As people across China mourned the death of a whistleblower doctor in an almost unprecedented outpouring of grief and anger on Thursday, little did they know that another truth-teller of the coronavirus outbreak was being silenced, according to friends and family.
Chen Qiushi, a citizen journalist who had been doing critical reporting from Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the epicenter of the outbreak, went missing on Thursday evening, just as hundreds of thousands of people in China began demanding freedom of speech online.
Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan, died of the same virus he had tried to warn others about early on in the outbreak, which has now killed more than 800 people mostly in mainland China. Rather than being listened to, he was punished by the police for “spreading rumors,” and later contracted the virus from a patient.
Li’s passing ignited a storm of outrage across China, with an intensity and scope rarely seen in its tightly-controlled online sphere. People called for an official apology from the government and flooded social media with the hashtag “I want freedom of speech,” a fundamental right supposedly protected under the country’s constitution.
In an apparent refute of their demand, the hashtag was censored by the next morning.
And Chen, also aged 34 and from northeast China, like Li, remained missing.
Friends and family later found out from the police that he had been forced into quarantine. By Sunday, Chen’s disappearance had started to gain traction on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, with many pleading for his release.
“Hope the government can treat Chen Qiushi in a fair and just way,” one user wrote on Sunday morning. “We can no longer afford a second Li Wenliang!”
Chen arrived in Wuhan on January 24, a day after the city was placed under a state-imposed lockdown, designed to stop citizens from leaving to stem the spread of the virus. He visited overflowing hospitals, funeral parlors and makeshift isolation wards and uploaded videos of what he saw online, offering the world a glimpse into the often grim reality at the heart of the crisis.
Friends said they had been checking in with Chen multiple times a day, fearing he could be taken by the authorities at any time for his reporting. When he stopped answering calls early Thursday evening, they grew increasingly concerned.
In the small hours of Friday, Chen’s friend posted a video message of Chen’s mother on his Twitter page saying her son had disappeared. His close friends say Chen had left them his login details to the platform, in case he was taken by the authorities.
“I’m here to beg everyone online, especially friends in Wuhan to help find Qiushi, find out what’s going on with him,” she said.
Later that evening in a live broadcast on YouTube, Xu Xiaodong, an outspoken mixed martial artist and friend of Chen, played a message from the journalist’s mother saying he had been forcibly quarantined.
“In the last few hours the Qingdao public security officers and state security officers … notified Qiushi’s parents that Qiushi has already been detained in the name of quarantine. Qiushi’s mother immediately asked them where and when he was taken away, they declined to say,” said Xu.
Xu stressed that, based on his interactions with Chen and the testimony of those on the ground, Chen had been in good health prior to his disappearance.
Both the Wuhan and Qingdao city police said they had no information about Chen when contacted by agencies.