Chinese police have detained three people after they contributed to an online archive of censored articles about the coronavirus outbreak, say family members.
Two men, Chen Mei and Cai Wei, and Cai’s girlfriend Tang have not been in touch with family since 19 April when they were arrested in Beijing, Chen Mei's brother Chen Kun told the Reuters news agency.
Cai was held on charges of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" – an accusation often used against political activists in China.
Chen Kun said he did not know what charges, if any, his brother was held on.
Tang was held on similar charges, Chen Kun said, although it is not known if she was directly involved in the archive project.
Chen Mei’s family has not received any formal notice from the police – an officer said only that he was "co-operating with an investigation", his brother said.
The friends were volunteers with a project called Terminus2049, an open-source archive that keeps records of censored articles from Chinese media on coding platform Github.
Over the past few months the project has been making records of articles on the coronavirus outbreak, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
For a short time after the outbreak there was a window of openness for China's online media to report on the virus, but that ended in February as censors stepped in to shut WeChat groups, delete social media posts, and tighten controls on the domestic media.
Many people who are active online, however, found ways to share information.
The articles gathered on Terminus2049 touch on topics that can be seen as sensitive, including when human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus was discovered.
The archive was among those that kept in circulation a profile report on a Wuhan doctor and whistleblower, Ai Fen, that went viral as people translated it in various forms including into Braille, Morse code and even Klingon in defiance of the censors.
Ai was reprimanded in January for sharing information about the outbreak.
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Last week it emerged that three-quarters of Britons blame the Chinese government for allowing coronavirus to spread to the UK.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove also appeared to lay the blame for the UK’s lack of mass testing for COVID-19 on China.
Some of China’s reports on the virus were unclear about the “scale, nature and infectiousness” of the disease, Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr at the end of March.
“It was the case … [that] the first case of coronavirus in China was established in December of last year, but it was also the case that some of the reporting from China was not clear about the scale, the nature, the infectiousness of this,” Gove said.
Donald Trump has also blamed China for the pandemic, calling coronavirus the “Chinese virus”.
The American president denied his words were racist and said: “It comes from China, there’s nothing not to agree.”
In a series of tweets Trump said: “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the ‘borders’ from China – against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved.”
He has also told his followers: “The onslaught of the Chinese Virus is not your fault! Will be stronger than ever!”
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying retaliated and said: “It is absolutely WRONG and INAPPROPRIATE to call this the Chinese coronavirus.”