Authorities in the Chinese capital are holding three people in connection with the online storage of content censored by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, including posts and articles about the early days of the coronavirus epidemic, on a page hosted by the coding site GitHub.
Chen Wei, Cai Wei, and a woman surnamed Tang have been incommunicado since April 19 after they were taken away by police in Beijing's Chaoyang district, their family members said.
Cai and Tang were initially held on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," according to Chen Wei's brother Chen Kun. He said it was unclear what charge, if any, Chen Wei was being held on.
All three had worked as volunteers during the coronavirus epidemic.
Cai and Tang's families have received notification that they are being held under "residential surveillance at a designated location," which enables police to deny visits from family or lawyers for up to six months, while holding someone in an unknown location.
Guo Yuhua, sociology professor at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, said Cai was once her student.
"Cai Wei was a research student in our department, and graduated in 2018," Guo said. "I thought he was an incredibly well-behaved young man who didn't like to talk much, and who would be highly unlikely to go picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
"I don't believe that he did any such thing," she said. "If they're going to hold him under residential surveillance at a designed location, they should show some evidence."
Guo said she didn't believe saving censored articles should be a problem.
"Why are they allowed to delete stuff but the rest of us aren't allowed to save it?" she said. "Why are they allowed to cover up stuff but other people aren't allowed to record and reveal it?"
Preserving deleted articles
The Terminus 2049 Project is built on the GitHub open platform for the purpose of backing up deleted articles on platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, according to the introduction on the website.
"Started in January 2018, it mostly consists of deleted articles backed up by WeChat users and media reports on hot topics," the introduction says.
Former NGO worker Yang Zhanqing, who has served jail time for his rights activism, said the three had likely been detained in connection with the site.
"The Terminus 2049 project uses decentralized technology to back up various media articles and Weibo and WeChat posts that have been deleted and blocked in China," Yang said.
"Since the start of the coronavirus epidemic, the website has backed up a lot of official media reports that were deleted during the epidemic, as well as a large number of media articles," he said.
Some articles had touched on genetic testing relating to the coronavirus, or other politically sensitive topics like the death toll in Wuhan's nursing homes and the eviction of migrant workers from elsewhere in Hubei province.
"A lot of the content can be used to confirm the inconsistency of official narratives," Yang said. "So the government thinks it is anti-government."
"I think that the sensitivity of this website is the main reason that these three people are now incommunicado."
He said various attempts to sue Beijing for compensation over the coronavirus pandemic had made the topic of its origins and an official cover-up of human-to-human transmission even more sensitive for the ruling party.
According to Reuters, Chen’s family has yet to receive any formal notification of his detention from the police, although an officer had told his brother that he is "cooperating with an investigation."
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.