World Health Organization (WHO) investigators probing the origins of the coronavirus in China are unlikely to be allowed to meet with critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s handling of the early stages of the pandemic, an overseas-based rights group said on Monday.
The team visited two disease control centers on Monday that had an early hand in managing the outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Since emerging from a 14-day quarantine period, the team -- which has said it isn't trying to apportion blame for the pandemic -- have also visited hospitals and a seafood market linked to an early cluster of cases.
But the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said that even if the group were to try, they would have problems talking to anyone offering a different view from the government's official narrative.
"Even if they try, the WHO experts would have difficulties finding anybody to talk to, from whistleblowing doctors, citizen reporters, to victims’ families, or any critics of the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak," CHRD said in a report on its website.
Rather, the authorities have been suppressing information and penalizing dissent, it said.
"Citizen journalists who went to Wuhan in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak to report from the frontlines have either gone missing or went to jail," it said.
"The exact whereabouts of Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi remain unknown; Zhang Zhan was sentenced to 4 years in jail; and Chen Mei and Cai Wei, who tried to preserve censored COVID information, are still detained."
It added: "Outspoken critics of President Xi Jinping for his handling of the pandemic are locked up – Ren Zhiqiang received 18 years in jail, Guo Quan and Xu Zhiyong remain in pretrial detention."
Disappeared, presumed detained
The group also cited the cases of two women who spoke out about vaccine safety who have "disappeared," and are presumed detained by the authorities.
Hua Xiuzhen was last seen on Jan. 13 in Shanghai, escorted away by Yangpu district neighborhood committee officials, while He Fangmei went "missing" in Henan province on Oct. 9, it said.
"What the two missing women have in common is their tenacious campaign for transparency in the government’s vaccination programs and their efforts to seek accountability," CHRD said.
The WHO team is looking for large quantities of evidence including animal samples, genetic analysis, and epidemiological studies that will help it pin down the origins of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
According to Reuters, no full itinerary for the group’s field work has been announced, and journalists covering the tightly controlled visit have been kept at a distance from team members.
However, the WHO tweeted last week that the team would include a visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which carries out research into bat coronaviruses, sparking speculation that there is a link with its activities and the emergence of COVID-19 in the same city.
"Field visits will include the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Huanan market, Wuhan CDC laboratory," the agency said via its Twitter account, adding that the team would speak with some of the first people to be confirmed as COVID-19 patients.
Seafood market reorganized
Political commentator Fu Shenqi said city authorities have "reorganized" the South China Seafood Market linked to the start of the first outbreak beyond recognition.
"Equipment, materials, and data in P4 laboratories have been . . . hidden and the hospitals are fully prepared for these visits," Fu said in a commentary broadcast on RFA's Mandarin Service.
"What is there left for the experts to investigate?" he said, adding that the team is fully expecting this.
"The WHO doesn't want the international community to have high expectations for this investigation," Fu wrote. "Official CCP rhetoric is even clearer that this isn't an investigation, but more of a collaboration ... with Chinese experts on the origins of the virus."
"We can expect the WHO to go through the motions with this probe ... and China wants it to conclude that the source of the virus wasn't in Wuhan," Fu wrote.
Despite speculation around the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Beijing has repeatedly tried to change the narrative around the origins of the coronavirus, with state-run media frequently suggesting that it was brought to the country from somewhere else.
Fu said a vaguely worded report from the WHO team would be most likely to win the approval of the Chinese government.
China recorded more than 2,000 new domestic cases of COVID-19 in January, the highest monthly total since the final phase of the initial outbreak in Wuhan in March 2020.
Two people died of the disease in January, the first fatalities in several months.
Meanwhile, travel bans and quarantine restrictions are being implemented nationwide ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations starting Feb. 12, with schools only operating online, and government incentives offered to people who stay put and don't travel back to be with relatives for the festive season.
Reported by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.