On Thursday, after several of his reports circulated around the world, Chen stopped responding to calls and messages, setting off an online campaign to track him down. The 34-year-old knew he would be a likely target for law enforcement, so he gave select friends access to his accounts, instructing them to change the passwords if they went more than 12 hours without hearing from him.
According to Chen’s friends, authorities told his family over the weekend that he had been forcibly quarantined in an undisclosed location.
Xu Xiaodong, a well-known mixed martial artist and friend of Chen’s, said in a YouTube live stream that Qingdao public security officers and state security officers told his parents he had been “detained in the name of quarantine.”
“Qiushi’s mother immediately asked them where and when he was taken away; they declined to say,” said Xu, an outspoken critic of the Chinese government.
The friend who is now managing Chen’s Twitter account told The Washington Post on Sunday that Xu’s video was authentic.
“We can do nothing, not even his parents,” said the friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect Chen. “They didn’t even tell his parents where he is or how he is now. They didn’t allow them to make any phone calls.”
In one of his most widely circulated videos, Chen said he knew the risks he was facing.
“I’m afraid. In front of me is disease, behind me is China’s legal and administrative power,” he said, according to multiple translations. “But as long as I’m alive, I’ll speak what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard. I’m not afraid of dying. Why should I be afraid of you, Communist Party?”
Chen’s disappearance fueled an upsurge of anger over the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, coming just days after the death of Li Wenliang, the “whistleblower doctor” who is considered the first to have sounded the alarm about the new strain of the disease in late December.
Li, who was the same age as Chen, was detained and silenced in early January by Wuhan police, who accused him of “rumor-mongering.” He contracted coronavirus after he returned to work and died last week, triggering an outpouring of grief and rage and transforming him into a symbol of Beijing’s failures.
Chen, a rights lawyer from northeastern China, drew international attention last August when he traveled to Hong Kong to report on the city’s pro-democracy uprising, challenging the narrative pushed by state media that the protesters were violent separatists. He said Chinese authorities deleted his social media accounts shortly afterward.
When news of the coronavirus outbreak started percolating, Chen initially did not know whether to take it seriously, in part because domestic and foreign coverage of the virus were so different, as he told Quartz this month.
When Beijing announced that the entire city of Wuhan would be quarantined, however, he decided to investigate on his own, well aware that he would be putting himself in danger.
He took a train to Hankou on the northwestern edge of Wuhan, carrying little more than a backpack, sleeping bag and cellphone, he told Quartz.
Over the following days, he posted videos of patients languishing in overflowing hospital lobbies that were shared around the world, along with vivid descriptions of the desperate struggle to contain the disease.
Using privacy tools to circumvent the country’s tight restrictions on Twitter and YouTube, he accused the Chinese government of concealing the true scope of the outbreak, which as of Sunday morning had killed more than 800 people worldwide and sickened more than 37,000.
Chen told Quartz he had been to four Wuhan hospitals and the construction site of a temporary field hospital.
“In the beginning, there were not many people in hospitals,” he said. “But after I met more local youngsters, I heard from them that the situation is still severe. They do not have enough testing kits or beds, and doctors are extremely overwhelmed. Workers and their leaders at the construction sites for the new hospitals are exhausted, too.”
His activities put him on authorities’ radar almost instantly. On Jan. 25, he was banned from WeChat. A few days later, the country’s censors blocked his face and name on the popular Chinese messaging platform, according to the Hong Kong Free Press. At some point, police went looking for him at his parents’ house, he said.
“They ‘educated’ my parents to tell me not to spread negative comments about the government,” he told Quartz.
The friend operating Chen’s Twitter account said Chen did not report any signs of sickness in their last exchange before he disappeared.
“I asked about his health condition. He answered, ‘I’m good, I’m good,’ ” the friend said.
When Chen stopped answering messages, the friend said he tried not to worry. “At first I thought it was nothing, because it happened many times. I try my best not to disturb him too frequently because I know he must be very busy there,” the friend said. “But as time passed by, my concerns grew and grew.”
To protect himself from the disease, Chen wore gloves, safety glasses and a long winter coat, and sprayed himself with disinfectant every time he came in from outdoors, he told Quartz. He vowed to keep reporting at any cost.
“As one of the remaining reporters on the front line, I could help spread some information,” he told Quartz. “For the political risks of doing so, I have no time to worry about that for now.”