The missing number behind China's coronavirus crisis

  • Video report by ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward

There’s one figure not being included in the daily coronavirus updates in China, the number of disappeared; the activists, professors, lawyers and regular citizens who have been detained by police.

Some under the pretence of quarantine.

One of the most prominent disappearances has been that of Chen Qiushi.

The lawyer and citizen journalist travelled to Wuhan to report from the epicentre of the virus outbreak. For two weeks from the end of January he posted videos online and live streamed interviews with those affected by what he called a tragedy unfolding before his eyes.

On February 6, he disappeared.

His parents were told he’d been placed in quarantine, but they haven’t seen or heard from him since and his mother even posted an online appeal for information, knowing he’s been detained by the authorities.

President Xi has been mostly out of public view during the outbreak.

Next came Fang Bin, a Wuhan resident, who became well known after a video clip he took showing several bodies being taken away from a hospital in the city and the moment a man died on a ward inside.

After that video went viral, he filmed the first time police came to his door but he didn’t let them in. He continued to criticise the Communist Party in online videos, but on February 10, he was taken away.

It is particularly worrying when even regular citizens voicing online opinions can suddenly disappear in the midst of a national crisis. Others who have been similarly silenced are mostly outspoken dissents or professors.

Officers arrived at the door of Guo Quan, a human rights activist based in Nanjing after he made comments in a WeChat group criticising what he said was a coronavirus "cover-up" by the Communist Party.

Chinese state media has been full of images of devoted citizens working against the outbreak.

Next Zhu Xinxin, a dissident writer in Hubei province, was given a ten-day administrative detention for online comments he made condemning the governments’ handling of the outbreak.

Beijing law professor Xu Zhangrun was initially reported missing, but was later confirmed to be under house arrest after he published a scathing essay attacking on the government.

Titled "Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear" he condemned China's "authoritarian" system of control and strict censorship in the country. He blamed the political system for hampering efforts to contain the virus when it was first detected in late 2019. He had also signed a letter calling for freedom of speech.

On February 15, the activist Xu Zhiyong was detained by police in Guangdong province. He had published blog on February 4 in which he called for President Xi Jinping to step down and criticized his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

In a later blog, his last blog before he was detained, Xu grieved the death of whistleblower doctor, Li Wenliang.

Chen Qiushi went missing after filming a video exposing the outbreak in China.

Hours after he was taken away, his girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, a Beijing-based women’s and labour rights activist, also went missing.

Two people who have spoken to ITV News during this outbreak to voice their concerns were subsequently warned by police not to talk to the media.

China is facing a huge challenge to contain and control the coronavirus.

It is also facing a great deal of public blame for its failure to act sooner. The government is now going to the extreme to tackle this outbreak, with more than half a billion people under some form of lockdown and tens of thousands of medics and military personnel mobilised and sent to Hubei province.

It hopes this unprecedented response will win back the trust of its people.

But in the meantime, voices of dissent, as well as the virus, must be contained.