Chinese Censorship Is Quietly Rewriting the Covid-19 Story

Chinese scientists are under government pressure to retract studies and withhold or delete data, which has stymied efforts to understand the virus.

Chinese Censorship Is Quietly Rewriting the Covid-19 Story

China reacted to this by tightening the online censorship, and seizing control over research. At first, the censorship was only partial. The Ministry of Science and Technology instructed scientists to focus on containing the outbreak and not publish papers. One European scientist remembered his Chinese collaborators asking to sign a non-disclosure agreement, promising not to disclose data on research already published.

Chinese researchers began to ask journals to retract their research. Journals may withdraw papers due to a variety of valid reasons, such as flawed data. A review of over a dozen retracted Chinese papers shows that there is a pattern in which research has been revised or suppressed on topics such as early cases, the conditions of medical workers and the extent of the virus' spread. These are all things that could bring the government into disrepute. The papers that were retracted and reviewed by The Times were flagged by Retraction Watch. This group tracks withdrawn research.

There were several studies that included children who were infected in southern China, a survey on depression and anxiety in Chinese medical staff who treated Covid-19 patients and even two letters published in The Lancet Global Health from nurses who spoke of their desperation while working in Wuhan hospitals.

They wrote: "Even experienced nursing staff may cry."

Journals tend to take a long time to retract articles, even if they have been proven to be fraudulent or unethical. Ivan Oransky is the founder of Retraction Watch. He said that in China, there are different considerations. Journals who want to sell subscriptions to China or publish Chinese-language research will often give in to government demands. He said that scientific publishers had gone to great lengths to satisfy censorship demands.

China formalized their controls as the virus spread. All coronavirus-related research was entrusted to a government task force. Records show that officials in Zhejiang province, east China, discussed "strengthening management" of the scientific results.

On March 9, top Chinese scientists published a paper on how coronaviruses might mutate. The research was published in Clinical Infectious Diseases by Oxford University Press, a prestigious journal.

It was a seemingly unpolitical topic, but samples were collected from Wuhan patients starting mid-December 2019 to support the findings. This added evidence that the virus had spread widely before the Chinese Government took action.