Chinese civil society has long been forced to find creative ways to work in an increasingly hostile environment. In early 2020, human rights defenders and lawyers have met the challenges posed by the novel coronavirus with resilience and imagination.

Defenders have worked from home running regular online reading groups and providing advice on psychosocial support including active listening, meditation and breathing techniques. Others have held online workshops and discussions on human rights issues such as the death penalty. They’ve overcome Internet connectivity issues, experimented with different online platforms as well as how to work in the same space as their families.

Feminist activist Guo Jing coped with anxiety and uncertainty while in lockdown in Wuhan by volunteering and posting a diary online. She used the diary as a source of comfort to herself and others and built an online community by making connections with other activists and young people. She detailed not only her own daily life and feelings but also commented on social and political issues:

“It not just the city that's trapped. It's also the voices of the people.

On the first day of the lockdown, I couldn't write [anything about it] on social media [because of censorship]. I couldn't even write on WeChat. Internet censorship has existed for a long time in China, but now it feels even more cruel.” 

Guo Jing, Wuhan Lockdown Diary

Other activists, journalists and lawyers have faced harassment by Chinese authorities for trying to hold the government to account over lack of transparency and failings in response to the new virus.

On 19 April 2020, three Chinese volunteers who helped to publish censored coronavirus articles on GitHub, an open-source programming platform, were detained for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’ Chen Mei, a Beijing technology worker, his friend Cai Wei, who updated the Github archive, and Cai’s girlfriend Xiaotang. They have not been given access to see a lawyer.

In March 2020, the World Health Organisation and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued guidance on Covid-19 and persons deprived of their liberty. Overcrowding and restricted access to hygiene and healthcare risk detainees’ right to health and to life. The guidance recommends the release of all those detained arbitrarily or for offences not recognised under international law.

Freedom of expression, including the right to receive information, is a fundamental human right and never more so than during a pandemic. The Rights Practice is dismayed by the detention of these volunteers and is particularly concerned by reports that Chen Mei and Cai Wei are being subjected to ‘residential surveillance in a designated location’, a form of incommunicado detention.