Joshua Left, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who runs a self-driving car startup in Wuhan, China, arrived in San Francisco in mid-January for a vacation, just as the first reports of a new “SARS-like” virus outbreak in China reached the U.S.
He almost immediately began worrying about his family back in his hometown of Wuhan, where the disease appeared to originate, and where panic was starting to set in. Concerned that his family might not be getting information on the scale of the burgeoning epidemic, he posted messages on his WeChat account sharing information he was afraid were not available inside China.
“But then things started to get weird,” he told VICE News.
Left, who asked not to be identified by his full Chinese name, said he first received a warning message from WeChat administrators. Then he began receiving strangely specific messages that appeared to come from four of his friends on WeChat, all asking him for his location, what hotel he was staying at in San Francisco, what his room number was, and what his U.S. phone number was.
Then his cell phone received a warning message that someone in Shanghai was trying to log into his account.
Finally, when he wouldn’t tell them where he was staying, the same accounts all simultaneously began urging him to return to China as soon as possible.
Left told VICE News the he believes his friends only sent the messages after they were coerced by agents from the Ministry of State Security in an attempt to get him to reveal his location, and part of a much wider effort by the Chinese government to crack down on any dissenting voices who are sharing content related to the coronavirus outbreak.
As China ramps up efforts to control the narrative around the coronavirus outbreak, it is also expanding its efforts to leverage online platforms to track down people who dare to speak out. From tracking down Twitter users using their mobile numbers to hacking WeChat accounts to find out someone's location, Beijing is eager to stop any negative news from being shared online — and is will to use intimidation, arrests and threats of legal action.
Left is now in fear of his life and in hiding in California, unable to return to China because he fears he will be arrested.
He reported the incident to the San Francisco Police Department and the FBI but has heard nothing from either since. The SFPD confirmed to VICE News that it had received the report from Left, who claimed that the Chinese government was “oppressing its citizens” and was targeting him because he was a “vocal opponent of the government.”
Left told VICE News that he had been previously questioned over his activities by national security agents while he was a university student in Wuhan but had never been arrested.
Tencent, the company that operates WeChat, did not respond to questions about the incident. As a Chinese company, Tencent is under strict requirements to share information about users with the government, even though its shares are traded on the New York Stock exchange and it has a fast-growing number of users in the United States and other international markets.
The Ministry of State Security did not respond to a request for comment.
But it’s not just Chinese-owned platforms that Beijing is using to track down dissenting voices.
On January 20, Jiang Ming, a resident of Dongguan city in China’s Pearl River Delta, responded to this tweet criticizing the Chinese government’s delayed response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Ming’s seemingly innocuous response — which has now been deleted — roughly translates as “the responsibility for destroying tyranny, who dares?”
Twitter is banned inside China, but Ming used a virtual private network (VPN) to access the service, just like many other Chinese citizens.
A few days after Ming posted his tweet, he received a phone call from the Ministry of State Security, asking to meet. Ming asked for a legal summons and the agency said they could not provide that over the phone, so he refused.
But days later, agents knocked on his front door of his home in Dongguan, a city of over 8 million people close to Hong Kong.
The agents presented a screenshot of his tweet, telling him that “the content attacks the Communist Party of China.”
The agents told Ming they found his details from the phone number connected to his Twitter account, which is in turn linked to his identity in a government database.
That database contained an outdated address for Ming, but the agents were finally able to track him down by calling members of his family for a current address.
Twitter said it would not comment on specific accounts, but a source at the company categorically denied that it had shared the phone number or any other account details with the ministry, pointing out that the Chinese government “own the telco providers and have full access to that traffic.”
Ming was detained and during his interrogation Ming was told that the phrase "灭霸" (which roughly translates as “exterminating or abolishing tyrant”) was what triggered the investigation, as it implicitly attacks the country's leaders.
Ming had his cell phone confiscated for evidence collection but he had a second phone which he used to secretly take pictures of the “promise note” he was forced to sign saying he would not repeat the “threat” he had made.
VICE News has reviewed the pictures taken by Ming.
China’s was widely criticized for its delayed reaction to the coronavirus outbreak and its censorship apparatus was equally behind the curve when it came to stamping out negative comments online.
"What we did see in general with this outbreak was a brief period inside China when the censorship wasn't as strict and there was more muckraking journalism going on," Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) who studies Chinese social media told VICE News.
This failure to crack down on negative content may have been caused by the censors were not at their posts, as the timing coincided with the massive migration of people back to their hometowns for the lunar new year festival.
But Ryan says the less strict approach could have been taken on purpose, as it may have been in Beijing's interests to allow more content get through so they could gather more information about the scale of the outbreak.
“This is not a typical or common censorship scenario for the Party”
“This is not a typical or common censorship scenario for the Party,” one of the co-founders of GreatFire.org, an organization that tracks China’s online censorship, told VICE News, using the pseudonym Charlie Smith.
“They do recognize the need to share information that would help stop the spread of the coronavirus, but so many people are upset at how the spread of the virus is being handled that the authorities are struggling to figure out what should be censored and what should not.”
However, following President Xi Jinping’s first public comments about the crisis, on Jan. 20, the efforts to clamp down on those who criticized the regime or who negatively aspects of the outbreak, ramped up significantly.
Along with the efforts to track down Left, Ming was told that 10 others had been arrested for sharing content related to the coronavirus outbreak in the week he was interrogated.
The timing of these arrests are representative of Beijing’s censorship efforts, and Smith saw this change in approach reflected in the number of visitors to a browser the group has created that shows Chinese citizens news reports that are otherwise censored inside the country.
“Up until January 24 we recorded between 18,000 and 29,000 clicks on the stories that appear on our start page,” Smith said. “But on January 25 that went up to 50,000 and has stayed pretty consistent since.”
The spike in traffic reflects a growing desire to find information that is censored inside China. Just like Ming, many citizens use VPNs to try and access this information but in the last couple of weeks, the government has begun to crack down on these services too.
The government is also erasing online protests following the death of a whistleblower doctor who tried to warn the world about the outbreak in late December. It is leveraging the popularity of WeChat to silence people outside of China who are attempting to share information with those in the country.
And just this week in Xiantao, a city of around 1.6 million people, the health commission published directives to health workers and government officials that outlawed everything from mentioning the outbreak in group chats to retweeting anything other than the official line, and giving interviews without permission.
“After that brief period in late January there was a constriction of the system of the censorship apparatus and an uptick in efforts to pump out propaganda that is painting a more rosier picture of what the government is doing to try and deal with the outbreak — that's where we are now, back into a very restrictive system,” Ryan said.
(Cover: Illustration by Hunter French/VICENews)