Under Cover of Coronavirus Chaos, Chinese Communists Arrest Hong Kong Defender of Free Speech

(p. A12) HONG KONG — A Hong Kong media tycoon known for his ardent opposition to China was arrested on Friday [Feb. 28, 2020] over his role in a pro-democracy protest last year, the police said, dealing another blow to the city’s independent media.

The tycoon, Jimmy Lai, a rare figure among Hong Kong’s elite for his willingness to take on Beijing, owns Next Media Group, which publishes a popular pro-democracy newspaper and website called Apple Daily. His arrest comes as the city has been dealing with the twin shocks of the protest movement and now the coronavirus outbreak.

His singular status as a prominent businessman in Hong Kong who openly supports the democracy movement and antigovernment protests has made him a frequent target of Beijing-backed elements.

. . .

The arrests were made the same week as a court in China sentenced a Hong Kong bookseller, Gui Minhai, to 10 years in prison. Mr. Gui sold gossipy books about China’s leaders and disappeared mysteriously in Thailand in 2015 and later emerged as a target of China’s effort to quell dissent.

For the full story, see:

Elaine Yu. “Media Baron Is Arrested Over Protests In Hong Kong.” The New York Times (Saturday, February 29, 2020): A12.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 28, 2020, and has the title “Jimmy Lai, Hong Kong Media Baron, Is Arrested Over Role in Protests.”)

Chinese Communist “Tradition” of Local Officials Lying to Please Beijing Central Planners

(p. A27) There is a tradition in China (and likely much of the world) for local authorities not to report bad news to their superiors. During the Great Leap Forward, local officials reported exaggerated harvest yields even as millions were starving. More recently, officials in Henan Province denied there was an epidemic of AIDS spread through unsanitary blood collection practices.

For the full commentary, see:

Elisabeth Rosenthal. “Why Is Data on Coronavirus So Limited?” The New York Times (Saturday, February 29, 2020): A27.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 28, 2020, and has the title “Sanders Is Stirring Cold War Angst. Young Voters Say, So What?.”)

“You Think I’m Scared of You, Communist Party?”

(p. A11) HONG KONG — The beige van squatted outside of a Wuhan hospital, its side and back doors ajar. Fang Bin, a local clothing salesman, peered inside as he walked past. He groaned: “So many dead.” He counted five, six, seven, eight body bags. “This is too many.”

That moment, in a 40-minute video about the coronavirus outbreak that has devastated China, propelled Mr. Fang to internet fame. Then, less than two weeks later, he disappeared.

Days earlier, another prominent video blogger in Wuhan, Chen Qiushi, had also gone missing.

. . .

The disappearance of the two men . . . underscores that the ruling Communist Party has no intention of loosening its grip on free speech.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, said last month that officials needed to “strengthen the guidance of public opinion.” While Chinese social media has overflowed with fear and grief, state propaganda outlets have emphasized Mr. Xi’s steady hand, framed the fight against the outbreak as a form of patriotism and shared upbeat videos of medical workers dancing.

. . .

As time went on, Mr. Chen, usually energetic, began to show strain. “I am scared,” he said on Jan. 30 [2020]. “In front of me is the virus. Behind me is China’s legal and administrative power.”

The authorities had contacted his parents to ask for his whereabouts, he said. He teared up suddenly. Then, his finger pointing at the camera, he blurted: “I’m not even scared of death. You think I’m scared of you, Communist Party?”

For the full story, see:

Vivian Wang. “2 Video Bloggers, Posting Virus Reports, Go Missing.” The New York Times (Saturday, February 15, 2020): A11.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. 21 [sic], 2020, and has the title “They Documented the Coronavirus Crisis in Wuhan. Then They Vanished.”)

Communists Punished Dr. Li Wenliang For Speaking Truth on Coronavirus

Doctor Li Wenliang. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) The Chinese public has staged what amounts to an online revolt after the death of a doctor, Li Wenliang, who tried to warn of a mysterious virus that has since killed hundreds of people in China, infected tens of thousands and forced the government to corral many of the country’s 1.4 billion people.

. . .

For many people in China, the doctor’s death shook loose pent-up anger and frustration at how the government mishandled the situation by not sharing information earlier and by silencing whistle-blowers. It also seemed, to those online, that the government hadn’t learned lessons from previous crises, continuing to quash online criticism and investigative reports that provide vital information.

Some users of Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, are saying the doctor’s death resonated because he was an ordinary person who was forced to admit to wrongdoing for doing the right thing.

Dr. Li was reprimanded by the police after he shared concerns about the virus in a social messaging app with medical school classmates on Dec. 30 [2019].

Three days later, the police compelled him to sign a statement that his warning constituted “illegal behavior.”

The doctor eventually went public with his experiences and gave interviews to help the public better understand the unfolding epidemic. (The New York Times interviewed Dr. Li days before his death.)

“He didn’t want to become a hero, but for those of us in 2020, he had reached the upper limit of what we can imagine a hero would do,” one Weibo post read. The post is one of many that users say they wrote out of shame and guilt for not standing up to an authoritarian government, as Dr. Li did.

. . .

The grief was so widespread that it appeared in unlikely corners.

“Refusing to listen to your ‘whistling,’ your country has stopped ticking, and your heart has stopped beating,” Hong Bing, the Shanghai bureau chief of the Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, wrote on her timeline on WeChat, an instant-messaging platform. “How big a price do we have to pay to make you and your whistling sound louder, to reach every corner of the East?”

Both the Chinese- and English-language Twitter accounts of People’s Daily tweeted that Dr. Li’s death had prompted “national grief.” Both accounts deleted those messages before replacing them with more neutral, official-sounding posts.

. . .

Wang Gaofei, the chief executive of Weibo, which carries out many of the orders passed down from China’s censors, pondered what lessons China should learn from Dr. Li’s death.

“We should be more tolerant of people who post ‘untruthful information’ that aren’t malicious,” he said in a post. “If we’re only allowed to speak what we can guarantee is fact, we’re going to pay prices.”

. . .

“R.I.P. our hero,” Fan Bao, a prominent tech investor, posted on his WeChat timeline.

. . .

The hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech# was created on Weibo at 2 a.m. on Friday [February 7, 2020] and had over two million views and over 5,500 posts by 7 a.m. It was deleted by censors, along with related topics, such as ones saying the Wuhan government owed Dr. Li an apology.

“I love my country deeply,” read one post under that topic. “But I don’t like the current system and the ruling style of my country. It covered my eyes, my ears and my mouth.”

The writer of the post complained about not being able to gain access to the internet beyond the Great Firewall. “I’ve been holding back for a long time. I feel we’ve all been holding back for a long time. It erupted today.”

Talking about freedom of speech on the Chinese internet is taboo, even though it’s written into the Constitution. So it’s a small miracle that the freedom of speech hashtag survived for over five hours.

The country’s high-powered executives have been less blunt, but have echoed the same sentiments online.

“It’s time to reflect on the deeply rooted, stability-trumps-everything thinking that’s hurt everyone,” Wang Ran, chairman of the investment bank CEC Capital, wrote on Weibo. “We all want stability,” he asked. “Will you be more stable if you cover the others’ mouths while walking on a tightrope?

For the full story, see:

Li Yuan. “Online Revolt in China As a Doctor Is Lionized.” The New York Times (Saturday, February 8, 2020): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed dates, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 7, 2020, and has the title “Widespread Outcry in China Over Death of Coronavirus Doctor.”)

Chinese Communist Officials Rewarded for Loyalty, Not for Competence or Boldness

(p. A1) The Chinese people are getting a rare glimpse of how China’s giant, opaque bureaucratic system works — or, rather, how it fails to work. Too many of its officials have become political apparatchiks, fearful of making decisions that anger their superiors and too removed and haughty when dealing with the public to admit mistakes and learn from them.

“The most important issue this outbreak exposed is the local government’s lack of action and fear of action,” said Xu Kaizhen, a best-selling author who is famous for his novels that explore the intricate workings of China’s bureaucratic politics.

“Under the high-pressure environment of an anticorruption campaign, most people, including senior government officials, only care about self-preservation,” Mr. Xu said. “They don’t want to be the first to speak up. They wait for their superiors to make decisions and are only accountable to their superiors instead of the people.”

The Chinese government appears to be aware of the problem. The Communist Party’s top leadership acknowledged in a meeting on Monday [February 3, 2020] that the (p. A9) epidemic was “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.”

. . .

Chinese officials are spending as much as one-third of their time on political studying sessions, a lot of which are about Mr. Xi’s speeches. Political loyalty weighs much more in performance evaluations than before. Now the rule of thumb in Chinese officialdom seems to be demonstrating loyalty as explicitly as possible, keeping everything else vague and evading responsibility at all costs when things go wrong.

. . .

On social media, low-level cadres are complaining that they are receiving so many instructions from the higher-ups that they spend most of their time filling out spreadsheets instead of getting real work done. In a social media post headlined “The Formalism Under the Mask,” the author wrote, “Most people in the system don’t do things to solve problems. They do things to solve responsibilities.”

For the full story, see:

Li Yuan. “In China, Virus Spurred Rush of Blame Shifting.” The New York Times (Wednesday, February 5, 2020): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. 14 [sic], 2020, and has the title “Coronavirus Crisis Shows China’s Governance Failure.”)

“Senior Communist Party Leaders” Call Coronavirus “a Major Test of China’s System and Capacity for Governance”

(p. A1) Mr. Xi presided over a meeting of senior Communist Party leaders at which they acknowledged shortcomings in policies on public health and emergency management, according to a report by China’s official news agency. The leaders called the coronavirus epidemic “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.”

Xinhua quoted Mr. Xi as saying that officials who resist orders and “lack boldness” could be punished– . . .

For the full story, see:

Sui-Lee Wee. “China Foresees ‘Test’ as World Shuts Its Doors.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 4, 2020): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 3, 2020, and has the title “Beijing Sees ‘Major Test’ as Doors to China Close and Coronavirus Deaths Surpass SARS.”)

Cities Suspend Recycling as Costs Rise and Benefits Fall

(p. A1) For decades, America and much of the developed world threw their used plastic bottles, soda cans and junk mail in one bin. The trash industry then shipped much of that thousands of miles to China, the world’s biggest consumer of scrap material, to be sorted and turned into new products.

That changed last year when China banned imports of mixed paper and plastic and heavily restricted other scrap.

. . .

The moves have caused a seismic shift in how the world deals with its waste. Long used to shipping off trash to poorer countries to sort and process, nations are now faced with the question of what recycling is worth to them.

. . .

(p. A11) For some towns, the finances don’t work. Waste collectors in Deltona, Fla., got just $5 a ton for mixed paper last year, compared with $120 a ton in 2017, while processing costs stayed flat at $80 a ton. “With the current state of the recycling market, there is little if any market for the processed collected recyclable materials,” City Manager Jane Shang said in January [2019]. The next month, Deltona suspended its recycling program.

For the full commentary, see:

Saabira Chaudhuri. “World Faces Trash Glut After China Ban.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, December 20, 2019): A1 & A11.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 19, 2019, and has the title “Recycling Rethink: What to Do With Trash Now That China Won’t Take It.” Where there is a slight difference in wording in the sentences quoted above, the online version is followed.)