Whistleblowing doctor Ai Fen has confirmed she is still at work at her hospital in the central Chinese city of Wuhan after concerns over her whereabouts and personal safety.
The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Monday called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to “urgently clarify” Ai’s status, saying she had been unreachable for the past two weeks.
It said it hoped that a video on her Weibo account suggesting she was at liberty wasn’t “staged by the Chinese regime.”
Ai told RFA on Tuesday that it was she who had been sending out the posts from her Weibo account, and that she hadn’t been detained, just working.
“It was I who sent out the posts on Weibo,” she said. “I never used to use it in the past because I thought it was useless, and I only started using it after this thing happened because there were a lot of people concerned about me.”
“Some of the employees of Weibo behind the scenes kept saying I should post a bit more, but I told them I’d only be able to do it from time to time,” Ai said.
“I’d like to thank everyone for their concern,” she said. “I’m doing pretty well, just going to work every day. Everything is fine.”
“I’d like to say … that all I ever wanted was to just get on with being a doctor in peace: thank you for your understanding,” Ai said.
However, a source familiar with the situation said that Ai had come under considerable political pressure behind the scenes, and wasn’t in a position to talk about it.
“She probably is under pressure but you shouldn’t call her; call someone else,OK?” the source said. “Sorry about that — really sorry.”
An employee who answered the phone at the Wuhan Central Hospital ER, of which Ai is director, declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Tuesday.
“I don’t think she’s here right now, but I don’t know. Maybe you should just call her directly?” the employee said.
Another hospital employee also declined to comment.
“It’s not convenient for me to answer your questions,” the employee said, using a phrase often used to indicate pressure from the authorities. “You should ask somebody else.”
“Either that or contact our propaganda department … I’m busy now, OK, so would you mind hanging up now?”
Repeated calls to the Wuhan municipal health commission rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
RSF earlier had cast doubt on the authenticity of Ai’s Weibo posts, saying that Chinese police have often forced detainees to reveal their social media passwords, then made posts in their name.
Ai was among a group of fellow doctors who first sounded the alarm on Dec. 30 about the emergence of a mystery virus in Wuhan that seemed similar to SARS.
The authorities detained and questioned eight of the doctors on Jan. 3, including Li Wenliang, who later died of the virus, accusing them of “rumor-mongering.”
Allowing independent voices ‘would be suicide for them’
Ai was earlier given a stern reprimand after sending information about the early stages of the outbreak to a group of doctors, she wrote in a now-deleted essay published in China’s People (Renwu) magazine.
Titled “The one who supplied the whistle,” the article described how Ai had been silenced by her bosses after she took a photo of a patient’s test results and circled the words “SARS coronavirus” in red. She then alerted colleagues to several cases of the virus.
Dissident artist Ai Weiwei told an international human rights conference on Tuesday that allowing any kind of dissent was anathema to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
“It would be suicide for them to allow independent thought or critical voices in China,” he said.
“A lot of people in the international community say that we need China, but China also needs the rest of the world,” he said. “[China’s leaders] are hoping that things will go back to the way they were before [the pandemic].”
“I think that is pure propaganda, because if that were to happen, then another crisis would just occur very soon,” Ai Weiwei said.
China ranked 177th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Zheng Chongsheng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.