SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: January 31, 2020

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution


Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On January 31, 2020, Chinese authorities reportedly detained Guo Quan for alleged online expression, including comments regarding the Chinese government’s handling of an outbreak of a novel coronavirus disease known as Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

First detected in the city of Wuhan in December 2019, COVID-19 and the virus that causes the disease (known as SARS-CoV-2) has spread beyond Hubei province and mainland China to a growing number of countries around the world. As of February 25, roughly 80,000 cases have been confirmed and more than 2,700 people have died from the disease, according to monitoring by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, in the US.

In January and February, 2020, reports began to circulate that Chinese authorities were cracking down on a growing number of doctors, journalists, and academics that reported and commented on COVID-19 and the government’s response. This includes reports that Guo, a former associate professor of literature at Nanjing Normal University and a prominent human rights activist, was detained after allegedly publishing comments critical of the government’s handling of COVID-19 over the popular Chinese social media application WeChat.

Guo has been arrested twice before for his peaceful activism and expression. In 2008, authorities arrested and sentenced Guo to ten years imprisonment for “subversion of state power,” in apparent connection with alleged writings that were critical of the government. In April 2019, roughly five months after finishing his prison sentence, authorities detained Guo for ten days for alleged social media activity, including his calling on the Chinese government to release information about a chemical explosion that left over seventy people dead (see report).

Guo’s mother, Gu Xiao, told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that authorities came to her home on February 1 to notify her that Guo was detained in connection with alleged content he wrote online, including comments about COVID-19. Guo’s mother also told RFA that on February 15, police asked her to sign a “notice of arrest,” which stated that Guo was arrested on February 14 for “inciting subversion to state power.”

As of this report, it is unclear where Guo is being held, whether he has access to family or legal counsel, and when he is scheduled to appear in court.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary detention and arrest of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from restricting, retaliating against, or otherwise interfering with the nonviolent exercise of freedom of expression. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.