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image copyrightChina News Service

image captionChina has celebrated victory over the coronavirus this year

At the start of the year the Chinese government faced two major challenges; an unknown disease which threatened to tear through its population and a wave of voices online telling the world what was happening.

By the end of 2020, a glance at Chinese state-controlled media shows that both appear to be under control.

The BBC’s Kerry Allen and Zhaoyin Feng take a look back at the country’s online government censors who worked harder than ever to supress negative information, the citizens that managed to break through the Great Firewall, and how the propaganda machine re-wrote the narrative.

Early attempts to shift blame amid unprecedented online anger

image copyrightSina Weibo

image captionComments appeared over and over again on Weibo asking if China was experiencing another Sars outbreak

At the beginning of the year, it was clear something unprecedented was happening. Thousands of messages of public outrage appeared on Chinese social media, asking whether local governments were covering up another Sars-like virus.

While government censors routinely mute anti-government messaging on platforms like Sina Weibo, they were of such a large volume that many remained visible.

This is because when facing major disasters, the Chinese government often scrambles to react, and censors are slow to act. In January and February, multiple media outlets took the opportunity to publish hard-hitting investigations, which were widely shared on social media.

Later, as Beijing came up with a propaganda strategy, these reports were stifled.

  • China social media censorship: how does it work?

  • How the Chinese authorities censor your thoughts
  • The top talking points of 2019 in China and how netizens evaded the censors

Blame was being pointed in all directions. In mid-January, Chinese President Xi Jinping suddenly became an absent figure in China’s media. He was not seen in public, and pictures vanished of him from the front pages of traditional government outlets like People’s Daily. There was some speculation that he was, quite physically, avoiding blame.

image copyrightPeople’s Daily
image captionImages of Xi Jinping normally dominate China’s government mouthpiece and he became notably absent

Within a week, however, things changed considerably. Top officials began warning local governments they would “forever be nailed to the pillar of historical shame” if they withheld information about cases in their regions.

Blame shifted in Chinese media and social media towards Wuhan’s leadership, with papers like Beijing News writing unusually critical commentaries, asking: “Why didn’t Wuhan let the public know sooner?”

Mr Xi then reappeared in early February as a pillar of confidence and strength amid China’s recovery.

image copyrightBeijing News
image captionRegional dailies criticised Wuhan officials for outbreaks elsewhere, like here in Shanghai

Censorship stepped up around doctor

image copyrightSina Weibo
image captionMore than 1m Weibo users have left comments on Li Wenliang’s Weibo page since his death

Amid all the confusion, it became clear that one man’s voice had been silenced where it shouldn’t have been.

Li Wenliang has become known internationally as the “whistleblower” doctor who tried to warn colleagues about a Sars-like virus. Dr Li died on 7 February after it came to light that he had been investigated for “disturbing social order” by “making false comments”.

More than a million users took to Sina Weibo to leave messages of support for him on his profile after his death, which many termed China’s “Wailing Wall”. However, posts have been periodically wiped, to people’s frustration.

Netizens have, however, found creative ways to keep his memory alive using emojis, Morse code, and ancient Chinese script.

image copyrightFacebook
image captionUsers voiced their anger about Dr Li’s death with mask protests

Many have also written messages that they can’t say online on their masks. A trend appeared on both Facebook and the popular WeChat mobile messenger of users writing the words “I am not able to understand this” on their masks in response to Dr Li’s death.

Journalists ‘disappeared’, yet gained visibility outside of China

While the authorities have since officially recognised Dr Li Wenliang as a “martyr”, several notable activists may be written out of the country’s Covid-19 history.

image copyrightYoutube/Screenshot
image captionCitizen journalist Zhang Zhan was imprisoned for reporting from Wuhan

During the Wuhan outbreak, a number of citizen journalists made a notable impact internationally, by circumventing the “great firewall of China” to get word out of the city.

These include Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Zhang Zhan. They racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube for videos they say gave the true picture of what was happening in Wuhan.

However, this came at a cost. The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that in Wuhan, the authorities “arrested several journalists for coverage that threatened the official narrative of Beijing’s response”. CPJ says three are still in prison. And given YouTube is blocked in China, few in the country know of their impact.

Questions have also been raised about whether one journalist who did reappear became part of an overseas propaganda campaign.

image copyrightLi Zehua/YouTube
image captionLi Zehua went missing for two months after last being seen in Wuhan

Li Zehua vanished in February after posting a YouTube video saying he was being chased in his car by police.

He wasn’t heard from for two months, but then posted a video saying that he had been cooperating with the authorities and had been in quarantine.

He has not posted since, and many have suggested that he might have been forced into making the video.

Young people have suffered, but found new ways to get their voices heard

image copyrightSina Weibo
image captionStudents shouted from their dorms in protest at being locked down at universities across the country

Since March, China has wanted to mark its success in overcoming the coronavirus, yet it has been especially evident that the censors have tried to stamp out evidence of discontent, particularly among young people.

China has stressed that it wants to avoid another Wuhan-style lockdown. Yet as the South China Morning Post notes, many universities have continued to implement “blanket campus lockdowns”.

In August, many students returned to a physical classroom for the first time. But protests erupted at campuses across the country to universities rationing internet and showering times, due to the sudden overcapacity. There were also complaints that university canteens exploited the reliance on on-site food and hiked food costs. Many such conversations were subsequently censored.

Anger and dissatisfaction among China’s young caused many this year to go beyond traditional social media platforms onto lesser known ones, to find a shared voice.

image copyrightSina Weibo
image captionMemes about Chinese going “NetEmo” unsettled the government

News website Sixth Tone notes a surge of “NetEmo” on music streaming platform, Netease Cloud Music, with “pervasive” comments from young Chinese about “failed exams, doomed relationships and shattered dreams”.

It says the platform tried to “stem the trend”, by announcing a crackdown on what it said were “fabricated” user comments.

History has been rewritten with new books, TV shows

China has also tried to promote an overly optimistic picture.

Much as there have been concerns that The Crown might tell an inauthentic version of the UK’s royal history, many Chinese are concerned that post-Covid era books and TV programmes have not accurately shown what happened in Wuhan.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionFang Fang, once an online star, is now accused of spreading a “doomsday narrative”

Chinese author Fang Fang received widespread praise earlier in the year for documenting her life in Wuhan, and providing a rare glimpse into Wuhan residents’ fears and hopes.

However, her online diary has since made her the target of fervent Chinese nationalists, who accuse her of trying to smear China and promote a “doomsday narrative”.

State media have sought to promote other books, including those of expats, to reinforce the government’s optimistic message about the authorities’ handling of the virus.

In some instances, there has been backlash at state media dictating a certain narrative on the handling of the Wuhan outbreak.

This was evident in September when Heroes in Harm’s Way, the first drama “based on real life stories” of front-line workers, received backlash for downplaying the role that women had played in the outbreak.

image copyrightCCTV
image captionWomen were angry with one drama’s depiction of their pandemic role

China has come out stronger versus the ‘crumbling, unstable West’

It is evident that China wants to end 2020 on a high note.

Beyond telling its own citizens that it has largely won the war over its Covid-19, China also wants to tell the world.

But China now seeks to distance itself from its early connections to the coronavirus, and promote the idea that China’s Covid-19 success means its political model is more successful than the West’s.

This has gone beyond calling for an end to loaded terminology, like the “Wuhan coronavirus” – which China’s own media even used in the early stages – to stepping up suggestions that the coronavirus could actually have started in the West.

Chinese outlets have wasted no opportunity throughout the year to highlight the United States – and to some extent the UK’s – poor handling of the virus, and how these have exacerbated divisions.

This has happened to such an extent that it has become popular for Chinese netizens to call Covid-19 the “America virus” or “Trump virus”.

Chinese papers and broadcasters have been keen to point out when US media have turned on each other, how politicians have prioritised spending on election campaigns over healthcare, and how a messy, endless election has led to extreme political polarisation.

If there’s one message China wants to take into 2021, it’s that the country is rounding off the year with unity and prosperity, whereas other countries can only anticipate further divisions and instability.

media captionFrom fear to freedom: China’s painful year fighting Covid-19

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)

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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers


Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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