China intimidates COVID-19 critics, blocks probe into virus origins

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
January 09, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The Chinese government is carrying out a campaign of harassment and intimidation against people seeking to hold it to account for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a New York-based rights group.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has harassed and intimidated people lodging complaints and filing lawsuits linked to the initial coverup of the emerging pandemic in the central city of Wuhan, and over abuses stemming from lockdowns, including lack of access to medical care, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a Jan. 6 statement on its website.

“The Chinese government’s narrative that it has won the Covid-19 ‘war’ is conditioned on silencing those who speak out about failings in the government’s pandemic response and abuses committed under the pretext of stopping the spread of the virus,” HRW China researcher Yaqiu Wang said.

“Repressing victims of abuses and their families is a cruel addition to the harm they’ve already suffered,” she said.

The criticism came as Beijing barred a team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) from entering China, following months of negotiations over their trip to discover more about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “very disappointed” with the entry ban, which comes as the CCP tries to redirect the global narrative away from the pandemic’s origins in China, insisting that it may have been brought there from overseas.

“Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalized the necessary permissions for the team’s arrivals in China,” Tedros said on Jan. 5.

“I am very disappointed with this news, given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute,” he said.

‘Frustrating, disappointing’

WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told Tuesday’s briefing that the experts were being held up because their visas hadn’t yet been approved.

“We were all operating on the on the understanding that the team would begin deployment [on Jan. 5],” he said, calling the situation “frustrating and… disappointing.”

Scientists initially believed the virus jumped to humans at a market selling exotic animals for meat in the central city of Wuhan. The prevailing theory now suggests the virus’ spread may have been facilitated by conditions in the market rather than making the initial cross-species jump there.

From late January to early April 2020, the CCP imposed draconian restrictions on movement on the 11 million residents of Wuhan, cutting off public transportation links to, from and within the city.

When quarantines or lockdowns are imposed, the authorities are obligated to ensure access to food, water, health care, and care-giving support, according to the HRW statement, which cited a number of rights abuses during the early weeks of the pandemic in China.

“Officials were seen sealing apartment doors to prevent people from leaving their homes,” it said. “Some residents were chained to metal posts for purportedly violating stay-at-home orders.”

But those who have filed lawsuits or other official complaints have been harassed, HRW said, citing the harassment of Zhang Hai, who sued the government over the death of his father, and Yan Min, whose 24-year-old daughter died of COVID-19 after catching it in a hospital where she had sought treatment for something unrelated.

“In some cases, police intimidated relatives of critics, including elderly parents and children, when the critics refused to stop their efforts,” HRW said. “The police ransacked one critic’s home and threatened his elderly mother. Police also threatened to expel a critic’s child from school.”

China researcher Yaqiu Wang said the official clampdown could mean the truth about the CCP’s handling of COVID-19 may never come to light fully.

“The Chinese authorities’ relentless surveillance, censorship, and prosecution of those critical of the government’s response to the pandemic means there may never be an honest accounting of the government’s role,” she said.

Holiday travel sparks concerns

Meanwhile, concerns are growing of a new wave of COVID-19 cases ahead of Lunar New Year on Feb. 12, when hundreds of millions of people typically take to planes, trains, and highways to spend the festival with their families.

While the authorities are trying to encourage people to stay where they are, the government is also using an alert system in conjunction with nucleic acid testing to enable people to travel if they wish.

A resident of Beijing surnamed Ma, who hails from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, said the biggest travel flows come from migrant workers like herself going home for the New Year.

“[We] can go back to our hometowns for the New Year … if they are not in high-risk areas, and we need to do a PCR test,” she said.

“Anyone driving back needs to have a health code … each location publishes its alert levels every day, so you can go if the alert level has fallen,” she said.

But she said the biggest question isn’t whether workers can’t get home; it’s whether they will wind up stranded there and unable to return to work after the festival is over, because of a change in alert levels.

“If you can’t get back from there, then that’s your job gone,” Ma said.