How the coronavirus pandemic exposes the suppression of information in China, and the real people’s war – Joan Judge
As the coronavirus pandemic escalates globally, and as we grapple with the missteps of our own leadership in the Western world, some are echoing the World Health Organization’s praise of the Wuhan lockdown as a model for the planet. At such a moment it is imperative to bear in mind the human cost of China’s belated and aggressive approach to the outbreak: both loss of life and the brutal repression of public-minded critique.
President Xi Jinping has declared this approach a “People’s War.” Desperate to deflect percolating anger and frustration over the local government’s delayed response to the virus, the central government’s subsequent draconian policies, and the over 3000 (recorded) deaths, Xi unimaginatively turned to familiar tactics of Maoist mass mobilization. Official media have glorified heroic medical personnel in the spirit of labor models of the 1950s and 1960s. They have gone so far as to post a video of a team of female medics having their heads shaved as they selflessly prepared to serve at the virus’s epicenter. Slogans are ubiquitous, galvanizing people to fight the People’s War by altering their behavior. “Those who gather together are shameless;” banners warn, “those who play mahjong are daredevils.”
What this virus has most poignantly exposed, however, is the real people’s war in China. Those on the front lines of this war are not the aggregate “people” whom the Chinese leadership has instrumentally invoked since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Rather they are disaggregated individuals inclined to put science over sloganeering, integrity over politics. They include Dr Ai Fen, head of the Emergency Department at the Wuhan Central Hospital who has now reportedly disappeared. While Dr Li Wenliang, the martyred ophthalmologist of the same hospital, is better known as the coronavirus whistle-blower, it was Ai who, in her own words, distributed the whistles. On December 30 2019, she sent medical colleagues the report which Li was later reprimanded for further disseminating. In the report Ai had circled, in red, sections indicating that a patient at the hospital presented with symptoms of what she and her colleagues identified as highly contagious SARS-like coronavirus.
Doctors Li and Ai, who never met, described the struggle in which they were engaged in nearly identical terms – not as a war of well-defined adversaries but as a contest for plurality. “A healthy society should have more than one voice,” Li Wenliang said in an interview shortly before his death on February 7. In a March 2 interview, Ai Fen also commented: “This world must have different voices, mustn’t it?”
Li and Ai were not merely mimicking what are often depicted as Western-derived values of freedom of expression and speech. Rather, they were channeling concerns embedded in classical Chinese thought. “To obstruct the voice of the people is worse than obstructing a river,” according to the 4th to 5th century BCE text, Discourses of the States. While a blocked river would cause destructive flooding should it break through the dikes, forces unleashed by long-restrained public sentiment would be incalculably more harmful.
What this virus has most poignantly exposed is the real people’s war in China”
The current government in Beijing has refused to heed this ancient warning. Obsessed with stability maintenance in order to uphold its political structure, it has instead focused on erecting ever-higher dikes. These include low-tech forms of intimidation, such as the “summoned interview” (yuetan 约谈) Dr Ai was forced to endure on January 2. Under pressure from the Wuhan Health Commission, members of Wuhan City Hospital’s Discipline Inspection Board reprimanded her for irresponsibly spreading rumors and potentially inciting public panic. She was warned not to share details of the interview or its context via text or WeChat. This is what demoted Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun calls “WeChat terror,” and together with “big data totalitarianism” – the broadening use of surveillance and facial recognition technology – it is integral to the new modes of repression that Xi’s regime has enlisted to secure the dikes and control the spread of information.
As the Discourses of the States predicted, however, the barriers are eroding. Most of the population at large seems still loyal to the government. As in the imperial past, they blame local officials for mismanaging the crisis while exonerating the emperor and the system over which he presides. Yet the tragic mismanagement of the viral outbreak has also resulted in unprecedented pushback against state propaganda and the “People’s War” narrative – particularly among the nation’s youth. China’s netizens have relentlessly posted acerbic, often ingenious critiques of the regime on various online platforms despite government efforts to delete them nearly as quickly as they appear.
These critiques include poetic ruminations: “The dust of an era falls on each individual with the weight of a mountain,” wrote Fang Fang, a Wuhan author who posted a widely-read daily journal of life under lockdown from January 25 to March 24. Wuhan survivors have offered anguished descriptions of that mountainous weight as they mourn, lining up from dawn to dusk for days to get a plot in the public cemetery, observing carts in the morgue designed to move one body that now accommodated eight. Criticisms also include raw invective. Before her Weibo account was blocked, a Beijing university professor writing under the pseudonmym Danbao impugned China’s “massively ineffective, corrupt and incompetent bureaucratic system,” and admonished Xi Jinping to “apologize to the people of the entire world.” The darkly sardonic words of the cross-talk comedian Guo Degang have also been repurposed and recirculated online with the same speed as the pandemic itself: “To report that foreigners are dying: that is no problem! But when Chinese are dying, we must insist: there is no problem!” Another popular quote further captures the state of hypocrisy fatigue: “The truth is the most effective vaccine. Lies are the most fatal virus.”
Just as these myriad posts don’t stop, neither do the tireless censors who make them disappear, only for them to reappear elsewhere. Netizens have found ever more artful ways to capture, archive, and share what the state has tried to render ephemeral. Dr Ai’s interview, for example, was translated into multiple languages, reformatted in inventive ways, even rendered backwards, in order to – successfully – escape the censors.
Rather than flex muscles and adopt harsh punitive measures, it is time for governments in the Western world to relink trade and diplomacy to the rights of individuals”
A true man of the people, Xi Jinping didn’t visit Wuhan until March 10, over six weeks after the city was locked down. Some welcomed the visit. Others chided their president for his lateness and remoteness. Apparently aware of the level of anger, Xi was quoted as saying “the public in Hubei, Wuhan and such hard-hit areas have some emotions to vent.”
We can view such a statement cynically: flowers have been encouraged to bloom at other moments in the PRC’s past. Or we can view it as an opportunity. The coronavirus outbreak has made it painfully clear how intimately interconnected the world now is. Even as we hunker down in self- or imposed isolation, the drain on our nations’ economies, the strain on our professional commitments, and the impoverishment of our personal lives during these last few weeks highlight the infeasibility of isolationism. Rather than flex muscles and adopt harsh punitive measures, it is time for governments in the Western world to relink trade and diplomacy to the rights of individuals such as Fang Fang, Danbao, Xu Zhangrun, Ai Fen, Li Wenliang, and countless others who have been silenced while fighting this real people’s war. Although Beijing would never publicly concede this point, it can no longer claim such linkage constitutes meddling in its internal affairs. The pandemic has made it eminently clear that the mismanagement of China’s dikes can become our flood. ∎