For a while, China's tightly controlled social media platforms hosted surprisingly frank discussion about the coronavirus outbreak. The country has also seen some hard-hitting journalism from commercial media asking tough questions that challenge official narratives. But now that’s changing.  

On February 5, many internet users posting on Weibo said their WeChat accounts were suspended for “spreading malicious rumors.” Complaints about the trend were posted on Weibo under the hashtag “WeChat bans accounts,” with many people saying they weren’t given a specific reason for why their accounts were suspended. These suspensions reportedly could be as short as 24 hours or a permanent ban, which means users could lose all of their WeChat contacts. 

Then the Weibo page disappeared, too. 

The next day, conversations about the death of 34-year-old doctor Li Wenliang also started disappearing. The doctor became known as one of the first to share information about the coronavirus before being reprimanded by the Wuhan police for it. Li’s death from the virus triggered nationwide grief and anger, leading to trending Weibo hashtags including “The Wuhan government owes Li Wenliang an apology” and “I want freedom of speech.” The pages for the hashtags were quickly removed.

Tencent declined to comment for this story, and Weibo didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, has been under lockdown for two weeks. (Picture: AFP)

Interest-based social site Douban also suspended a function called Diary, which lets users post long articles. Many users have been using Douban Diary to describe situations in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak that is now under lockdown. 

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced on Wednesday that it punished a range of platforms and publishing accounts. CAC said it “supervised and guided” companies that include Sina, Tencent and Bytedance -- the owners of some of the country’s most popular social platforms (Weibo, WeChat and Douyin/TikTok respectively). It also said it punished a number of accounts for “independently reporting against regulations” and spreading false information, but didn’t specify how.

These moves follow a call from President Xi Jinping for “strengthening management and control of internet media” at a Politburo Standing Committee meeting on February 3.

Experts say that these moves fit the pattern of how Chinese authorities manage information during a crisis. 

Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor of global communication at Georgia State University, wrote in The New York Times that during crises, Chinese authorities tend to initially grant media some space so the government can better identify problems and assess public sentiment. That window for critical reporting tends to open and close unpredictably, she said. 

The window now seems to be closing, according to David Bandurski, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center and co-director of the school’s research program China Media Project. Bandurski says authorities are now seeking to push “authoritative information” and “wrestle back control of public opinion.”

Authorities are already working to enhance their own voice. The Communist Party’s Publicity Department said yesterday it sent more than 300 reporters to Wuhan to “provide strong public opinion support” for achieving this year’s economic and social development goals.