How Steel is Tempered — Chen Qiushi Returns

Viral Alarm
Spectres & Souls

The lawyer Chen Qiushi (陳秋實, 1985-) was one of the autonomous citizen-journalists who attempted to report on the outbreak of ‘Wuhan Flu’ 武汉肺炎 (武肺) — later known as ‘Corona Virus’ 新冠病毒 or Covid-19 — in February 2020.

Following his detention on 6 February 2020, updates continued to appear on Chen’s Twitter account, and the flow of tweets continued well into August, when they suddenly stopped. It was subsequently revealed that the publisher Geng Xiaonan 耿瀟男, Chen’s friend and advocate, had been acting on his behalf. As we previously recorded in China Heritage, Geng, a woman known for the valiant and material support of many independent intellectuals and cultural figures, including most famously Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, formerly of Tsinghua University, was herself detained on 9 September 2020 and sentenced to a three-year jail term in early 2021 (for details, see ‘Mid Autumn, Geng Xiaonan & National Treasures’, 21 September 2021).

In late 2020, reports surfaced suggesting that Chen had been released into the custody of his parents, who live in Qingdao, Shandong province. On 30 September 2021, over eighteen months after his sudden disappearance, Chen Qiushi reappeared online, featuring in a clip on the YouTube channel of his friend ‘Mad Dog’ Xu Xiaodong (徐曉東, 1979-), a well-known Beijing mixed martial artist, YouTuber and ratbag (in the Antipodean sense). Chen revealed that he was training for a boxing competition and in a follow-up video released on the morning of 6 October 2021, he addressed his followers directly (see the YouTube clip below).

This is a supplement to Viral Alarm: China Heritage Annual 2020. as well as being a chapter in Spectres & Souls: China Heritage Annual 2021.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heriage
6 October 2021


‘I have my own bottom line which is:

‘Although I cannot say everything that I know to be true,
I categorically refuse to say anything I know to be untrue.’


Chen Qiushi, 6 October 2021



Chen Qiushi’s account from Wuhan is well known, but he was an online celebrity long before the 2020 viral year. An award-winning debater and an outspoken cultural commentator, Chen was known for a series of short videos on a range of topics. They attracted considerable attention both in- and outside China. See ‘Fleeting Images, Lingering Words — The Voluble Legacy of Chen Qiushi’ 音容一飄忽,功業自紛綸 in ‘Chen Qiushi’s Gift of the Gab’ (China Heritage, 28 December 2020) for a selection of those videos, reproduced here to celebrate Chen, his daring supporter, Geng Xiaonan, and other outspoken Chinese men and women of conscience.

We also hope that these short videos will help readers of China Heritage to appreciate better one of the loquacious public figures who fell silent in February, suffocating in Xi Jinping’s ‘iron house’ 鐵屋. (For more on the ‘iron house’, see: ‘Silent China & Its Enemies — Watching China Watching (XXX)’China Heritage, 13 July 2018). For the moment at least his voice is being heard again, and it is a cause for celebration.


In ‘Chen Qiushi — Rogue Reporting from the Epicentre of a Crisis’, an essay written for Viral Alarm: China Heritage Annual 2020, Sebastian Veg noted that:

Chen Qiushi 陳秋實, a lawyer who already enjoyed something of a reputation as a self-proclaimed independent investigator, in particular as a result of a fledgling attempt to cover the 2019 Hong Kong protests for Mainland viewers, travelled to Wuhan on 23 January to report on the unfolding crisis. Chen situated himself in the new tradition of the ‘citizen journalists’ that appeared and gained popular influence throughout the 2000s (the Communist Party may well now prefer to refer to that decade as the ‘Noughties’). …

Chen Qiushi’s video reports which were followed by 430,000 YouTube subscribers — he also had 246,000 Twitter followers — were strikingly different from anything that could have appeared in the 2000s, when citizen journalists prided themselves first and foremost on reflecting through their work superior professional ethics to those practiced by state media. …

During his reporting venture in Wuhan, which was curtailed by his sudden disappearance on 6 February, Chen undoubtedly uncovered significant information, such as the fact that local taxi drivers had been discussing the appearance of a ‘SARS-like illness’ in December, or that the local official Chinese Red Cross was so corrupt that people were sending their donations directly to hospitals, overwhelming mail rooms as a result. Without discounting Chen’s work, it must be noted, however, that there is little doubt that its limitations reflect the fact that the present level of professional ethics to which citizen journalists hold themselves has been severely affected by the relentless media crackdown of recent years. New activists are suppressed nearly as soon as they appear, therefore there is scant opportunity or time for them to appreciate, share and transmit knowledge about the standards established by their predecessors. Still, it is remarkable that, given these straightened circumstances, someone like Chen Qiushi could appear at all. He provided important updates on the situation in Wuhan until he, like others who attempted to emulate him, were silenced.

from Sebastian Veg in ‘The Heart of the One Grows
Ever More Arrogant and Proud’
, 10 March 2020


Chen Qiushi with Xu Xiaodong, Beijing, 30 September 2021