A citizen journalist who had been reporting from the centre of the coronavirus outbreak has gone missing, prompting claims that the Chinese authorities are silencing another whistleblower.
Chen Qiushi, a human rights advocate, has been missing since Thursday – the same day Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist who was punished by authorities for trying to warn colleagues and friends about a new Sars-like virus, was first reported to have died from the coronavirus.
Chen went to visit a hospital on Thursday and friends and family have not been able to reach him since Thursday evening. According to Chen’s mother, he has been forcibly quarantined.
“I am Chen Qiushi’s mother. Please, online friends and especially those in Wuhan, please help me and find Chen Qiushi and find out what happened to him,” she said in a video posted on Chen’s Twitter page.
Chen’s disappearance comes as the Chinese government struggles to contain public anger over its handling of the virus. That public anger has reached a new level in the wake of Li’s death.
Chen, who has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter and more than 400,000 subscribers to his Youtube channel, had been posting regular updates from Wuhan, where he visited hospitals and spoke to patients and doctors. Like Li, he is seen by the public as a regular citizen trying to help others.
Internet users rallying for Chen accused the government of trying to muzzle citizens attempting to tell the public the true conditions on the ground in Wuhan. Many of the comments about Chen appear to have been wiped from Weibo.
“Chen Qiushi cannot become another Li Wenliang! China must let people speak out,” one internet user wrote on Weibo. “There are no superheroes in this world, just regular people who stand up,” another said.
“Kill me and ten thousand other versions of me will come out,” another said, quoting a line from a film by the Hong Kong director Stephen Chow. “Do not sing for the powerful but for the public,” several other commentators said, quoting a Taiwanese author.
A friend of Chen’s, who has been updating his Twitter page to draw attention to his disappearance, asked not to be named. The friend said: “I am worried about his personal safety and I’m also worried about his health.”
Chen, who was previously detained for posting videos from the protests in Hong Kong, had been reporting from the front lines of the virus, in hospitals and on the streets of Wuhan since 23 January.
In his videos, he appeared to only have basic protection of goggles and a face mask, unlike reporters from the state media networks who were dressed in full hazmat suits, he noted in one video.
In a video posted on 30 January, Chen described visiting hospitals full of sick patients, most of them on oxygen tanks and many of them laying in the corridor. The video includes footage of a woman with her arm wrapped around a recently deceased man in a wheelchair as she tries to call someone to take him away.
“I am afraid. In front of me is disease. Behind me is China’s legal and administrative power. But as long as I am alive I will speak about what I have seen and what I have heard. I am not afraid of dying. Why should I be afraid of you, Communist Party?”