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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

Filed Under: china, covid-19, crackdown, digital records, free speech, transparency
Companies: github, microsoft


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2020 @ 4:52am

    Perhaps GitHub should block China.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    Godfree (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 5:26am

    We have met the enemy..

    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??

    It's not China that's trying to rewrite history, it's us. Here's the scoop: The virus, like its predecessors, Spanish Flu and H1N1, probably first showed up in the good 'ol USA.

    Covid's ancestry points to the USA, as a recent Cambridge University study attests: Phylogenetic network analysis of SARS-CoV-2 genomes. Peter Forster, Lucy Forster, Colin Renfrew, and View ORCID ProfileMichael Forster. PNAS first published April 8, 2020 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2004999117. Abstract: In a phylogenetic network analysis of 160 complete human severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2) genomes, we find three central variants distinguished by amino acid changes, which we have named A, B, and C, with A being the ancestral type according to the bat outgroup coronavirus. The A and C types are found in significant proportions outside East Asia, that is, in Europeans and Americans. In contrast, the B type is the most common type in East Asia, and its ancestral genome appears not to have spread outside East Asia without first mutating into derived B types, pointing to founder effects or immunological or environmental resistance against this type outside Asia.

    Anywhere BUT China, surprisingly. Researchers in France have carried out genetic analysis and found that the dominant types of the viral strains in the country did not come from China or Italy. The coronavirus outbreak in France was not caused by cases imported from China, but from a locally circulating strain of unknown origin, according to a new study by French scientists at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. Some prominent scientists, including <b>Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, said the virus might have been spreading quietly in humans for years, or even decades, without causing a detectable outbreak</b>. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3081959/coronavirus-outbreak-france-did-not-come-dir ectly-china-gene

    Anecdotally, on April 17 CNN host Chris Cuomo said he believes there will be revelations showing the novel coronavirus was spreading in the United States as early as October. “The kids now anecdotally, Cristina believes, that at least two of them have had it in the last few months. Why? We don’t know, but atypically long-duration sinus, fever, lethargy. <b>I think we’re going to learn that coronavirus has been in this country since, like, October, that there have been cases,” Cuomo said. “And as you guys both know, and I hear all the time from all over the country, how many people do you hear saying, ‘I think I had it, I had this and this, I lost my sense of smell and this and that, but I never got tested’? Those cases are, like, abounding all over the country</b>,” he added.https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/chris-cuomo-predicts-evidence-will-show-coronavirus-wa s-spreading-in-us-since-october.

    We're only midway through Act III. The fat lady hasn't sung yet.

    "Never lie to the Chinese...they always discover the truth in the end, anyway." Henry Kissinger, Nixon's China Game.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 30 Apr 2020 @ 2:53am

      Re: We have met the enemy..

      And right on cue our official PRC spokesman shows up with;

      "Really, SARS-CoV-2 is the product of a US bioweapons research facility. Nothing to do with the Glorious People's Republic under the Infallible And Benevolent Rule of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Xi, Son of Heaven. Long live!"

      And the "The Glorious People's Republic never covered anything up because they were as confused as anyone else about the apparent orphan virus coming from nowhere and certainly wasn't Chinese"

      Once again that's a swing and a miss.

      That wordwall of false assumptions and carefully spun implications might have earned you your normal 50-cent fare but if I were you I'd take it back to the drafter and tell him the western gwai lo still aren't swallowing the blatantly obvious propaganda.

      Hell, I'd say even Facebook would be tossing this sort of crap right back in your face with a laugh. You are at the point where China might be better off implying that covid was a bioweapon tested on your own citizenry which got out of hand, because that at least might make the PRC look dangerous rather than completely fscking incompetent.

      You dun goofed in the beginning of the outbreak and the one road left to you which preserves a smidgeon of face is going to be the road where you say "Yeah that was our bad...but believe us, we're working hard to make up for it now".

      Sadly that one road is also the one you left untravelled, settling for the five year old's excuse of "It wasn't me! I never did this! You're all being mean!". While covered in the evidence that Yes you did, Yes it was You, and no, we're just being factual.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Norahc (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 5:44am

    Maybe the Chinese government finally learned how to say, "Streisand Effect" in Chinese and figured out they are a lot more likely to have to deal with it by targeting GitHub instead of individuals.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 5:52am

    'We're amazing, just check our (heavily edited) history!'

    If the only way you can maintain the image you want is to lie about it and/or hide the things that show it to be false, well that pretty nicely shows just how utterly groundless and rotten your actual image is.

    If China wanted to be seen as the 'munificent, responsible leader that triumphed where others have stumbled' maybe it should have tried actually being that, rather than merely pretending and lying about it, as all they're really showing is that they are none of that and they are dishonest and willing to try to re-write history(not like that bit's any surprise mind).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 7:20am

    "If China wanted to be seen as the 'munificent, responsible leader that triumphed where others have stumbled' maybe it should have tried actually being that..."

    That, right there, is the problem though. In China "face" is a thing. So big a thing, in fact, that when everyone in the world knows exactly where they dun goofed they still waste thousands of hours of manpower in an attempt to rewrite history already read by everyone else.

    They do this every time. Rather than acknowledge that their public image now has a scratch they complete the utter demolition of their international credibility by forcefully pushing out propaganda which makes them look like a five-year old pouting bully throwing a temper tantrum and hoping that screaming "I Didn't!!" long enough and loud enough will eventually restore their outside face.

    Instead it makes them look utterly and completely pathetic. It's as if having four thousand years worth of history only made them go straight back into childhood.

    Their response to Tibetans openly questioning the government? Thuggery and police brutality.
    Uighurs claiming they're turks rather than chinese? Institute a program of ethnic cleansing in the name of "re-education".

    They dun goofed trying to contain a pandemic? Have a thousand trolls, online and in the media, pushing laughable fairy tales in the hope the westerners will take the hint and pretend they never saw anything, in the hope of good relations.

    Problem is that you can never have "good relations" with a spiteful child who keeps lying compulsively.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Improbus (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 7:40am

      Re: Scary Devil Monastery

      So, basically, China is Donald Trump in nation state form. That makes sense.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        R.H. (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 4:53pm

        Re: Re: Scary Devil Monastery

        Unfortunately, China is actually good at what it does.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 30 Apr 2020 @ 3:08am

          Re: Re: Re: Scary Devil Monastery

          "Unfortunately, China is actually good at what it does."

          Normally, yes. You can assume that China appears to be in most parts flawless in it's outside face, with every possible flaw carefully hidden, smoothed over, and in many places, fixed - because that was easier to do.

          Problem is they still try - desperately - to run the same machinery and process they apply to minor items to large ones as well. The result of which becomes as ridiculous as trying to use the same makeup kit you'd use to look a bit better on TV to paste over a toxic, smoking landfill.

          And then compound the error by having someone standing around commenting on how that landfills lips are "fresh and glossy".

          And of course the chinese speech writers know how this must come off but it's their job - and possibly their freedom - to never say a single word which indicates a given situation might just be a bit too big to fix.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 30 Apr 2020 @ 3:03am

        Re: Re: Scary Devil Monastery

        "So, basically, China is Donald Trump in nation state form. That makes sense."

        And has been for thousands of years, which is the time span during which it has been understood that the emperor and his administration must never be seen to be fallible.

        In China it's more or less taken for granted that the one thing which will plummet the nation as a whole into chaos is when the citizenry doubts the government. Thus for millennia the dissident has been that one enemy the empire of Qin could never tolerate and will go to hysterically disproportionate measure to suppress.

        And consider that in the background of that even a successful mongol invasion was simply absorbed and adapted to until the descendants of the Khans became merely another chinese dynasty.

        Suppressing divisive thought has been a staple of chinese government methodology through all incarnations of that nation and that's why they'll rather take a chance of pitching a laughably obvious and self-destructive attempt at explaining away the egg on their face rather than shrug it off with a "My Bad".

        An the rationality behind it is much like Trump. Any other president could stand up and say "Yeah, that wasn't too smart of me, I'll do better" and skyrocket in the polls for Being the Bigger Man.
        But Trump literally can't imagine ever coming off as being wrong. As a result of which rather than fix his bad handling of Covid-19 he's started using distractions. Much like China.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2020 @ 8:41am

    greed is the virus
    fear is the key
    control is the objective

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2020 @ 12:57pm

    correct if i'm wrong but i seem to remember just a few days ago watching the Chinese Ambassador to the USA (i think) saying how open and upfront China had been with what they learned about Corvid 19 as they learned it. funny how he never mentioned how the information was totally suppressed and how the Drs involved were threatened and punished for trying to tell about what they had discovered at that time about the virus! couldn't understand why he didn't mention that AT ALL!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2020 @ 2:44pm

    I still really need help with what's happening if some bad cyber stuff could be avoided.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 29 Apr 2020 @ 3:35pm

    When have repressive governments not resorted to shooting the messenger? ...well, actually, there's hardly ever been any government that didn't shoot the messenger--it's only been a matter of frequency.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 29 Apr 2020 @ 4:11pm

    Human Rights Records Compared

    With all their attempts to hush up the initial news of the virus, and then of their attempts to hush up those attempts, it’s worth pointing out that nobody in China ever seems to have considered a “herd immunity” aka “let them die” plan, as has been suggested by so many in the USA and elsewhere. And which seems to be in practice in Brazil, not to mention certain US states.

    Who has more regard for the sanctity of human life, do you think?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      R.H. (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 4:58pm

      Re: Human Rights Records Compared

      I think those areas are, as far as COVID-19 is concerned, roughly equally bad. Although, I think that most of the western governments that considered the Herd Immunity plan were ignorant rather than evil (see the UK's turn-around on this once they saw the numbers).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Godfree (profile), 30 Apr 2020 @ 8:52pm

    Thank God!

    Thank God we don't do stuff like that....erm,

    Censorship Continues. Facebook Permanently Deleted SouthFront’s Page

    SouthFront TV 30.04.2020 -

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 30 Apr 2020 @ 11:57pm

      Re: Thank God!

      "we" Godfree?

      A private company booting an organization it does not like is not even in the same ballpark as your government overlords arresting people for posting important information about your government's failures.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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