With a miniature camera in his mouth, Siyuan Zhuji filmed as a health worker in a hazmat suit poked a cotton swab down his throat daily for forty days, a commentary on the mandatory COVID tests that were a hallmark of China’s draconian zero-COVID policy. In another provocative work, he took more than a dozen medical needles in his arm—a jab at China’s hardline pandemic measures months before the government reversed its absolutist approach to the virus earlier this year.
“He could have just taped the needles to his arm, but he didn’t. He chose to show the pain the needles inflicted on people,” a recent graduate in China who followed Siyuan Zhuji’s work told VICE World News, speaking anonymously for fear of government reprisal.For many of his followers, Siyuan Zhuji has aptly captured the struggles of life in China during the pandemic through his artwork. But for the 34-year-old multi-disciplinary artist, it has come at a heavy cost. Human rights advocates are calling attention to the artist, who went missing in October shortly after he was interviewed by international outlets for his creative videos that captured the excesses of China’s draconian zero-COVID policy.“[It] appears to be another example of the Chinese government’s campaign to intimidate and eradicate activists through forced disappearance. We are monitoring the situation closely,” Julie Trébault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection at PEN America, said in a statement this week. Zhou Fengsuo, a veteran human rights activist now based in the U.S., said there is no doubt his disappearance is related to his artwork because it touched a sore spot of the Chinese government. “Few Chinese residents dared to speak out and push back against China’s pandemic controls, but he used his unique language to confront reality and exposed their absurdity. That is something the state doesn’t tolerate,” Zhou told VICE World News.
Some of his works have been censored from Chinese social media. One clip, titled “I Want to Breathe,” featured a pair of pumping lungs inside a cage, set against the sounds of someone having an asthma attack. Released in April while Shanghai was under a grueling citywide lockdown, it was removed from WeChat for violating unspecified guidelines.In another work, Siyuan Zhuji kept blowing a whistle for 24 minutes until he was out of breath. It paid homage to Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who first raised the alarm about a deadly virus in Wuhan in 2020 and himself died from COVID-19 weeks later. “May we all maintain our ability to blow the whistle and the right to voice different opinions, and that one day, we can freely express them in Chinese,” he wrote.Speaking to Reuters at his studio in the Chinese eastern city of Nanjing in September, the 34-year-old pledged to continue shooting these videos until the pandemic ended. “If I die before the end, then I will keep shooting until I die,” he said.In mid-October, days after he was featured in Reuters and BBC’s Chinese-language news service, he stopped updating his social media accounts, including his Instagram page. A friend told Radio Free Asia they could not locate or contact him since October and police have refused to provide information on the basis they’re not family members. Another friend told VICE World News she texted him in January, but has not heard back from him, which she considered unusual. She learnt through mutual acquaintances that he’s in trouble, but is unaware of the details. The Nanjing Public Security Bureau did not respond to a request for comment. While the artist has been missing since October, his disappearance didn’t come to light until December, when a crackdown on historic protests against stringent COVID measures renewed attention on people who faced retaliation for criticizing government policies. A Beijing resident, for instance, was detained by authorities from August to December for painting graffiti on COVID test booths that said, “Three years already. I have grown numb.” Follow Rachel Cheung on Twitter and Instagram.