Reluctant To Block Embarrassing Coronavirus Material Held On GitHub, China Targets The People Who Put It There
from the rewriting-history dept
Over the years, Techdirt has written many stories about the various forms that censorship has taken in China. The coronavirus pandemic has added an extra dimension to the situation. China is evidently trying to erase certain aspects of the disease’s history. In particular, it seeks to deny its likely role in acting as the breeding ground for COVID-19, and to downplay how it infected the rest of the world after the initial outbreak in Wuhan. As the New York Times put it: “China is trying to rewrite its role, leveraging its increasingly sophisticated global propaganda machine to cast itself as the munificent, responsible leader that triumphed where others have stumbled.” Quartz reports on a new front in this campaign to re-cast China’s actions. Volunteers in China working on a project called Terminus2049, which aims to preserve key digital records of the coronavirus outbreak, are now targets of a crackdown:
During the outbreak, the project shifted its focus to storing articles including a Chinese magazine’s interview (link in Chinese) with Wuhan doctor Ai Fen, who said she was the first to reveal the existence of the epidemic but who was later reprimanded. The article, first published in March, was taken down within hours of publication, spurring a race among internet users who used various creative ways, including coded language and emojis, to keep the article alive. Terminus2049 also preserved a strongly worded critique (link in Chinese) aimed at Chinese leader Xi Jinping penned by outspoken professor Xu Zhangrun. In the essay, Xu attacked Beijing’s social controls and censorship. He was later reportedly placed under house arrest and his account has been suspended on WeChat.
For obvious reasons, the Chinese authorities are not saying whether the actions taken against three of the volunteers are specifically because of the coronavirus material, but it certainly seems likely given the fate that has met other COVID-19 whistleblowers, critics and journalists. Terminus2049 is hosted on Microsoft’s GitHub, as were other similar projects that aimed to preserve coronavirus memories — including those that were critical of the Chinese government and its response to the outbreak. The reason GitHub is popular for this kind of non-coding material is that its importance as a resource for Chinese programmers has become so great that the authorities in the country have so far been unwilling to block access to it. Since they can’t remove the embarrassing posts, they target the people behind the projects, as the latest moves confirm. Unless activists can keep their identities hidden — something that is hard in a society where surveillance is pervasive — this kind of reprisal is an ever-present risk. As such, it is one of the most powerful weapons that the authorities can deploy in order to silence unwanted voices.