Q&A: China Accused of Intimidating, Detaining Citizens Critical of COVID-19 Linked Abuses

Social distancing in a Macau Hospital waiting room. Human Rights Watch has expressed concern about human rights abuses being carried out under the guise of COVID-19 public health lockdowns in China. Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Social distancing in a Macau Hospital waiting room. Human Rights Watch has expressed concern about human rights abuses being carried out under the guise of COVID-19 public health lockdowns in China. Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

By Alison Kentish
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 14 2021 – China must end its campaign against individuals seeking redress for COVID-19 linked abuses and the human rights lawyers and activists who help them, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said as reports ranging from allegedly trapping them inside their homes, to chaining alleged lock-down violators to metal posts emerge.

This comes as the World Health Organisation team has arrived in Wuhan to investigate the origins of the outbreak and just as China announced today, Jan. 14, its first COVID-19-related death in 8 months.

In a statement last week, the New York based rights group said that “under the pretext of COVID-19 lockdowns”, Chinese authorities unleashed cruel measures against its citizens. HRW said the government is attempting to silence its critics, through surveillance, intimidation and lengthy prison terms.

HRW China Researcher Yaqui Wang told IPS that governments and the international community should apply pressure on the Chinese government to end the abuses.  

Yaqiu Wang is a China researcher at Human Rights Watch. Courtesy: Human Rights Watch

Yaqiu Wang is a China researcher at Human Rights Watch. Courtesy: Human Rights Watch

Inter Press Service (IPS): You cited international human rights law, which dictates that state restrictions due to public health needs must be lawful, necessary and proportionate. Based on reports on the ground, are restrictions in China flouting those conditions?

Yaqiu Wang (YW): Right. There were measurements undertaken by the Chinese government that seemed to be unnecessarily harsh and failed to respect human dignity. For example, officials were seen sealing apartment doors to prevent people from leaving their homes.

Some residents were chained to metal posts for purportedly violating stay-at-home orders. Videos circulated online showed residents yelling from their homes in despair. In Xinjiang, authorities forced some residents to drink traditional Chinese medicines.

According to international human rights law, when quarantines or lockdowns are imposed, the authorities are obligated to ensure access to food, water, health care, and care-giving support.  Yet, during the Wuhan lockdown, you saw on the Chinese internet many chilling stories: A boy with cerebral palsy died because no one took care of him after his father was taken to be quarantined. A woman with leukemia died after being turned away by several hospitals because of concerns about cross-infection. A mother desperately pleaded to the police to let her leukemia-stricken daughter through a checkpoint at a bridge to get chemotherapy. A man with kidney disease jumped to his death from his apartment balcony after he couldn’t get access to health facilities for dialysis. 

Bear in mind, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg given the stringent censorship people in China are living under. Information critical of the government is swiftly removed. More often than not, people don’t even bother to voice their criticism or tell their stories knowing they could be punished.

IPS: You expressed concern about human rights abuses being carried out under the guise of public health lockdowns. What are some of the ways citizens say they are being intimidated?

YW: For example, in the name of cracking down on false information about the pandemic, the authorities have detained hundreds, if not thousands, of people for “rumour-mongering,” censored online discussions of the epidemic, curbed media reporting, and imprisoned citizen journalists.

IPS: How concerned are you about surveillance tactics that intercept citizens’ communications platforms? Are you worried that citizens will be afraid to come forward and voice any concerns?

YW: That is now the digital reality of people living in China. Whatever you say publicly on Chinese social media or privately through Chinese messaging apps is open for the Chinese government to see. If you criticise the government, even privately, you can be harassed, or worse, imprisoned. The perhaps more pernicious effect is that knowing the risks, many choose to self-censor. 

The fear permeates the Chinese society, long existed before the pandemic.

IPS: You stated that residents also fear detainment and harsh punishments, including lengthy prison sentences if they speak out. Are those fears founded on hearings taking place during the pandemic?

YW: Since the outbreak in Wuhan, authorities detained several citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan. A court in Shanghai sentenced Zhang Zhan to four years in prison after convicting her of picking quarrels and provoking trouble. The situation and whereabouts of Fang Bin, a businessman in Wuhan who has been detained for posting videos of city hospital, remain unknown. Beijing-based activists Chen Mei and Cai Wei, whom the police detained in April for archiving censored COVID-19-related information, remain in a detention center awaiting trial.

IPS: Are there measures in place to assist citizens who do come forward, but would require some level of anonymity in reporting grievances?

YW: It has actually become very difficult. One the one hand, many securer communication tools, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, are banned in China. It is increasingly difficult to circumvent censorship and obtain secure communication because unauthorised VPNs are increasingly banned in China. So, people are left to use domestic apps, and these apps are heavily surveilled and censored. For example, all WeChat accounts are attached to a phone number which is attached to your national ID card. The Chinese government has pretty much eliminated anonymity in the Chinese digital space. 

IPS: You are calling for an end to intimidation and surveillance of those critical of the government’s COVID response. Bearing in mind the realities on the ground in China, are you hoping that, at the very least, you can shed light on what is going on?

YW: Yes, so people outside of China are aware of the abuses going on inside China. We hope governments and the international community can put pressure on the Chinese government to cease the abuses.


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America’s Descent into Depths of Disastrous Trumpism

President Donald Trump addressing the UN General Assembly. Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

By H.L.D. Mahindapala
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Jan 14 2021 – Democracy is fragile. It is more fragile that the window panes of the Congress that were smashed by the mob unleashed by President Donald Trump. It is the ultimate symbol of the desecration of American democracy.

The world watched in horror as the misinformed, misguided, politically driven mob went berserk destroying not so much the material that stood in their way but the fundamental values of the holiest shrine of democracy that came crumbling down with not a single guardian of the law in sight to stop it.

It was a sad spectacle. A delusional Trump, who refused to accept the grim realities facing him, tried every trick in the book to retain power which he had lost. The voters told him to go. The courts told him to go – 62 times, sometimes by judges appointed by him.

The states which he tried to bully told him to go. Some of his best friends and advisers told him to go. He didn’t budge. He believed fanatically in his narrative that his victory was stolen by Biden. His perennial penchant to wallow in his own lies was pathological.

When all his legal and political tactics failed, he tried violence. He instigated the mob and told them to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue because “we can never get back our country with weakness”. His legal side-kick, Rudy Giuliani, told the crowd that there should be a “trial by combat”.

The veiled messages were quite transparent. Like Hitler, Trump made use of the democratic processes and democratic institutions to undermine the very foundations of democracy. His power was in manipulating the racist slogan of “Making America Great” which meant reinforcing the power of the White Supremacists.

He was aided and abetted by the Right-wing racist media, particularly the media run by “Uncle Rupey” Murdoch – a favoured guest at Mar-a-Lago club owned by Trump. His media lackeys at Fox News – Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson etc.,– have been blind devotees of Trumpism. They white-washed and justified every move made by Trump, even the violence unleashed at the Congress.

Buoyed by the adulation of his followers (72 million voted for him) he once told a campaign rally : “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I would not lose voters.” His meteoric rise cast a spell on America. His White nationalism swept across America, from coast to coast, making him a folk hero.

He rose to be the new symbol of America. The grassroot forces were rallying behind him with a fervour not seen before. He resonated with their aspirations and their hates.

So, when the voters turned against him it shattered his own beliefs. He had vested so much of faith in his own powers that he refused to face the reality. He began with a bang.

His idiosyncratic style that mesmerised the base of the Republican Party made him the most formidable force overnight. The message went along with it with his brash style. Together they galvanised the broader base of White America. He created a new political culture with his incessant tweets, political messages, aimed at creating (successfully!) an alternative reality.

The traditional conservatives who ruled the Republican Party lost their grip. He became the Republic Party and the stalwarts fell in line behind him. The power he acquired overnight was intoxicating and also toxic. Trumpism was the ideology worshipped by his Republican and non-Republican loyalists.

He became law unto himself and he believed, quite seriously, that he was “the chosen one”, the messiah sent to save America and the world. He believed in his mystical power to overcome all obstacles, including Corona virus which he did thanks to the specialist services of the military hospital.

His garish theatrics on the international stage too enhanced his stature at the base. He was relying solely on his base. All what he did was mainly to impress and consolidate his base and he believed that he was invincible as long as the base was with him. He became a one-man band. It as the college-educated, sophisticated urban voters that rejected him.

In the end, the big man was brought down by a small bug : Coronovid-19. He lost his glamour with each death. Lost in the myths of his own invincible powers – he referred constantly to whatever he did as the greatest in history — he thought he could ride over the pandemic by dismissing it lightly as another kind of flu.

But the menacing virus caught up with him and made him pay for his idiocy. His anti-science, anti-minorities, anti-climate change, anti-internationalism, pro-authoritarian regimes were a medley of policies that he could sell to his base with applause. But the educated class was running away from him. The rural areas stuck with him in the last election. But the sophisticates revolted.

All told, he found himself drifting away too far from the mainstream. The more he drifted away the more he lost touch with reality. He refused to recognise the new realities sprouting under his feet and destabilising him. He fancied that he had the power and the following to go against the will of the people. Like all authoritarian figures he was hoping to rewrite history in his own fashion. But after going along with him initially, after taking a few steps with him for a short while, history turned against him.

In the end he brought down the great Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and reduced it to zilch. He did a Ranil Wickremesinghe. He lost the Presidency. He lost the House. And he lost the Senate. He lost even his most loyal aide who stood by him throughout his troubled reign, Mike Pence, the Vice-president.

He was stepping out too far from the traditional, acceptable framework that held America together. Most of all, he divided the formidable Right-wing of America. Brining the Right-wing under his leadership will be the biggest headache for the Republicans.

His success or failure in the opposition will depend on his ability to unite the Right-wing forces under his wing. After the failure of his attempted “coup” it is doubtful whether he could rally the Right around him. He lost his spell in the debacle at the Congress. He can never live it down. It will haunt him for the rest of his days.

He has alienated practically everyone except, perhaps, his family. Today he is a lonely man nursing his emotional wounds. His only escape route is to blame everyone else for his fall, created by his own self-destructive strategies.

But it is too early to write him off. He will not walk out of the White House as a dead man. He still has some clout in his base. In his own way, he has radicalised American politics. He has injected a new strain of hate into the liberal political culture of America. It is just not his version of Munroism trying to make America Great in isolation from within.

His inward-looking view is not mere navel gazing. He has touched and livened the raw nerve of America that was buried deep in its culture. He represents that side of America which is brash, rash, garish, loud, vigorous, inward-looking, narrow-minded and ready to break through all obstacles even if it means doing it the crude way.

In a sense – and without meaning to demean the genius of Walt Whitman – he represents the athletic, energetic, confident power of Whitmanasque America that was ready to break through all obstacles in its predatory explorations of conquering the wild west, destroying civilisations, devastating the pristine glory of untouched nature and polluting every inch of land, lakes and loftiness filled with pure air in its virgin state.

He had no idea of the other side of America : the tender, sensitive, caring, cultured, quiet world of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Thoreau. He was the farthest away from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath – the great American classic that idealised the socialist society. Donald Trump stood only for one man: Donald Trump. America has never seen the likes of him ever before. And it is not likely to see another one soon. But he leaves behind a menacing legacy: he has sown the seeds of American fascism to grow in the declining years ahead.

America after Trump will trend towards more violence. It can be a dangerous place as seen by Trump’s behaviour of encouraging the mob to march down Pennsylvanian Avenue. Trumpism is the first manifestation of all the organised crudities of the red-necked White Supremacists which have deep roots in America.

The rise of Trumpism has been the triumph of Right-wing proto-fascists who have been struggling underground to capture power within the liberal framework of the great democratic laboratory of the world. It exploits of the political and social fears of this deep layer of American society.

The promise of making America Great has been a marketable euphemism to enthrone the power of the White Supremacists. The power Trumpism lies in this hidden agenda.

Trump is the personification of all the crudities of this sub-layer of the American political culture. He is the absolute opposite of Barack Obama, the refined, cultured, symbol of finesse that has given a shine to the best in the American political tradition.

The way he and his family conducted themselves in the White House was comparable to the aristocratic Kennedys who raised a new wave of hope to America and the world. After Obama the fall of America into the hands of Trump is like the fall of Adam into the disastrous temptations of the Snake in the Garden of Eden. Adam also fell when he became a Trump – “a pussy-grabbing” rake.

Is he an aberration? Yes and no. He is an aberration because he is the first of his kind. But America has the potential to produce many more Trumps. He must be considered as a pathfinder for the deep roots of American authoritarianism that has been lying untapped all these years.

He is the maverick who dared to come up from outside and take over the establishment giving respectability and acceptability to the hidden roots of American authoritarianism that was waiting for a leader. He has captured the minds of rural base and psychologically terrorized the American Right, including the elite in the Republican Party leaders.

Mick Romney and the late John Cain are two leading Republican who had the guts to challenge him. But the rest are hedging their bets. They are scared that with his political clout in the Republican base he could tip the scales in their electorates with his approval or disapproval at the next election.

He will still remain as a force — but a divisive force in the Right. Of course, there is a chance that he will be the first president of America to go to jail. The string of charges is so numerous that under the law of averages he is bound to be convicted on at least one of them, according to legal experts.

This will be his biggest nightmare. But the Right-wing of America will not let him die. His legacy that came from the embedded right-wing extremists will go underground and pose a serious threat to Joe Biden. He has the backing of the heavily armed Oath Keepers, Proud Boys who have vowed to fight if Trump loses. He has also dodged condemning the KKK, neo-Nazis, anti-semitic, anti-black, anti-feminist, anti-gay and the minorities who are favoured by the liberal left. They are his backbone.

He will survive in their hearts and minds and will mobilise their forces to bring him back in 2025, if they can. With his political clout in the base, he still could influence the outcome of Congress and Senate electoral results. So, even the Right-wing establishment will be in a dilemma not knowing how to handle him.

But hold on for a minute. I must add the latest news. The 5 a.m. news (Saturday morning) says that Twitter has chopped off Trump’s right hand. For the first time Twitter has permanently – I repeat permanently – suspended his account “due to risk of further incitement of violence.” This could paralyse – at least temporarily – Trump who claims that he has a following of 88 million twitters.

He has relied on it so much that he had dismissed the mainstream media as irrelevant. He called them the “fake news” and ridiculed them because he could dish out his narrative to his loyal followers through Twitter. Now he is faced with a communication problem. His success depended solely on manipulating the news.

Along with Twitter Facebook and Instagram he ran his own news programs. Now all three have cut him off. His lies gained currency mainly through Twitter. Furthermore, twittering has been his main job when he is not watching television, or playing golf. Now he is a loner, well and truly.

On top of this big blow comes the news that the Republicans are breaking ranks to attack him. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski has openly called for the resignation of the President. Lindsay Graham, one of his loyal followers, stood on the floor of the Senate, after the mob attack, and said : “It’s over. The election is over. It’s over.” If Sen. Graham thought the issue was over he was wrong. Trump’s angry loyalists mobbed him at the airport and shouted: ”Traitor! Traitor!”

The worst is the move from both sides of the House to impeach Trump. He has set another precedent of being the first President to be impeached twice. Evidence of the President inciting the mob to unleash violence too is mounting. Sen. Mike Lee has recorded that at 2.26 p.m. when the mob was running berserk Trump had asked him to object to the certification of the electoral votes.

Even at that critical moment he was obsessed with the overturning of the election result. Legal experts say that, in the middle of the biggest security threat to the Congress, he was not concerned as the Commander-in-Chief about the security and law and order of the nation but his own fortunes.

The task before Joe Biden is monumental. America is a patient dying at the new rate of 20,000 a week now. That is the latest figure for the first week of January. Trump, the Grim Reaper, is the first President who leaves behind a legacy of burying the second highest number of Americans since the Civil War which claimed 600,000 victims. Trump has passed 300,000 mark.

Mercifully, he has agreed to depart peacefully after desecrating the sacred political temple enshrined in the American Constitution – the Holy Bible that guides America.

The last gamble of Trump was to resort to violence. That backfired on him. Even the Republican ranks, who were lukewarm, were shocked by the physical threat that endangered their lives inside the Congress. Hopefully, he will depart without causing any havoc between now and Janaury 20 – the inauguration day.

Joe Biden has his job cut out for him. He has to heal, repair, patch up, bandage, operate, and keep America in a nursing home until she recovers fully. To do that, he may have to go for a New Deal of the Rooseveltian type. Hopefully he may not have the need to sack the Supreme Court which obstructed Roosevelt’s deal to serve the people.

Fortunately, Trump, with his swagger and bluster in the last rally in Georgia, removed the main political obstruction that was in Biden’s path when the Republicans lost the two Senate seats. Biden now has the presidency and both houses of Congress in his hands though the razor thin margin is still dicey.

In the post -Corvid-19 phase, the American mood will be amenable to accept Rooseveltian “socialism”. Lifting the victims of the pandemic and poverty will strike a chord in the heart of America. Law-makers from both sides of the Congress will find it difficult, morally and politically, to say no the urgent needs of victims of Trump.

Trump will continue to make the headlines. Biden will have to look after the breadlines.

Initially there won’t be much of an opposition from the Right-wing which is discredited. Their fear-mongering with cries of “communism” and “socialism” will not have the same impact as that of McCarthy – another lying Goebbels. The post-Corvid-19 phase needs compassion not fear. Biden is expected to walk in the footsteps of Obama, particularly in healthcare.

The pandemic has created the right political climate for restoring the Obama care program. Biden has all the tools necessary to lift America from the depths of Trumpist disasters. He can’t lose because he has no other path to follow other than the compassionate route to recovery.


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