“I have seen bodies”: A Chinese citizen journalist reports on the coronavirus from Wuhan

“We need to remember the pain.”
“We need to remember the pain.”
Image: Chen Qiushi's Youtube channel
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Update: A tweet from Chen’s Twitter account sent on Feb. 7 said Chen’s friends and mother have been unable to reach him since around 7pm local time on Feb. 6. Phone calls made to Chen’s cell phone went unanswered.

Chinese citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, a former rights lawyer, made headlines last August, after he traveled to Hong Kong and posted a video that challenged China’s official narrative of democracy protesters as violent separatists. “Not all [protesters] are rioters,” he said in the video, which resulted in the authorities calling him in for questioning.

Now Chen is reporting on the coronavirus outbreak from Wuhan, where he managed to arrive a day after the city was put under quarantine. In China, where the Communist Party shapes official messages through state-run media, and keeps close tabs on other news organizations, citizen journalists like Chen are rare. They can’t obtain the official certificate required for reporting news because they don’t work for a registered outlet, and face signficant risks of harassment from authorities. Nevertheless, having had his social media accounts deleted on the Chinese internet, Chen is posting regular updates about Wuhan on YouTube and Twitter. “I won’t celebrate the rich and powerful but only tell the real stories of the masses. I won’t shut up, I won’t immigrate, nor would I accept any donations,” Chen wrote on his Twitter page, where he has over 225,000 followers.

In a video blog published on YouTube on Jan. 30, a week into his reporting trip, an emotional Chen described how helpless people filled hospitals that were struggling to admit them, and showed footage of a woman next to a dead man in a wheelchair making desperate phone calls for help to move her relative’s body. The videos have drawn attention on Chinese social media, even though YouTube is blocked there and requires special software to access, as well as outside China.

“I, for the first time, really started to feel scared,” Chen said in the video. He also spoke about whether he felt pressure from the authorities over his videos, but declared, “I’m not afraid of dying, why should I be afraid of you, Communist Party ?”

Quartz spoke with Chen recently about how he became a citizen journalist, why he decided to go to Wuhan, what things are like there, and what he says to people who wonder if he’s actually a Communist Party agent. Here are edited excerpts.

How did you become a citizen journalist?

My full-time job is a lawyer, and I have some experience giving speeches on TV. I have always wanted to become a TV news commentator, for which I thought I would need more frontline reporting experience. My first time being a citizen journalist was to report on a flood disaster [in 2019] in Ganzhou, a prefecture-level city in southern province Jiangxi. I published my findings on Chinese short video app Douyin, and had 1.57 million fans. But my account got deleted by the app because of the sensitive content. Then I came to Hong Kong last August to report on the protests; after my Hong Kong trip, all my accounts in China were deleted. 

When did you come to Wuhan?

I initially did not expect the virus to be so serious, because the domestic and overseas coverage were quite different on the virus. I bought train tickets on Jan. 24 to Xiaogan, one of the closest cities to Wuhan as the tickets to Wuhan already could not be bought online that day. I brought my hiking equipment, including a backpack and sleeping bag. I thought, if there were no cars that could drive me to Wuhan then I would walk to the city. Then I found I could buy the ticket to Hankou, a major town in Wuhan. I managed to arrive in Hankou on the 24th, and started doing interviews.

What is the situation like in Wuhan now? 

The situation is still severe. There were lots of rumors circulating on WeChat, which I could not verify. I only report the real situation that I saw myself. I have been to four Wuhan hospitals, and even the construction site of Huoshenshan, the temporary hospital China built for admitting the patients. In the beginning, there were not many people in hospitals. But after I met more local youngsters, I heard from them that the situation is still severe. They do not have enough testing kits, beds, and doctors are extremely overwhelmed. Workers and their leaders at the construction sites for the new hospitals are exhausted too…

[On the status of people in Wuhan] it’s hard to generalize. Some continued with their normal life, despite being a bit bored or feeling depressed, but they were not panicking. But for those who were suspected to have the virus, they were very very anxious and some went online calling for help. I also saw people who did not care about the issue at all and did not wear face masks… 

Prices of goods are staying stable. For myself, I bought bread and milk, and can still order food deliveries. I can use a Mobike and some friend lent me an electric motorcycle. For ordinary citizens, they can either ride electric motorcycles, or order taxis mobilized by their residential communities. But it is difficult to book taxis because of the small number of them.

Did you see any of the dead yourself?

There was a video that showed three dead bodies lying in a Wuhan hospital’s corridors circulating widely online before. I was told by some nurses in a local hospital that the video was true. The nurses also said this situation was because the local funeral homes did not have the capacity to transfer all those bodies. I have seen bodies many times during the past days, which makes me feel emotional. I saw two dead bodies at a hospital, one was lying in the corridor, and one was in an emergency room being wrapped up by nurses… I could not take a close shot of them because that would be disrespectful to the deceased. It is not unusual for bodies to be seen in hospitals, but the fact they were left there for a long time means it is an abnormal situation. The fact the bodies were lying there means even funeral homes are struggling to deal with the number of bodies waiting to be picked up.

What are the difficulties of being a citizen journalist?

I found the cyber bullying on the international internet is really quite serious. I have suffered a lot. Maybe a professional journalist would not have these emotions: fear, anger, powerlessness, and homesickness. That is why I might look so emotional in the video I posted yesterday (Jan. 30). I have said, this is the third time I went to the scene of a news event. The previous two times, no matter it was the flood or the protest, as long as I did not approach the more extreme Hong Kong protesters, I was not worried about getting beaten up. However, in Wuhan, you don’t know which breath you take or which door handle you grab will get you infected…

I am very nervous because if I get anything wrong, or post even just one piece of fake information, it will be widely shared on the internet… I do feel embarrassed, because I don’t work for any proper media. And I post videos on YouTube, a thing most Chinese people have not heard of. Some people who use VPN know about me and offer me lots of help, even asking me to stay at theirs. So that was why I did a joint live stream with “Face Mask Brother,” who was one of the few vloggers in Wuhan recording their daily lives…

Some questioned how I could accumulate such a big following on YouTube in such a short time, saying that is the proof that I am a spy for Beijing for helping with its propaganda efforts overseas…  This kind of suspicion is totally a distraction from the virus.

The police security bureau in my hometown also visited my parents’ house because they could not find me. They didn’t dare to come to Wuhan. They ‘educated’ my parents to tell me not to spread negative comments about the government… If I reveal my real location, there could be a risk of me getting arrested. I cannot think about it too much, or I will be afraid of doing anything. As one of the remaining reporters on the front line, I could help spread some information. For the political risks of doing so, I have no time to worry about that for now.

How do you protect yourself?

I have lots of face masks, and also protective glasses donated by some of my friends. I have two gloves. Luckily the drug stores are open now… I wear a long winter coat and only have two protective clothes. Every time I came back from outside I use a disinfectant water spray to spray my clothes, shoes, etc. I also put my shoes, etc, outside my door. No one would steal these things now.

I gave my overseas friends all the passwords to my social media accounts like YouTube, and if I don’t contact them for 12 hours they will change the passwords. I risked my life to post the videos. If I get arrested they could force me to delete all my videos on YouTube and Twitter, and that would be a great blow to me.

Will you continue to work as a citizen journalist after this Wuhan trip?

As long as I am a free person and have not been arrested or put under a travel ban, I would carry on this career. I decided if I could leave Wuhan alive, I would have a tattoo of the coronavirus to remind myself and the Chinese people, you need to remember the pain caused by the virus! You should not forget the disaster even after you recover.