Almost three years ago, former state broadcaster Kcriss Li live-streamed his arrest by state security police in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where he had gone to report as a citizen journalist on the onset of the pandemic in 2020.
“I’m suddenly chased down by the state security police. The car they’re driving is not a police car,” Li tells the camera after being hassled and obstructed for days by local officials and security guards as he traveled around Wuhan reporting on the epidemic. including 24-hour operation of crematoria in the city.
“They’re chasing me so I can’t live stream anymore. I’ll just have to leave you with this clip,” Li says in a video shot in February 2022not long after he tried to film the P4 lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which some rumors claimed was the source of the COVID-19 virus.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling I had then, in Wuhan … sometimes I was reminded of a trip I went to North Korea in 2019, where I stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel, which is a place where foreign tourists stay himself in Pyongyang,” he recalls. Li, now a student in Rochester, New York. “We were able to move freely around the hotel, but under a state of total control, so we felt we could be arrested at any time if we left the hotel.”
“The fear, the threat of existing under the threat of totalitarianism was what I felt most in Wuhan then,” Li said in an exclusive interview with Radio Free Asia, speaking to the public for the first time since disappearing about two years ago. .
But Li, whose history has been written up as a book by exiled writer Liao Yiwu, dismisses the fear of totalitarian power as “tragic”, especially for young people.
“We should worry about what kind of practical action we can take, not about the so-called power of those who make the rules,” he says, strolling around a lake near his dormitory.
“The rumors flew around”
Li, whose Chinese name is Li Zehua, said he was drawn to Wuhan by the disconnect between the official narrative, which claimed the ruling Chinese Communist Party had the emerging pandemic under control, and the cries for help from health workers and ordinary people in the earth.
“Frontline medical staff cried out over the lack of protective equipment and said patients were dying in large numbers both inside and outside hospitals,” he says. “The rumors were flying around the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
At the start, pioneering private media such as Caixin, Caijing, Freezing point and Southern weekend published frontline reporting from Wuhan. But President Xi Jinping gave a speech on February 3, 2022, calling for “strengthening public opinion management.”
Citizen journalists had been quick to step into the breach despite the banning of a number of key blogging platforms, including Tencent’s “Daija” in the wake of Xi’s speech.
But their days were also numbered given the strength of Xi’s directive to control the public narrative.
Suddenly became quiet
Citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, one of the first to arrive in the city, suddenly became quiet after interviewing people around new megahospitals being thrown up at high speed in Wuhan with blogger Fang Bin taken away by the police just a few days later.
Li managed to hang on there for a few more weeks until his dramatic, live-streamed chase by police on February 26, while lawyer-turned-reporter Zhang Zhan was detained and taken back to Shanghai, where she is reportedly close to death in prison after months of on-off hunger strike and force-feeding.
Li said his main concern about live streaming the police chase was self-protection.
“I knew that as long as I had a platform, it would give me some protection against a totalitarian power that tried to hurt me or suffocate me,” he says, although he ended the broadcast with an impassioned plea to China’s youth to to get up.”
Now he finds inspiration in November’s anti-lockdown protests across China, where people held up blank sheets of paper and called on Xi to step down and call elections, or at least end three years of grueling lockdowns, mass surveillance and mandatory test under his zero COVID policy.
“The most ridiculous thing is that I did nothing,” he says. “We didn’t do anything – so people can’t even hold up a blank sheet of paper now?”
“What are they afraid of?”
Living the Chinese Dream
Li was detained by the police in February 2020 and detained for two months. He came to the United States in 2021 on a student visa to pursue a master’s degree in computer science.
It wasn’t his first brush with authority.
A high school dropout from the eastern province of Jiangxi, he narrowly escaped being sent to juvenile detention and instead ended up in Shenzhen’s malls as a computer salesman.
Life in the cosmopolitan trading city brought him into contact with the wider world, and he eventually caught up with his studies and was admitted to the Communication University of China as an anchor trainee.
Eventually hired as a host and presenter, Li lived the Chinese dream for a while, traveling and filming for her food shows.
Now his existence is reduced to a room in a university dormitory in Rochester, New York, with a desk filled with computer screens displaying code or papers on artificial intelligence.
“We have been oppressed by unfreedom for a long time in China,” Li told RFA. “This unfreedom, especially the unfreedom of information, has led to many other unfreedoms.”
“I think the digital totalitarianism we see today is created by technology, and the problems that technology brings can only be solved by technology itself,” he explains.
Cultural revolution 2.0
He compares the last three years of the zero-COVID policy, with white-clad enforcers welding people into their apartments or sending them to quarantine camps in the middle of the night, to the political turmoil of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
“After I left, things got even worse – the guys in white turned into the White Guards,” he says. “Nothing has changed since the Cultural Revolution.”
When asked what he thinks China is or could become, he takes a long pause to gather his thoughts.
“I think China can become very diverse,” he says. “It is precisely because of the lack of tolerance and diversity that any talk of China these days is dominated by left-wing nationalism and senseless patriotism.”
“I discovered when I came to the United States that freedom … is the result of diversity, or diversity is the prerequisite for freedom, which was a pretty profound feeling,” he says.
Later asked who Kcriss Li is now, he struggles to find an answer.
“I’m a learner,” he finally concludes with a laugh. “I am a person who is constantly learning and who keeps discovering that he is nothing.”
But he still plans to continue the fight against totalitarian rule, which he sees as a threat everywhere due to the global spread of technology.
“If a totalitarian regime uses (artificial intelligence) technology to control the people, the people will fight back. But you don’t even have the chance to know the opponent,” he says. “I think it is necessary to tell how the most backward society abuses the most advanced technology to harm. It makes sense to take, inform and explain the details to people. I think it is meaningful.”
“I will certainly continue to fight the things that I don’t like, like totalitarianism and tyranny, and fight them in my own way,” he says. “I think more people will join me in the future … I’m not alone.”
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.