Chen Qiushi, a citizen journalist who had been doing critical reporting from Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the epicenter of the outbreak, went missing on Thursday evening. Chen has been out of reach for more than 20 hours. Fang, who was silent much of Friday until a video posted in the evening, was previously detained briefly by authorities for his video of corpses in a hospital. When he filmed the dramatic moment people in hazmat suits broke down his apartment door to take him into quarantine, it sparked hundreds of comments urging the authorities to release him.
It's no accident that their posts grew viral on American platforms. China's internet watchdog has stepped up its policing efforts, announcing on Wednesday it would conduct "targeted supervision" on the largest social media platforms including Weibo, Tencent's WeChat and ByteDance's Douyin. The regulator has already frozen a raft of social media accounts, then stepped up online scrubbing to quiet a wave of confused outrage over the death of the doctor that first raised red flags about the disease.In this environment, U.S.-based Twitter has emerged as the destination for locals seeking information about the spread of the virus. It's officially banned in the country, but many people hop the Great Firewall and access the platform via virtual private networks.
"There's a lot more activity happening on Twitter compared with Weibo and WeChat," said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. There has been a Chinese community on Jack Dorsey's short-message platform since before President Xi Jinping rose to power, she added, but the recent crackdown has weakened that social circle. Chen has been out of contact for a prolonged period of time. His friends posted a message on his Twitter account saying he has been unreachable since 7 p.m. local time on Thursday. In a texted interview, Bloomberg News's last question to Chen was whether he was concerned about his safety as he's among the few people reporting the situation on the front lines.