Citizen-journalist Li Zehua, a freelance citizen-journalist who went to Wuhan during the outbreak of the coronavirus there, was detained by Chinese police on February 26th shortly after trying to do some investigation in the vicinity of the Wuhan P4 Laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Already there were rumors circulating within China that the virus that caused the outbreak may have escaped from that laboratory. Although this supposition is as yet a plausibility argument with no hard supporting evidence it has led to harsh trading of accusations between China and several other countries including the United States.
The Guardian on Li Zehua’s detention in Wuhan: The Guardian: ‘They’re chasing me’: the journalist who wouldn’t stay quiet on Covid-19 — Li Zehua is missing, presumed detained. He’s one of many for whom the coronavirus crisis has led to a political awakening and a demand for free speech
Li was released on March 28.
Chinese author Liao Yiwu, author of Bullets and Opium: Stories of China after the Great Massacre (Simon and Schuster: 2019) and The Corpse Walker (2002) and himself a former political prisoner, wrote the articles below soon after Li Zehua’s detention.
The author of the anonymous “Wuhan Diary” had this to say about Li Zehua in her diary entry of February 28th:
Seeing the video of Li Zehua being taken away, the word “idealism” in the commentary pierced my heart. The well-honed egoistical excuses children make nowadays are surprisingly well thought out. Having read much of it, I have become a bit numb. Unexpectedly hearing the words “idealistic” from such a young and handsome boy actually astonished me much to my surprise.
Sorry, I shouldn’t be biased against good-looking boys.
Li Zehua, a graduate of a prestigious university, once worked for CCTV. I believe he has better resources than most people his age and can make “smarter” choices than most of his peers. I also believe that he understands better than most people that what he is doing is “digging his own grave”, yet he still “stupidly” chose that path. I admire his bravery. I couldn’t do that.
The last message he left was very well-spoken. Yet despite his fluency, I could still clearly detect notes of fear. But we should be free people and free from fear. I really would like to share that video with friends inside China’s Internet Firewall. His words are the most vivid explication of our times. But I dare not do so.
The last part of this article quotes Li Zehua’s words to the police outside his room just before his arrest. The three-hour video that Li made just before his arrest made a big impresssion: it got half a million hits on YouTube and was much commented upon in Chinese language social media, although banned in China itself.
Chinese original text follows this translation.
May We Never Forget
Li Zehua, a graduate of Communication University of China, once hosted a program on Chinese Central Television (CCTV). One day he scaled the Chinese Internet firewall to steal a look at a documentary about the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. He was deeply shaken and, influenced by the example of his colleague Chai Jing who had filmed “Under the Dome”, decided to make a radical change in his life. Later, he resigned from CCTV to seek his own livelihood. When the coronavirus epidemic broke out in Wuhan, he rushed to the scene from Beijing, where he later became the third “citizen reporter”, after Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, to be arrested.
One day, Li Zehua read an online advertisement called “People Needed to Carry Dead Bodies”:
Wuchang Funeral Home urgently needs to hire 20 people tonight to carry dead bodies.
Job requirements: Male or female, age16-50, not afraid of ghosts, bold and strong.
Working time: Midnight to 4 AM, with a short break in the middle of the shift.
Salary: 4,000 RMB for 4 hours of work plus snack.
Meet up location and time: tonight 23:00 at Yangjiawan subway station on Line 2.
Thus Li Zehua went to the Qingshan Funeral Home in Wuhan in the middle of the night to investigate. Someone in charge of recruiting peasants to carry corpses came over and told Li, who claimed to have come to apply for the job, that the pay for carrying corpses had already been cut. “We provide room and board. Start at 500 RMB for the first body, 200 more for the second, another 200 for the third and then another 200 for the fourth coming to a total of 1100 RMB.”
Then he secretly photographed a long row of rumbling crematory ovens that had run day and night for over a month through day shifts and night shifts. Li Zehua wrote, “The official government count of deaths from pneumonia in Wuhan for the first 38 days of reports came to an average of 40 people per day. There are 74 cremation ovens in Wuhan. Even if there had been ten times as many deaths, it would not have been necessary to work overtime.”
On February 26, Li Zehua drove to the Wuhan P4 Virus Containment Laboratory. According to a story circulated widely on the Internet, the Wuhan virus leaked from this building which was jointly built by China and France. This would be an incident as serious as the Chernobyl incident in the former Soviet Union.
Li Zehua tried to get close to the “state’s top virus secret”, but said: “It’s all fenced off and I couldn’t get in at all. I can only stay in the car to watch videos.” Later, a Chinese National Security Agency car came to try to block him so he fled with the National Security Bureau agents in hot pursuit. He made a short 30 second-long video as he made a Hollywood spy movie-like escape. He finally made it back to where he was staying. He locked the door and started up his computer to begin a live internet broadcast.
Then a nearly four-hour-long black screen documentary began … Like Wuhan’s National Security Bureau, Liao Yiwu, an exile writer living in Berlin, had been “following” Li Zehua for many days.
Now he picked up his pen and wrote:
Li Zehua’s story is both sad and encouraging. China, our ancestral homeland, the protagonist in countless ancient books was the land of dreams for my father’s generation. It was not the land of the Chinese Communist Party; nor does it belong to atheistic country bumpkins like Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping.
Twenty-five-year-old Li Zehua still had the courage to shatter himself like an egg against the had rock of the dictator. Why should we despair? What right do we have to criticize he who was reprimanded, he who made public his letter of reprimand, he who had died, or Dr. Li Wenliang, we who live in a free and safe place and conclude that “nobody is a hero”?
We need to take back the homeland and the hometown that lives in the hearts of all of us, to take back that righteous anger, that sympathy and love, to take back our basic human nature and human compassion. There are an infinite number of things we need to take back including a passionate attachment to the arts.
The hermit poet Tao Yuanming sighed about Jingke’s attempted assassination of Qin Zheng, who later became the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty: “A gentleman set out to die for his intimate friends, taking up his sword, he departed Yanjing.”
But Li Zehua’s intimate friend is a hungry stray cat on the streets of Wuhan who had lost his owner. Li Zehua found him. One day, after looking high and low for boiling water to make a bowl of noodles for the homeless, he smiled and said to the little cat, “Little one, come here. I have something for you to eat here..”
Thank you, Li Zehua. Born in 1995, you still have the tender, calm and clear face of youth. People like you certainly are China’s hope for the future. As a writer, I am very honored to record these bits and pieces of your story.
February 26, 2020
https: //www.youtube.com/watch …
Fear is Useless
This documentary will become part of Chinese contemporary history.
The last days of the Empire. Li Zehua broadcast online the scene just before his arrest. The film, mostly black screen, lasts four hours. At first, the barely visible shadow of Li Zehua wearing his goggles, like a skull with empty eye sockets. He panted noisily while at the same time trying to suppress his breathing then tries to hold his breath for as long as he can. Then comes the repeated sound of someone knocking on the door thump-thump-thump.
Li Zehua remains motionless although the faint sound of his clothes rustling comes through on the video. Unconsciously, Li Zehua is shaking!
It is as if there are many land mines buried there, primed to explode at any time. It is said that more than 800 people were watching this live online, constantly giving him suggestions via text messaging. Twice he pointed the phone screen towards the people watching and said, “They’re trying to pry the door open!”
Suddenly the phone beeps twice and he hurriedly cuts if off. Then he sobbed, nobody could see him, but they could feel that he was crying in that darkness.
Some sounds continued sporadically like this. Many onlookers grew tired and left. A Taiwan girl said later, “I watched for a while, thinking the screen was dark because of the bad connection. I didn’t know he was fighting there in the deepest darkness.
Liao Yiwu, an exile living in Berlin, followed Li Zehua sealed tight as if in a barrel of dynamite. After a torment for two hours and twenty-five minutes I saw him turn on the light, put on a face mask and say in a low voice, “I just moved from the living room (to the bedroom). I am wearing this (protective clothing) but it makes too much noise. I don’t know what tricks they may be playing but the door has always been guarded. “
He got up and walked to the end of the bed, took off his noisy protective suit, then tiptoed to turn the lights off. Then three hours and eight minutes went by until an image appeared on the screen. Phone calls kept coming in. A friend of his who, abducted by the National Security Bureau, had been forced to lead them to where Li Zehua was staying. For three to four hours Li, trapped like a cornered beast, who had been staying in the darkness up to this point, turned on the lights so that a true record in the “here and now” would remain.
I thought back to the circumstances during the several times I had been arrested. I couldn’t possibly have made a “here and now’ recording. I can only try to think back to it through the changing circumstances of the intervening years. Once, while I was interviewing a Falungong practicioner who had escaped from an insane asylum, the authorities followed some clues, tracked me down and knocked at the door. I went from a seventh floor window to a terrace on the floor above and escaped through a different residential unit. I thought too back to Liu Xiaobo arrested without a fight. About that fatal arrest in Winter 2008 except for a few bits and pieces of scattered memories, I have nothing – no written or photographic record. Later, he died. The arrangements made after his death were completely under the control of the authorities. A mysterious fire in the rooms in which he had been held under surveillance wiped clean of suspicious evidence.
I thought back to what Wang Yi had written in his “Politics in the Age of Cold Steel”. He wrote “I never know whether the knock on the door signals the arrival of a friend or of cruel and evil people.” – I think back too to the video of police taking him into custody on the eve of the May 12 Sichuan earthquake a decade ago. I suppose that his wife Jiang Rong took the video. No video or written record appeared after their latest arrest.
Li Zehua is a 25 year-old youth. In the face of arrest he was afraid but he fought to remain calm. Anyone who has read The Gulag Archipelago, Dr. Zhivago and the memoirs of dissidents in the former Soviet Union can feel the same “darkest moment” that Li Zehua experienced.
The People are No Longer Afraid – because fear itself can lead to disaster. On this score we can see from the experience of Gui Minhai who was just sentenced to ten years imprisonment the latest proof. They claim that Swedish citizen Gui Minhai in order to serve out his sentence, voluntarily applied to restore his Chinese citizenship.
February 28, 2020
They Were Always Bound to Capture the “Truth” Rabbit
The name of this documentary is “I am being searched! I am being searched!” but contains no scenes of the search and ends abruptly. Li Zehua opens the door and two hooded figures float in, he says “This is my friend…. “ and then suddenly cuts off.
People who have been arrested know that what follows is a thorough search of their body, of equipment and of the room itself including the toilet and outside the window. The search is done minutely inch-by-inch and carefully like a military engineer searching for a mine. First, they take custody of your computer and portable telephone and then cut off your internet connection. In less than half an hour, counterintelligence experts have gone over every nook and cranny of your computer and portable phone so they know it like the back of their hands. They can restore the traces of what you have deleted. Then they search your person and strip off your clothing. On March 16, 1990 because I wrote and distributed a cassette tape recording of a long poem “Massacre”. Not only was I stripped naked and all my clothing repeatedly shaken and squeezed, they also probed and stirred my anus with chopsticks. Many criminal cases of the empire show that checking the anus is necessary – the anus is the only place in a person where criminal evidence can be hidden including drugs and first-rate ideologically poisonous materials stored on a multi-gigabyte flash drive. They can all be stored on the rectum just upstream of the sphincter.
How they will treat Li Zehua, no one can say. The State Security Bureau is expert in destroying the human spirit. The State Security Bureau fights on a “hidden battlefront”. They are usually in charge of collecting intelligence and in secretly tracking and monitoring. Generally they don’t show their faces. They usually just analyzing and rating the people that they monitor as “ordinary”, “someone to be won over”, “dangerous”, or “very dangerous”. Later they make suggestions that the Public Security National Security Detachment is charged with implementing. Li Zehua picked up where Chen Qiushi left off, traveling the vast empty spaces of Wuhan day and night, taking four videos. The one he took during his visit to the crematorium was the most sensitive but he managed to pull it off smoothly.
However, on the night of February 26, when he was investigating near the Wuhan P4 Virus Containment Laboratory, he was immediately followed by the State Security Bureau. During a 30 some second-long video, he said, “I am on the road being chased by a State Security guy in an unmarked car… I am in Wuhan and driving very quickly. They are chasing me. They definitely want to quarantine me…”
The origin of this Wuhan coronavirus epidemic seems to gradually becoming clear. The origin of the virus, like a very frightened rabbit ran in front of Li Zehua’s car. Meanwhile, State Security chased Li Zehua like a wild rabbit running every which way. They both will undoubtedly capture the “Truth” rabbit.
Later but not very much later, they will see the last video that Li Zehua took. The vast majority of those three to four hours of video is just a blank screen. Why? Even more important, how could he have left behind such a complete and very suspenseful record of the arrest when State Security did such a thorough job of pursuit, monitoring and search?
February 29, 2020
Li Zehua’s Declaration Upon His Arrest
[Statement starts at this time on the hours-long YouTube video https://youtu.be/np8ZOQATLGY?t=13425 ]
Alright, I am about to open the door. May I say a few things first?
First, I really admire those people who have come to capture me. I admire that you came in broad daylight, and using various methods, so easily were able to pinpoint my location. You even brought my friend here against his will.
Secondly, ever since I came to Wuhan and right down to the present, everything I have done is in accordance with the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China as well as all the various laws and regulations of the People’s Republic of China. When I went to places designated as hazardous I brought a full set of protective gear including protective clothing, goggles, single-use gloves, and disinfectant. I have many of them. I have an abundant supply. A friend who supports me bought 3M masks for me. Therefore I am in good health and in excellent physical condition. If I have a so-called fever, it may be because my protective clothing is too stifling and the rush of adrenaline is boosting my body temperature.
Thirdly, now that things have reached this point, there is no doubt that I will be either taken away or put into quarantine. I want to make clear that I have a clear conscience and that I have done nothing to make my parents nor my family nor my alma mater Chinese Communication University! I have done nothing to disgrace mass media, the subject I studied in school I have done nothing to disgrace this country. I haven’t done anything to harm the best interests of this country. I, Li Zehua, this year 25 years-old, I , too, want to go to the front line like Chai Jing did. I too, want to be able to produce a film like “Beijing Fights SARS” which was made under the public opinion climate of 2004, or “Under the Dome” made in 2016 and then blocked on the internet throughout the country. I believe that doing this is worthwhile!”
You big fellows outside the door, if you went to middle school, of course you went to middle school. If you have a decent memory, you certainly must remember one of the texts in the middle school textbook by Lu Xun called “Has China lost its elf confidence?”. I have always taken it as a guiding principle. “Ever since ancient times, China has always had people who pleaded for the cause of the people, other who fight to the death for what they believe in, and still others who sacrifice themselves for the sake of the Truth … they are the backbone of China.”
I will not keep quiet nor will I close my eyes and stuff my ears so as not to hear! It is not to say that I cannot marry, have children, and warm myself at home by the fire. Of course I can. Why did I resign from Chinese Central Television? I did it so that more Chinese young people like me would stand up!
I am not doing this to start something or to cause an uprising. That is not my intention. Just because we have something to say does not mean that we oppose the Communist Party. I know full well that idealism died that year when spring gave way to summer. Sit-ins don’t work anymore. Young people today go on the Bilibili video-sharing website, use Tik-Tok, and everyday indulge in the various kinds of social media. Maybe they just have no idea about historical events. They may just think that what they see today is what they deserve.
I think everybody is like in the movie “The Truman Show”. When you find that a broadcaster is putting out strange signals, when you discover that portal, you will pass through it and never come back. People who have seen the “Naruto” anime series all know… I have one more thing to say, excuse me.
To put it simply, I understand very well you on the other side of the door, I understand that you are carrying out orders. But I pity you too. I know that that day will come for you who unconditionally and unthinkingly support and carry out cruel orders like these, when those same brutal orders will be carried out against you!
OK, I have gotten to this point. I am opening the door.
February 26, 2020
https: //www.youtube.com/watch …