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22 Apr 2020

The disappearance & mysterious return of Li Zehua

One of three citizen journalists who went missing in Wuhan while covering the Coronavirus outbreak has returned with a new video.

But Li Zehua, in this one, oddly, praises the police, countering criticisms against them following his disappearance. The delivery, style and content is markedly different from his other videos. It looks and sounds like a 'confession’ video, of a type very similar in delivery to many ‘confessions’ aired on Chinese state TV since 2013.


The emergence of Li Zehua

Former CCTV journalist, Li Zehua travelled to Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, following the disappearance of now well-known citizen journalist Chen Qiushi on February 6 from that city. 

Li, in his mid-twenties, posted a series of videos from Wuhan as ‘Kcriss’, showcasing the reality of life in Wuhan under quarantine. He also presented information challenging the official death count, and opposing the narratrive presented on official media.

Before this, Li, a Jiangxi native, lived in Beijing and wasn't known until now for any poltical activism. He had graduated from the Communications University of China, joining CCTV in 2016.

This is how the National Review wrote about him after he disappeared:

Li was living a picture-perfect life. After graduating from one of China’s best universities, he began working as a news anchor for China’s most important and prominent state TV station, CCTV. At the age of 25, handsome and thriving, Li was a rising star. Had he stayed within the boundaries the Chinese authorities have drawn and not raised concerns over the topics that Beijing deemed “sensitive,” he might have lived a good, prosperous life.

Li's debut video, February 12 (with English subtitles)


The disappearance

On February 26, breaking with the polished and stylized videos of the past, Li posted a brief recording, filmed with his phone from inside his car. He was visibly shaken as he described being chased by an unmarked car and shaking them off.  Here is the video: 

That night Li hid at a house and live-streamed on Youtube for nearly four hours.

Police were knocking on his and his neighbours' doors, but he hid in the darkness. Later they returned. Li then opened the door while filming. Several people wearing masks entered before the signal was cut. Before he opens the door Li says “Why di I quit CCTV? Because I want more young people to stand up and rase their voice. To criticize doesn't have to mean anti-Party.”

The video of the last 45 minutes before being Li was taken can be viewed here: 

So like Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, also citizen journalists, Li's voice was snuffed out and he was disappeared.


The return

Li reappeared on April 22 with a new video posted to his Youtube channel.

Seemingly filmed by himself, he appears much more subdued than in previous videos.

Li talks about what happened after police went to his home, the time he was disappeared, and most surprisingly, lavishes praise on the police. He talks about how safe he felt whilst he was held, the food he was given and the exercise he was allowed to do.

Towards the end of the six minute video he says the police enforced the law in a civilized manner, how they made sure he had both ample sleep and food, and how well they cared for him.

Li's new video, dated April 22, and in our opinion likely forced, can be viewed here: 

An entry about Li on Baidu Encyclopedia (China's 'propagandised version' of Wikipedia) is now offline.


What to make of Li’s confession-style video

The content and wording of the video indicates that it has very likely been made and presented against his will.

The style is characteristic of China’s  “confession videos”. As of now no definitive information is available but it is very likely he was threatened by police to make this and they may indeed have filmed and posted it. These are the same police that kept Li incommunicado and at an unknown location (constituting an enforced disappearance) between Feb 26 and April 22.

It is still unclear whether Li has actually been released.

Such videos are analysed in detail by Safeguard Defenders groundbreaking report Scripted and Staged,  explored in its book Trial By Media, and regularly covered on this website.

In recent years, too, Chinese police and the state have explored new ways of delivering more forced confessions, employing social media and using different styles. See China takes forced confessions to new platforms. They have aso employed the tactic to control public discussion of the Coronavirus. See: China unleashes forced confessions to control Coronavirus rumours

Many forced confession victims we have interviewed, talk about how the police subjected them to psychological and physical torture, including threats to their loved ones and families in order to coerce them into making one.