China’s headlines are full of triumph
today. The country’s pending victory in the war against the coronavirus
epidemic, they say, is a testament to the decisive leadership of Xi Jinping and
the Chinese Communist Party, and to the strength and unity of the people. Xi’s
presence in Wuhan yesterday, his first
visit to the center of the epidemic, was reportedly met with euphoria. The
piece at the top of the official People’s Daily, which chronicles Xi’s
tour through a residential community, finishes emotively:
As he left the community, the voices echoed for a long time in the spring sun: “Greetings, General Secretary!” “Go China!” “Go Wuhan!”
featured at the top of the newspaper’s website elevates Xi with the word “leader,”
or lingxiu (领袖), an appellation dredged
up from the shadows of China’s Maoist past: “The Party and the people are
as one, the leader’s heart touches the hearts of the people.”
But beneath this towering wave of
propaganda and positivity, another war has unfolded—a guerrilla war for greater
openness, honesty and reflection about the tragic events of the past two
As Xi Jinping toured through Wuhan yesterday, a bombshell feature story by reporter Gong Jingqi (龚菁琦) in the latest edition of China’s People (人物) magazine made the rounds on social media. The story was based on an interview with Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, one of the hospitals most directly affected by the epidemic in the provincial capital.
In her account Ai talks about her decision on December 30 last year to share with another health professional an image of a diagnostic report for a patient showing that they had “SARS coronavirus.” It was this image, passed between doctors in Wuhan, that resulted in eight doctors, including the now-deceased Li Wenliang, enduring harsh reprimands from local police. At the time, Ai was herself called in by the Disciplinary Office of her hospital and accused of “manufacturing rumors.”
Ai shares her sense of regret now that
she did not choose to speak up loudly and repeatedly, most of all for the sake
of her colleagues, several of whom have now died as a result of the virus.
The Gong Jingqi piece is one of the strongest to appear to date in the Chinese media, and it paints a damning picture of how the signs were wilfully ignored by officials at the start of the outbreak, when more might have been done. During her reprimand, Ai Fen is told by the hospital disciplinary official: “When we go out to take part in meetings we can’t even raise our heads. This or that director criticizes us and talks about how our hospital has that Ai Fen. As the head of the emergency unit at Wuhan Central Hospital you are a professional. How can you go and stir up a rumor like this without reason, without any organizational discipline?”
The story was called, “The One Who Handed Out the Whistles,” a reference to Ai Fen’s insistence in her interview that she is not a “whistleblower,” but that her sharing of the original diagnostic report had enabled others, including Li Wenliang, to blow the whistle.
But of course the publication of Gong’s piece was just the beginning of its own story. The article was shared feverishly on social media, and just as feverishly expunged by the authorities. For such a report to circulate on the day of Xi Jinping’s “front-line” visit to Wuhan was of course unacceptable.
The authorities pushed. And Chinese
pushed back on social media, with a level of creative defiance that was all at
once ingenious, mystifying, heartening and sad. For reference, here is the
opening paragraph of the story, translated with the original Chinese.
It was at 5AM on March 1 that I received a text message from Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department of Wuhan Central Hospital, agreeing to an interview. About half an hour later, at 5:32AM on March 1, her colleague Jiang Xueqing, director of the Breast and Thyroid Center, passed away, having contracted Covid-19. Two days later came the death of Mei Zhongming, her hospital’s deputy director of ophthalmology. He and Li Wenliang had been in the same department.
And here is one attempt a user made to
share Gong Jingqi’s story as the original versions were being taken down one after
the other. The top of the post reads: “That piece, ‘The One Who Handed Out the
Whistles.’” But this is not in Chinese characters, readable by automated filters.
Rather, it is in pinyin, a Chinese romanization system, with tonal marks over
In this form, Gong’s article is of course still readable. A method like this may work for a period of time before censors grow wise and remove it, often when it is seen to attract a critical mass of attention.
And when this fails? What then? How do
you share “that piece,” the one everyone is talking about, the one that makes a farce of state
Another internet user answered this challenge by posting the entire article in Korean, a language not recognized or prioritized by online censors. The story could then be copied by readers and put through a translation engine.
If Korean fails, the article can also be shared paragraph by paragraph through a series of QR codes. Try scanning this and you should see the story’s lede.
Still another reader chose to share and preserve this important story by reading it aloud in its entirely and recording it, then posting it to the audio site Ximalaya. He prefaces the piece by saying simply: “In this way I’ll voice my views and record history.”
But the prize for creativity goes perhaps to a WeChat post that reached back into the history of communication to find new inspiration. The post explains to readers what a telegram is, and its history in China, in which unique four-digit numbers were assigned to Chinese characters (list here), which could then be decrypted. The post follows with a long list of four-digit numbers:
What does this say when you decode it? The
first four sets of characters spell out the beginning of Gong Jingqi’s story as
provided above. Here are the codes highlighted with their corresponding Chinese
This is just a taste of the ingenious workarounds that appeared this morning, and which still continue. Taken together they mark a determination not to be silenced, not to allow the truth to be swept away on Xi Jinping’s tide of “positive energy.”
A very brief portion of the People
feature story is translated below, followed by the Chinese original in its
It was at 5AM on March 1 that I received
a text message from Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department of Wuhan
Central Hospital, agreeing to an interview. About half an hour later, at 5:32AM
on March 1, her colleague Jiang Xueqing, director of the Breast and Thyroid
Center, passed away, having contracted Covid-19. Two days later came the death
of Mei Zhongming, her hospital’s deputy director of ophthalmology. He and Li
Wenliang had been in the same department.
As of March 9, 2020, four medical staff
at the Wuhan Central Hospital had died of Covid-19. Since the coronavirus
outbreak, this hospital, located just a few kilometers away from the Huanan
Seafood Market, has become one of the hospitals in Wuhan with the largest
number of medical staff to become infected by the virus. According to media
reports, more than 200 people from the hospital have been infected, including
three deputy hospital directors and multiple directors of various departments.
Many department directors are currently undergoing ECMO treatment [for acute
The shadow of death hangs over this, the
largest of Wuhan’s three primary hospitals. One doctor tells People that almost
no one among the medical staff speaks. They only mourn quietly and discuss
There was at the start an opportunity to
avoid this tragedy. On December 30, 2019, Ai Fen received a diagnostic report
from a patient with an unknown form of pneumonia, and she drew a red circle
around the words “SARS coronavirus.” When she was asked about the
case by a college classmate, she took a photograph of the report and sent it to
the fellow doctor. That night, this report made its way among doctors in Wuhan,
and among those to share the report were the 8 doctors later taken in for
questioning by the police.
This created problems for Ai Fen. As the
source of the communication, she was called in for a chat with the Disciplinary
Office of the hospital and received a “harsh and unprecedented
reprimand,” told that she was manufacturing rumors as a professional.
On the afternoon of March 2, Ai Fen was
interviewed by People at the Wuhan Central Hospital wing on Nanjing Road. She
sat on her own in the emergency room office, and the emergency room that had
over the past day received more than 1,500 [coronavirus] patients had now
become quiet, with just a single vagrant loitering in the waiting room.
A number of previous reports have said,
referring to Ai Fen, that “another female doctor who was questioned has
surfaced.” And some have called her a “whistleblower.” Ai Fen
corrects these accounts, insisting that she is not a whistleblower — rather,
she is the “one who handed out the whistles.” In her interview, Ai
Fen used the word “regret” many times. She regrets that after she was
reprimanded that first time she did not continue to blow the whistle,
especially for those colleagues who have already passed on. “Had I known
this day would come, I would have cared nothing for their criticism, but would
have spoken up wherever I could, right?”