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Telling the truth about coronavirus

Ordinary Chinese citizens are finding creative ways to tell the truth about their government’s response

People buy pork at the entrance gate of a closed residential community in Wuhan, China. Chinatopix via AP

Telling the truth about coronavirus
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As the coronavirus outbreak dies down in China and surges in the West, Chinese officials and propagandists are declaring a victory for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the “people’s war” against the virus.

In a bit of revisionist history, they are hailing the government’s response as buying the world time (vindicating a whistleblower who died treating COVID-19 patients) and even claiming the virus may not have originated in China.

In total, China has 81,000 confirmed cases of infection, with 3,200 deaths and more than 71,000 recoveries. At its peak in February, China was reporting thousands of new cases each day, while now numbers have dwindled into the teens and 20s. Many of the new cases came in from other global hotspots, such as Europe.

Yet Chinese citizens, intellectuals, and journalists are pushing back against the national narrative. They’re criticizing the government for squelching whistleblowers, covering up the severity of the virus, and using draconian measures to bar residents from leaving their homes. Some are dodging censors to publish banned articles, while others take a more primitive approach: yelling out their windows.

On March 6, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan visited a community in Wuhan to observe the food and supply distribution to quarantined citizens. A cell phone video shows residents yelling from their apartment windows, “Fake! It’s all fake!” They claim the estate management company had cleaned up the area before the official’s arrival and arranged fake volunteers to pass out groceries.

In a rare move, the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily shared a clip of the video and used it to criticize the apartment complex’s manager. State-run media sometimes allows these types of dissent as long as it targets local-level officials—so it seems the central government is trying to fix the people’s problems.

Days later, President Xi Jinping also visited Wuhan with a surgical mask. He visited a community center and hospital for quarantined patients, and walked through an apartment complex. He video chatted with frontline doctors to “express my sincere care and concern, and pay high respect to you.” To prevent a repeat of Sun’s visit, authorities stationed police officers in some apartments to keep residents from yelling out their windows.

On the same day as Xi’s victory tour in Wuhan, Renwu Magazine (or People), published an explosive profile of Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital. She said on Dec. 30 she shared a photo of a diagnostic report for a patient showing the words “SARS coronavirus.” Medical professionals passed the image around. Authorities quickly reprimanded them for spreading rumors. Her hospital's disciplinary office also accused her of “manufacturing rumors.”

“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand,” Ai told Renwu. “I would have [obscenity] talked about it to whoever, where ever I could.” Several of her colleagues have since died of the virus.

The article quickly went viral on Chinese social media, but censors immediately got to work scrubbing it from the internet. So Chinese netizens started to look for innovative ways to bypass censors. They posted the story in English, Korean, Braille, Morse code, emojis, ancient Chinese script, and Chinese romanization. Someone used QR codes to share the article paragraph by paragraph while others recorded themselves reading the article aloud on a video sharing platform.

Around the same time, Wuhan author Fang Fang wrote a fiery opinion piece in Caixin responding to Wuhan party secretary Wang Zhonglin’s call for the people of Wuhan to thank Xi and the CCP for providing direction during the outbreak. Instead, Fang countered that the party should thank the brave people of Wuhan: “The government must express its gratitude to the thousands of families who have watched their loved ones die in the outbreak …The government must thank all of the 40,000 medical personnel … for snatching life after life from the clutches of death at great personal risk.

“I say to the government: You need to rein in your arrogance and humbly offer thanks to your masters—in this case, the millions of people in Wuhan.”

She also called for an investigation into how the outbreak began and mistakes the government made. The guilty, Fang argued, deserve punishment: “Perhaps the least the public could do would be to write a petition urging the resignation of officials who view politics as their lifeblood but treat people’s lives like dirt.”

Censors quickly removed the article.

Chinese officials took to Twitter (which is banned in China) to blast the United States’ response to the virus. Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, tweeted a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in the United States: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”

Amid increased tensions between the two largest economies in the world, China on Wednesday announced it would expel U.S. journalists who work for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Chinese officials said the move was in retaliation for the Trump administration capping the number of Chinese citizens working in state-owned media in the United States and labeling them “foreign missions.”

In the past few years, these journalists have reported groundbreaking stories about the detention of more than 1 million Uighurs in re-education camps in Xinjiang, the government’s crackdown on house churches, as well as the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said it “deplored” the cancellation of the reporters’ credentials, noting it affects at least 13 reporters. “Journalists illuminate the world we live in,” FCCC said in a statement. “China, through this action, is dimming itself.”

Quarantine boredom: As Americans are now asked to stay home during the COVID-19 outbreak, perhaps we can look to Wuhan residents to see how they staved off boredom while stuck in their apartments for months.

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.



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