HONG KONG (AP) — Chinese authorities were preparing Sunday to release a man who disappeared three years ago after publicizing videos of overcrowded hospitals and bodies during the COVID-19 outbreak, a relative and another person familiar with his case said.
Fang Bin and other members of the public who were dubbed citizen journalists posted details of the pandemic in early 2020 on the internet and social media, embarrassing Chinese officials who faced criticism for failing to control the outbreak. The last video Fang, a seller of traditional Chinese clothing, posted on Twitter was of a piece of paper reading, “All citizens resist, hand power back to the people.”
Fang’s case is part of Beijing’s crackdown on criticism of China’s early handling of the pandemic, as the ruling Communist Party seeks to control the narrative of the country.
He was scheduled to be released Sunday, according to two people who did not want to be identified for fear of government retribution. One of them said Fang was sentenced to three years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a vague charge traditionally used against political dissidents.
The Associated Press could not independently confirm his release and could not confirm the details with the authorities.
Two offices of Wuhan’s public security bureau did not provide a phone number of their information office or answer any questions. Phone calls to a court that reportedly sentenced Fang rang unanswered on Sunday afternoon. A woman from another court that had reportedly handled Fang’s appeal said she was not authorized to answer questions.
In early 2020, the initial COVID outbreak devastated the city of Wuhan, home to 11 million residents, in central China’s Hubei province. Under a 76-day lockdown, its streets were deserted for months, apart from ambulances and security personnel.
At that time, a small number of citizen journalists tried to tell their stories and those of others with smart phones and social media accounts, defying the Communist Party’s tightly policed monopoly on information. Although their movement was small, the scale was unprecedented in any previous major disease outbreak or disaster in China.
But the information they posed soon got them into trouble. Fang and another citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi, disappeared in February.
Chen in September 2021 resurfaced on his friend’s live video feed on YouTube, saying he had suffered from depression. But he did not provide details about his disappearance.
Another citizen journalist, Zhang Zhan, who also had reported on the early stage of the outbreak, was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of picking fights and provoking trouble in December 2020. About eight months later, her lawyer said she was in ill health after staging a long-running hunger strike.
Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan.