Chinese professor Xu Zhangrun was placed under house arrest by authorities of the Chinese Communist government for his critique of President Xi Jinping’s leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak. The recent writing is titled “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear”.

Friends of the professor have told The Guardian that Xu was placed on house arrest soon after he returned to Beijing from his lunar new year break. One unnamed friend said, “They confined him at home under the pretext that he had to be quarantined after the trip. He was in fact under de facto house arrest and his movements were restricted.”

The same friend added that at least two people stood guard in front of his house around the clock and a car with a signal box was parked in front of his residence. Security agents also went into his house to issue warnings to him.

Those restrictions were lifted late last week, but his internet connection has been cut off since Friday. The friend said, “He tried to get it mended but found out that his IP address had been blocked. He lives on the outskirts of Beijing and is far away from shops and other services. Under the current [coronavirus] situation, things are very difficult for him.”

Other friends have complained that Xu’s account on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, was canceled, his name was scrubbed from Weibo (akin to Twitter) and calls to his mobile phone went unanswered.

Xu himself anticipated that he would face punishment over his essay. A previous writing from last year resulted in his suspension from teaching and having some “freedoms curtailed”. In his most recent piece, he wrote, “I can now all too easily predict that I will be subjected to new punishments; indeed, this may well even be the last piece I write.”

If there is anything positive to be said about the COVID-19 epidemic, it is that China’s leaders have been exposed to their practice of silencing anyone who is critical of them. The death on Feb. 7 of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang triggered some rare public discussion about censorship.

People outside of China can speak openly about President Xi’s efforts to tighten ideological control and suppress civil freedoms. Hong Zhenkuai, an independent historian who is currently working outside China as a visiting scholar at Tokyo University, said, “Li’s death has thoroughly exposed the ills of the party’s governance and control; this has a huge impact on people’s minds.”

The crackdown has resulted in a number of prominent liberal intellectuals, journalists, rights lawyers and NGO workers being silenced, jailed or escaping to another country.

The Journalist's Creed, written in 1914 by Walter Williams is a list of ethics that has been published in over 100 languages. Number 5 on that list is “I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible”. Perhaps China’s version of the creed had that part edited out during the translation into their journalism textbooks.

The shutdown comes amid a dramatic tightening of censorship on Chinese media and entertainment
The shutdown comes amid a dramatic tightening of censorship on Chinese media and entertainment AFP / WANG ZHAO