Coronavirus: 3 whistleblowers remain missing after exposing Wuhan outbreak’s true scale
The whereabouts of Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua have been a mystery since February, and Chinese officials have not publicly commented on them.
As China’s central city of Wuhan – where the novel coronavirus originated – has raised the death toll from the virus by 50 per cent – from 1,209 to 3,869 -- three whistleblowers who tried to inform the world about the true scale of the outbreak in the city are still missing two months after vanishing from the public sight.
The whereabouts of Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua have been a mystery since February, and Chinese officials have not publicly commented on them. These three citizen journalists had sought to expose the true scale of the outbreak by uploading videos to YouTube and Twitter -- both banned in mainland China.
All of their dispatches revealed a grim side of Wuhan unseen on state-run Chinese media outlets.
US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, on Wednesday heaped further criticism on China over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, questioning the accuracy of its official death toll. He said he was looking into an unverified theory that the infection originated in a Chinese laboratory.
"Do you really believe those numbers in this vast country called China. … Does anybody really believe that?" Trump said when asked at the White House daily news briefing why the US has the highest numbers of official coronavirus deaths and cases in the world.
"Some countries are in big, big trouble and they're not reporting the facts — and that's up to them," he said.
Chen, 34, has not been heard from since February 6. He arrived in Wuhan just before the city went into lockdown in hopes of providing the world with the truth of the epidemic, as he said himself.
His reports detailed horrific scenes including a woman frantically calling family on her phone as she sits next to a relative lying dead in a wheelchair and the helpless situation of patients in the overstretched hospitals.
His disappearance was revealed by a post on his Twitter account, which has been managed by a friend authorised to speak on his behalf. His mother has posted a video calling for his safe return.
The latest post on his Twitter, posted on Wednesday, read: “Who can tell us where and how Chen Qiushi is right now? When will anyone get to speak with him again? Chen Qiushi has been out of contact for 68 days after covering coronavirus in Wuhan. Please save him!!!'
Next, Fang Bin -- a Wuhan resident -- went missing on February 9 after releasing a series of videos, including one showing piles of bodies being loaded into a bus. He had been arrested briefly before disappearing, reports say. Fang’s last video showed hazmat-donning officers knocking on his door to measure his body temperature.
He is seen in the video trying to fend off the officers by telling them his temperature is normal, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA).
Li Zehua, 25, is the youngest of the three and the most high-profile reporter. A former employee of state broadcaster CCTV, Li was reporting from Wuhan independently. He was said to be last heard on February 26.
Before that, he had visited a series of sensitive venues in Wuhan, such as the community that held a huge banquet despite the epidemic and the crematorium which was hiring extra staff to help carry corpses, RFA added.
The news outlet said Li was likely targeted by secret police after visiting the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The institute has been at the centre of conspiracy theories, which suggest that the killer virus originated there, not in a Wuhan market.
A US congressman recently called on the State Department to urge China to investigate the disappearance of the three journalists. In a letter dated March 31, Republican Representative Jim Banks asked the US government to seek a probe into the fates of Chen, Fang and Li.
“All three of these men understood the personal risk associated with independently reporting on coronavirus in China, but they did it anyway,” Banks wrote, alleging that the Chinese government “imprisoned them - or worse”.
These three missing men are not the only ones to have suffered for speaking out about the pandemic.
Ren Zhiqiang, a tycoon and prominent Communist party member, went missing after calling President Xi Jinping a “clown” over his handling of the crisis.
Xu Zhiyong, a former law lecturer, has allegedly been charged with “inciting state subversion” after being detained on February 15. He being kept in a classified location and at “serious risk” of torture and ill-treatment, according to experts.
Ai Fen, a Wuhan doctor who was among the first to alert other medics about the spread of coronavirus was also thought to be detained, reports suggest.