university’s propaganda department.

“I don’t know about this,” the employee said. “Any announcements from the university are on its website.”

An employee at the China University of Geosciences made a similar response.

Chinese diplomats and foreign ministry officials have recently promoted the idea that the coronavirus that causes COVID 19 didn’t originate in China at all, prompting a war of words with Washington, where officials have referred to it as the Wuhan virus or the Chinese virus.

Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan said the origin of the coronavirus is a highly sensitive topic in China at the moment.

“The issue of the virus’ origin is very sensitive right now because of the issue of who is responsible for [the pandemic],” Zhang told RFA. “While everyone knows where the virus came from, China is hoping to muddy the waters.”

He said Beijing also faces accusations that health officials covered up the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak in its initial stages.

Bruce Lui, journalism professor at Hong Kong’s Baptist University, said there are now strict controls on academic freedom around scientific research into the coronavirus.

“There are so many experts in China, and the government regards them as [potentially] rebellious, so they are stepping up their efforts to suppress academic freedom for researchers,” Lui said.

“All of the government’s prohibitions have made the topic of the virus’ origins into a taboo subject,” he said.