Shanghai journalist Tong Weijing (童薇菁) passed away on May 4 in Shanghai. Image: WeChat public account “Media Daily.”
During a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on May 5, Xi Jinping sounded a positive note over the country’s “dynamic zero-covid” policy, which he insisted would “stand the test of time.” His remarks suggested an underlying unease in the leadership over how China’s covid policies have played out in recent weeks, as online frustration over the government’s response in Shanghai has repeatedly boiled over.
As Xi and the leadership call for “persistence,” the crucial task of maintaining the Party-state’s narrative of positivity has fallen to thousands of journalists within the country’s vast state-run media system – including many in Shanghai. But what is it like for these reporters to hold up the spirit of “persistence” even as they struggle personally against the stresses of lockdown?
This has been one of a number of questions asked over the past week as a smattering of social media accounts have reported the death on May 4 of a young Shanghai journalist named Tong Weijing (童薇菁), a reporter for Wenhui Daily (文汇报), a state-run newspaper published by the Shanghai United Media Group (SUMG).
Among the first to report the news of Tong’s death was the WeChat public account “Media Daily” (传媒见闻). In its post on May 5, the account quoted a colleague of Tong’s as saying: “Confined for too long [under lockdown], the girl had heart problems the past few days, and perhaps was depressed. Her parents are devastated.”
Beyond this quote about over-long confinement, the only hint of complicating factors in the background was a screenshot from a private chat group in which a user noted, using the shorthand for ambulance services, that “120 could not be called [in time].” The incapacity of Shanghai’s emergency services to deal with a spike in calls under lockdown was by this point a generally acknowledged fact.
The “Media Daily” post noted that Tong had largely written articles on culture and film. It also quoted her former doctoral supervisor who said: “I can’t believe that such a young and beautiful life has suddenly passed away. I’ve known her for six or seven years and have chatted about a variety of her reports, always with such gentle persistence and solemn seriousness. [She deserves] respect, and I wish her peace.”
Later that night, however, another WeChat public account, “E Di Shen” (额滴神), complicated the story of Tong’s passing with a post citing messages from a private chat group of Wenhui Daily journalists that indicated Tong had in fact committed suicide after suffering serious mental health issues under quarantine.
According to the “E Di Shen” post, Tong’s mother had urgently reached out to her colleagues at the paper late on May 4, saying that she had been unable to sleep and was muttering to herself, “What do I do?” One colleague suggested that the family secure all of the windows in their apartment and keep a close eye on Tong, even sleeping at her side. They would contact the hospital the next day to see if she could receive care. Around 11PM that night, the colleague received an urgent call from Tong’s mother saying that Tong had slipped out unnoticed and jumped from the ninth floor.
The “E Di Shen” post asked why Tong Weijing’s death had not been reported at all in the “mainstream media” – meaning in China’s case, the official Party-state media. Why had there not even been an acknowledgement from Wenhui Daily, the paper for which she had worked so dutifully?
When the author searched for Tong’s name in the Baidu search engine, there was just one post hinting at her death, while all the others were her recent and past bylines. “In a Baidu search, Tong Weijing seems to be alive and well,” they marveled.
“It is incomprehensible that the sudden death of Tong Weijing has not created a ripple in the media world, and even in the Wenhui Daily, where she worked, there has been no report on this unexpected event,” a cultural editor wrote on his Weibo account. “The news and tributes about Tong Weijing’s death are only scattered around in certain self-media and friends’ circles. This has to strike people as odd.”
“Was it a heart attack or did she jump?” asked another perplexed user. Another replied: “Aye, they don’t even dare to publicize the cause of her death.”
Personal Struggles, Public Obligations
As the news of Tong’s death was quietly shared through social media accounts, some began paying more attention to what the journalist had actually written. Like the original “Media Daily” post, a post shared on the Tencent News platform on May 6 shared several of her articles on culture. But others noted an important detail – that Tong had also written about the lockdown in Shanghai.
Tong’s writings were mostly triumphant pieces, strikingly at odds with the environment in which she, like all Shanghai residents, had found herself since the end of March. They emphasized the firmness and persistence of the people in fighting against the outbreak in the city.
Among Tong’s uplifting narratives was a piece called “Art Rises and Moves Forward! Flowers on the Sea, Blooming in the Wind! The Shanghai Light Music Ensemble Creates Another Anthem in the Fight Against the Epidemic.” Published through the Wenhui Daily news app on April 27, just days before Tong’s death, the piece was a brief but soaring tribute to the Party’s battle against Covid that shared a video of the performance in question. A piece of propaganda to promote a piece of propaganda.
“At the critical point in the fight against the epidemic, the Shanghai Light Music Ensemble, a subsidiary of the Shanghai United Media Group, has created another anti-epidemic anthem,” Tong wrote, “using flowers on the sea, rising to the wind and connecting hearts, to symbolize every person fighting against the epidemic.”
“With a vivid style, [the anthem] celebrates the courage and tenacity of the people, and the spirit of mutual aid, shared love and being united as one.”
Another piece, “The Story of the Epidemic Fight All Around Me: The Delivery of Love in the Pouring Rain,” was posted the next day through the Wenhui Daily’s various social media channels. It conveyed the same spirit of love and sacrifice. But this time it was written by the CEO of the venture capital firm Feimalv, and edited by Tong. “Wind and rain cannot stop the delivery of love,” it began. “At a critical point in the fight against the epidemic, we help one another, passing along our love, each of us putting in their own effort, so that a single ember becomes a torch, one heart to protect Shanghai.”
Tong, like so many reporters for state media, had been raising up the façade, spreading positive energy – while online, people from across Shanghai flooded social media with tales of anger and frustration, culminating in the release on April 22 of the viral video “Voices of April.”
It is impossible to know the personal difficulties Tong Weijing faced in the days leading up to May, as the lockdown continued in Shanghai. But for some acknowledging her death online, as the state media remained strangely silent, the profound contrast between personal pain and dutybound public affirmation was an important fact to note. In one comment on Weibo accompanied by the emoticon of a lit candle, a user wrote: “For a person bearing their own depression, still closed off, to be writing against what she is personally witnessing and her own wishes, this would make post-traumatic stress almost a given.”