China is working on keeping a lid on information coming out of Wuhan about the coronavirus pandemic, warning lawyers not to help people sue the government and interrogating mourning family members of those stricken – as critics of the response disappear, according to a report.

As part of the crackdown, the Communist Party propaganda has portrayed the dead as martyrs rather than victims and censors have removed early news reports that exposed Beijing’s efforts to hide the severity of the outbreak, the New York Times reported.

“They are worried that if people defend their rights, the international community will know what the real situation is like in Wuhan and the true experiences of the families there,” activist Yang Zhanqing told the newspaper.

Yang, who is living in New York after he was detained briefly in China, said Wuhan residents who lost loved ones to COVID-19 reached out to him via text to seek his help to sue the government.

But after weeks of communication, Yang said the seven people suddenly changed their minds or quit responding late last month.

A billboard bearing Chinese President Xi JinpingGetty Images

Yang said at least two of them were threatened by the police.

The effort to bottle up information and end dissent comes as a member of the Trump administration warned that the heavy-handed tactics would eventually backfire.

“When small acts of bravery are stamped out by governments, big acts of bravery follow,” Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger said in a speech Monday, Bloomberg reported.

He noted the case of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was reprimanded by the Chinese government for warning about the coronavirus in late December.

Li died of the coronavirus in February, prompting an outpouring of grief in China, and Beijing later considered him a martyr.

“Anyone tempted to believe this was just a case of overzealous local police, take note: China’s central government aired a news story about Dr. Li’s ‘rumor-mongering,’” Pottinger said.

The Times report said three volunteers that were part of an online project to preserve censored stories about the pandemic, went missing last month and are believed to have been detained.

“I had previously told him: ‘You guys probably face some risk doing this project.’ But I didn’t know how much,” said Chen Kun, whose brother, Chen Mei, is among those who disappeared.

“I had said that maybe he would be summoned by the police for a talk, and they would ask him to take down the site,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be this serious.”

Chen said he has no information about his brother, but relatives of one of the other volunteers missing told him that their family member and his girlfriend had been detained over accusations they were “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”



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