WASHINGTON - It was a familiar phone number, from secret police officer Sun.
"Where are you? Send me a GPS location," said Sun, a member of the guobao, an arm of China's domestic security force tasked with monitoring dissidents and keeping them in line, said.
Gao Fei, 32, a native of Huanggang, Hubei province, was a welder in Guangdong province. He got in trouble and met Sun in 2014 for participating in human rights activities.
Gao has returned from Zhongshan, Guangzhou province to his hometown at the end of last year, just as the first cases of a mysterious, pneumonia-like virus were showing up at local hospitals. Like other small cities near Wuhan where COVID-19 originated, Huanggang quickly became one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus.
Gao knew the police would come to him sooner or later. On Jan. 28, the day before Sun called, Gao had “climbed the wall” — used a virtual private network (VPN) -— to circumvent the Great Firewall that China uses to control its citizens’ access to online content.
Beyond the reach of Beijing’s censoring technologies, Gao tweeted that Huanggang hospitals were facing serious supply shortages, and this proved President Xi Jinping did not take ordinary people's lives seriously. Xi was "anti-human," as Gao put it.
"This tweet was said to have alarmed high-level officials,” he told VOA Mandarin last month. “County police told me that the Ministry of Public Security had issued instructions to arrest me."
For seven days after Sun called, Gao was detained, a step that often begins the formal process that ends with an official arrest, once approved by an administrative official.
"It's completely the rule of man now, there’s no rule of law," he told VOA. "No one’s personal safety is guaranteed."
The COVID-19 pandemic emerged late last year in Wuhan. As of March 31, Chinese authorities have reported roughly 81,000 cases and 3,300 deaths. Globally, the coronavirus raged through more than 200 countries and territories, sickened 809,608 and killed 39,544 as of the end of March.
It is the second pandemic of the 21st century to originate in China. Between November 2002 and July 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which originated in Guangdong province, killed 774 people, and sickened 8,098.
Once Chinese officials grasped the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak, they further censored the internet. People who mentioned almost anything about the disease found themselves in trouble.
Passing along information that a neighbor had just returned from Wuhan? Repeating something about the virus overheard at the grocery store? Discussing the origin of the coronavirus? Expressing anger at the government’s response? Worrying about the difficulty of arranging a proper funeral?
The chatter of everyday life became offensive to the guobao.
“I think it takes people more by surprise because they don’t think of (what they’ve done) as being something political, or something dangerous," said Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House. “So, they don’t even realize that they might get in trouble. Then they get a knock at the door.”
As one netizen put it, "Every day, I have friends being taken away, losing contact, being detained, and ‘drinking tea.’"
Drinking tea, or he cha, means being “summoned and interrogated by the state security police.”
Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), a coalition of Chinese and international human rights nongovernmental organizations, said as of March 12, there were 5,511 cases related to people being punished for allegedly spreading information about the epidemic. That is also the number used in official Chinese media.
Most of the people detained for COVID-19 remarks have been held for three to 15 days and forced to plead guilty. Some were subjected to fines, verbal warnings, education and criminal detention. Of the cases collected by CHRD, the youngest person detained for allegedly “spreading rumors” was 15 years old.
VOA contacted the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., for comment but was disconnected after being directed to an extension that played music.
Even during the coronavirus pandemic, Cook said suppression of dissent remains a top priority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) because Beijing is treating the current public health crisis as a political threat.
The magnitude of that threat is reflected by the recent disappearance of real estate tycoon and CCP member Ren Zhiqiang, 69.
Well-connected — China’s Vice President Wang Qishan was Ren's counselor when he was in middle school — and nicknamed "The Cannon," Ren has criticized China’s ruling Communist Party on many occasions. In early March, he condemned Beijing authorities for covering up the magnitude of the epidemic.
In a sharply worded essay, he called China’s top leader Xi Jinping “a clown who stripped naked and insists he is an emperor.” Several of Ren’s friends told the Reuters news agency that authorities spirited him away on March 12.
A source who requested anonymity told VOA that Ren initially shared his scathing essay among a small circle of friends — private entrepreneurs who also belong to a foundation dedicated to protecting the environment.
The source, who said he has many friends in common with Ren, told VOA that "Ren probably shared (the essay) with 11 people. Some who lacked political sensitivity may have distributed it further.”
“Then people came to him and asked if the essay was written by him. A hard bone like Ren would of course say yes, and that triggered the series of events,” the source said.
A “hard bone” is a person who does not yield to circumstances.
The source also told VOA that authorities detained Ren’s eldest son and said other family members will likely be affected, as well.
Ren was put in liuzhi, a form of detention that operates outside existing boundaries of China’s criminal law. The government has deemed his case significant.
"No one can step in. No one can intervene. No one can ask for mercy. And that may also include Wang Qishan," the source told VOA.
Liuzhi is employed by China's anti-corruption National Supervision Commission (NSC), which targets party members, state functionaries and the management of entities such as schools, hospitals, universities, and state-owned enterprises. Often used against journalists, businesspeople and even local contractors, liuzhi lets the commission “disappear” those under investigation or people who are tangentially involved.
Ren’s connection, Wang Qishan, has not appeared in public since the coronavirus outbreak. He did not attend the Feb. 23 virtual people’s teleconference that Xi “personally directed” to make clear to the 170,000 party members who dialed in that the priority for most of China was to restore economic activity slowed by COVID-19.
Chinese media used the teleconference to showcase Xi as battling the epidemic at a time when public anger at Beijing’s response countered official propaganda.
"Wang Qishan has pretty much been sidelined. He poses no checks and balances on Xi Jinping," the source said. “Among party members and nonparty members, there is a general sympathy toward Ren. But very few dares to speak up. Ren Zhiqiang has basically become a piece of meat on the chopping block."
One of China’s best-known entrepreneurial women, Wang Ying, is a friend of Ren’s and was one of the few who spoke on his behalf after he disappeared.
When VOA contacted her last week, she said there has been "no progress" on his case.
She added, "I’m afraid at this point, speaking out for him won’t be of much help. They have used all means to limit the flow of information. Intimidation and physical control are both very effective. Control of family members is also very effective."
Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activist told VOA that since Xi came to power in 2012, China has developed liuzhi, and can use it against as many as 300 million citizens, both party members and others.
“It's a systematic and institutionalized system for disappearing, or using normal language, kidnapping people for up to half a year outside of any control. No protection whatsoever,” said Dahlin via Skype. He was in a lockdown in Spain at his home in Madrid because of the pandemic.
Dahlin said despite its anti-graft roots, the NSC exists to strictly enforce political discipline and achieve political control.
According to statistics from his NGO, Safeguard Defenders, in 2019 alone, the NSC launched nearly 2 million investigations. About 25,000 to 30,000 people were taken into “disappearance” — between 16 to 80 people each day.
Dahlin told VOA that Chinese authorities used enforced disappearances instead of simply arresting people because “It's a very effective form of political terrorism” to take just one person.
Liuzhi is a way to “scare a larger group of people — all of that person’s colleagues, friends and partners,” Dahlin said.
Lin Yang contributed to this report from VOA Mandarin.