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, propelled 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. Chen’s friends and family said they believed he had been forcibly quarantined.
Before their disappearances, Fang and Chen had recorded dozens of videos from Wuhan, streaming unfiltered and often heartbreaking images from the center of the outbreak. Long lines outside hospitals. Feeble patients. Agonized relatives.
The footage would have been striking anywhere. But it was especially so coming from inside China, where even mild criticism of authorities is quickly scrubbed from the online record, and those responsible for it are often punished.
The appetite for the videos reflects, in part, the shortage of independent news sources in China, where professional newspapers are tightly controlled by the authorities. Earlier this month, the state propaganda department deployed hundreds of journalists to reshape the narrative of the outbreak.
But the videos also reflected the growing call for free speech in China as the coronavirus crisis has prompted criticism and introspection from unexpected corners across the country.
Several professional news organizations have produced incisive reports on the outbreak. A revolt against government censorship broke out on Chinese social media last week after the death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who had tried to warn of the virus before officials had acknowledged an outbreak.
Fang’s and Chen’s videos were another manifestation of the dissatisfaction among ordinary Chinese citizens.
“When suddenly there’s a crisis, they want to have access to a wider array of content and reporting,” said Sarah Cook, who studies Chinese media at Freedom House, a pro-democracy research group based in the U.S.
The disappearance of the two men also 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 Xi’s steady hand and framed the fight against the outbreak as a form of patriotism.
More than 350 people across China have been punished for “spreading rumors” about the outbreak, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group.
Chen, a fast-talking, fresh-faced lawyer from eastern China, was already well-known online before the outbreak. When the coronavirus led officials to seal off Wuhan last month, he raced there, citing his duty as a self-declared citizen journalist.
Fang, in one of his last videos, thanked his viewers, who he said had been calling him nonstop to send support.
“A person, just an ordinary person, a silly person,” he said of himself, “who lifted the lid for a second.”