This was originally published in Chinese at this link on February 26.
Translated by Chris Connery.
The coronavirus is now spreading throughout the world. From the January 20 television interview with Zhong Nanshan, when human-to-human transmission was first confirmed, to most recently, there have been about 80,000 diagnoses in China, about 3000 of which are medical personnel. We have known for a long time that this is not simply a natural disaster. A long history of top-down control of public opinion has formed a regime that cares nothing for the citizens’ right to know, that has concealed the nature of the epidemic, that has admonished “whistle blowers”, and that has led to the quarantining of infected people unaware of their conditions. Medical personnel, who most needed protection, did not get it in time. This regime has contributed to an epidemic that has gotten out of control, with locked down cities, villages, and residential districts, a stagnant economy, and trapped existences for its people. The damages and losses from this epidemic are already incalculable. And all of this, it must be said, is not only a natural disaster; this is also a human disaster.
On February 21, the nation was rocked by startling news: in five prisons in three provinces, there were 505 confirmed diagnoses. Since the epidemic began, the central government had ordered that there was to be no concealment or falsification of reports. Nevertheless, this is a system that has long operated with minimal transparency, and no respect for the public’s right to know. These are not new conditions, but are deeply rooted in the system’s logic of control. What has come into clear view in this epidemic is really just a more spectacular manifestation of the long-term erosion of popular rights, as in the authorities’ treatment of “whistle-blowers” and rights advocates. This treatment has included censure, arrest, house arrest, and imprisonment. All of this is intrinsic to the judicial system, contributing to the tremendous mistrust that the people of Hong Kong have for China’s attempts to revise Hong Kong law, and a significant motivating force behind the popular movements since the middle of last year.
Rights Violations of the Three Editors of The New Generation
The press conference called recently by judicial bodies to admit their errors in the handling of the epidemic could be considered a measure of progress. But despite this one incident, we are all aware of the depth and duration of the system’s opacity. Since the second half of 2018, there has been a succession of arrests of workers’ welfare advocates, some of whom were put under house arrest for eight or nine months before being released. But the fate of the three editors of the new media platform The New Generation—Wei Zhili, Yang Zhengjun and Ke Chengbin—remains unknown. From the beginning of their investigation into workers’ rights advocates, the public security authorities committed outrageous violations of privacy. They not only knew the details of their daily lives, but they even knew in detail what they liked to snack on and what their bedtime reading was. This level of detail took a great psychological toll on those arrested. Those subject to six to nine months of house arrest were unable to see their parents, and one was able to see neither his pregnant wife nor his newborn child. The case handlers took a hard cop-soft cop approach; forcing the welfare workers to write, day and night, reams and reams of apologies. It was a period of psychological torture and abuse, a gross violation of basic human rights.
The law states that arrestees have the right to choose their own attorneys, but the authorities repeatedly infringed on this right, demanding that the arrestees get rid of the attorneys hired by their families and use specified attorneys instead. How this was accomplished we cannot know, but we can infer from common sense and experience whose interests the new lawyers represented, and to whom they were reporting. Although the three editors’ families were notified that their case was about to go to trial, their case has been put on hold due to the epidemic, and they remain detained without justification. What goes on at the detention center is unclear, as if in a black hole. Family members cannot visit, and the attorneys chosen by the authorities say nothing to families about the detainees’ conditions. Since the coronavirus epidemic has already spread into the penal system, we are of course very apprehensive over conditions in the detention centers, and over the health and other rights of prisoners held inside.
As incidents like these occurred time and again, opposition was muffled, and our cries of protest were silenced. Until the outbreak of the epidemic, most people weren’t aware of how easily the rights of ordinary people were so casually trampled on, or of how what had once seemed like violations of the rights of a small minority really affected the lives of the great majority of the people.
The author is Professor of Sociology at Hong Kong University