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: April 14, 2020

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution


Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 14, 2020, police reportedly arrested retired professor Chen Zhaozhi in retaliation for online expression regarding the global pandemic known as 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 the epidemic intensified in January 2020, Chinese authorities have reportedly taken a range of efforts to silence a growing number of doctors, journalists, and scholars that have commented on the disease and the government’s response.

Chen, a retired professor from the Beijing University of Science and Technology, commented in an online debate that the Coronavirus should be described as a “Chinese Communist Party virus” rather than a Chinese virus. He was arrested on April 14 on a charge of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” and, as of this report, is detained at the Haidian Detention Center in Beijing. According to reports, in the past Chen has suffered from a stroke and high blood pressure, raising concerns about his health in jail, particularly if he is infected with the Coronavirus.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. State authorities have a responsibility not to retaliate against or otherwise interfere with expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Detentions aimed at limiting such expressive activity undermine academic freedom, the related higher education value of social responsibility, and democratic society generally.