When reports of a novel respiratory virus spreading through Wuhan began to surface in early 2020, a few independent video journalists rushed to the city. Among them was Li Zehua, a former journalist for state broadcaster CCTV, who goes by the name Kcriss Li.
Giving the slip to officials chasing down reporters who challenged the official narrative, Li interviewed some of the city’s 12 million residents, who had not been told the truth about COVID-19. He found communities frustrated by hastily imposed restrictions on movement and migrant workers who could not find work. He even made it to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the government laboratory at the heart of speculation about the origin of the disease. He posted it all online, angering the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
He now wishes he had gone better prepared, had better equipment, and been able to report more fully on what was to become a once-in-a-century pandemic before the crushing power of China’s surveillance state silenced him.
Li filmed himself being followed, then on February 26, 2020, livestreamed security officers knocking on his door. His channels went dark for nearly two months until he reappeared on YouTube. In an obviously staged video, Li said he had been taken to a police station, questioned, and sent to “quarantine.” He was eventually released under supervision.
Li was one of a small band of video journalists in Wuhan that included Chen Qiushi and Zhang Zhan. Chen was also forcibly quarantined and later released. Zhang was less lucky. She was sentenced to four years in prison.
In August 2021, Li made it out of China to study at a college in Rochester, New York, from where he recently spoke with CPJ. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What drove you to report in Wuhan?
I wanted to take on the responsibility of being a journalist. I used to call myself a journalist, but I didn’t do anything a real journalist is supposed to be doing. And I had to take part in this historical [event].
Did you succeed?
It was a mission where I mostly completed what I expected. Famous journalists or documentary producers would probably try to stay in Wuhan for a longer period of time and produce more [detailed reporting].
But I went there alone, with limited gear, devices, and resources. I chose other ways to try to present news [and] collect factual information.
Do you think you’ve made a difference?
I’d say yes. At least, I finished the process [of reporting] myself, [even] while being alone in the information black hole. I tried my best to collect information…and I actually expected the CCP, the administration, to come after me.
What happened after you cut off the livestream of authorities at your door?
They detained me for around 35 days. The so-called “quarantine” was supposed to be 14 days. I was quarantined for 16 or 17 days [in Wuhan.] After that, I was sent to my hometown [Nanchang city, in Jiangxi province], and I was “quarantined” again for 16 days.
[I posted the YouTube video about what had happened] during that period. Authorities wanted me to praise them, but I reduced that to the minimum. After I was released, one of the provincial police chiefs reached out to me and asked me to post something because a lot of people were concerned about where I was. I refused. I couldn’t do it.
How would you characterize the treatment you received at the hands of the authorities?
I was lucky. I was not treated badly. But I don’t think that’s the way they would treat others…
I think it was the things I’ve done that protected me, [such as] livestreaming throughout the whole process [of detention]. And I was one the first group of people, like Chen Qiushi. [We] entered Wuhan at the very beginning, when the police had no experience dealing with these types of situations. But I heard that the journalists who went to Wuhan after me got arrested, like Zhang Zhan.
What was on your mind on February 26 when those officers showed up at the door?
I felt very disappointed and sad. The feeling made me recall when I was traveling in North Korea. My thought was, “Come on. We are in a so-called democratic country in the 21st century. What have I done? Am I a criminal?”
Even though I had courage, and as brave as I am, I still trembled. In that fear, there was total disappointment with the [Chinese] state. I thought the first half of my life had been terminated.
You said in the video about what happened that you were arrested for “disrupting public order.” What did you think of the charge?
That was stupid. Hilarious. They wanted to be seen as following the legal process, but they were actually just doing whatever they wanted.
How would you characterize China’s current state of media freedom?
There is no freedom. There’s no media. There is only propaganda.
What could have happened had there been an open media?
The more media freedom [and] freedom of speech we had, the less the disease would have spread. The disease was a scientific problem. We could have removed the political factors from the scientific discussion.
I think so…In a regime like China or North Korea, with so much information fog around all the affairs and incidents, no one would [trust] the government to be the source of information. So, I am more [inclined] to believe that the virus came from the institute.
Do you have any regrets about what you did?
The regretful part would be that I wasn’t well prepared and did not reveal more factual information about what authorities were doing. If I were more prepared, I probably would have, like you said, made a more significant difference or let more people know how important the freedom to spread information is.
Were you surprised that you were allowed to leave China after what happened in Wuhan?
Yes, it did surprise me. But it showed that the bureaucratic system was so stupid. After they released me, they assigned “secret police” to monitor me every now and then, a couple of times a month. As time went on, they just came to my house to visit my parents once a month. They know how to control your network, [family,] and everyone surrounding you in order to control you.
Before I left China, only my parents and my closest friends knew what I was doing. I pretended I was struggling to make a living by doing low-end jobs. I acted like I was out of my mind when the police reached out to me. I started speaking dialect instead of perfect Mandarin like before. I put on a performance showing that I was incapable, misleading them into thinking that I would never go abroad. After I got my visa from the embassy, I just booked a ticket, walked through customs, and successfully came out.
Would you ever consider going back to China?
I don’t know. It is sad. I feel sad. [Officials] threatened me even though I didn’t do anything criminal. The totalitarianism, the authoritarianism made [it so that] people like me couldn’t go back.
You mentioned your parents. Have they been harassed?
At the very beginning, yes. Especially my father. He runs a small business, a dental clinic. Some officers were trying to interfere with his business. But my father and my mother don’t really care about what I was doing. And because they were not concerned about what I was doing, the police couldn’t leverage the relationship between me and my parents. The less my parents are concerned about me, the fewer safety issues there are.
You are in the United States, what’s the future for you?
I just graduated from the University of Rochester. I am working at an artificial intelligence lab, trying to get more experience. I will probably try to apply for a Ph.D program. I want to contribute in a practical way in the future, unlike what I used to do. I want to find a way to fight digital totalitarianism.