Author: CMP Staff

Citizen Journalist Charged for Covid-19 Reporting

According to Chinese news reports and online posts, Shanghai-based citizen journalist Zhang Zhan (张展), who was arrested in May after posting a video criticizing the government’s epidemic response measures, was formally charged last Friday with the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事罪). This is a criminal charge often used in China against activists, dissidents and writers. Zhang is reportedly being held in the Pudong New District Detention Center (浦东新区看守所).

Sometime around February 1 this year, after the outbreak in Wuhan became public knowledge in China, Zhang travelled to Wuhan from Shanghai to report on the crisis. She filed a number stories through WeChat, YouTube and Twitter before becoming the fourth citizen journalist detained in Wuhan by authorities – following journalists Chen Qiushi (陈秋实), Fang Bin (方斌) and Li Zehua (李泽华).

Back in February, CMP documented and translated a speech Li Zehua gave to local police outside the door of the apartment where he was staying before turning himself in. “I’m not willing to disguise my voice, nor am I willing to shut my eyes and close my ears,” he said.

Pompeo, "Public Enemy"

In recent days China Central Television has hurled a series of verbal attacks at US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others in the United States. As the US and China lock horns over the question of responsibility for the global coronavirus epidemic, the state-run network’s “International Commentary” (国际锐评) segment, which is featured on the nightly official news program “Xinwen Lianbo,” has been ruthless in its tone, and the attacks have sometimes been painful to read:

May 4:Searching desperately for cures! Wicked Pompeo spits out medicine and starts rumors in the face of science

May 4:The crazy-talking anti-China pioneer Bannon fears the world will not be chaotic

May 1:Aiming to threaten the WTO, Pompeo is making provocations around the world

May 2:Are American politicians ‘tossing the pot’ [eluding responsibility] to hide the truth about the epidemic?

April 29:Bearing the ‘four sins,” Pompeo has broken through the bottom line of being human

April 28:Pompeo, spreading ‘political disease,’ is turning himself into the public enemy of mankind

In this war of words, one word in particular should grab our attention — “public enemy,” or gongdi (公敌). “International Commentary” has labelled Pompeo “the public enemy of mankind.”

What exactly does this mean in the Chinese context? In the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party, what sort of people or things merit designation as common enemies?

Looking back into PRC history, we can find a string such “public enemies,” from the Kuomingtang leader Chiang Kai-shek to Hu Feng, the writer who dared to criticize Mao Zedong’s views on art and literature. From American imperialism to the Falun Gong and more recently the novel coronavirus.

Chiang Kai-shek: Public Enemy

On February 23, 1948, the People’s Daily published on its front page a dispatch from Chen Boda, a close associate of Mao Zedong’s, called “Annihilate Chiang Kai-shek and destroy the ruling institutions of the Jiang family court!” Two small editor’s notes were added at the end of the piece. The first noted that the piece had been written in January of 1948, while the second noted that it was the last chapter in a book to be called “Public Enemy: Chiang Kai-shek.” The note indicated that the book had already been written, edited and typeset, and its publication was imminent.

Five months later, in July 1948, Chen Boda’s book finally appeared, with just under 10,000 copies printed.

Chen Boda’s 1948 book Public Enemy: Chiang Kai-shek.

There was a documentary film to accompany the publication of Public Enemy: Chiang Kai-shek, and there were also comic strips and other adaptations. The label “public enemy” stuck with the KMT leader. In 1962, a cartoon of Chiang appeared on the cover of a graphic magazine published by the Liaoning Fine Arts Publishing House. Chiang was depicted as abandoned on the island of Taiwan as viewed from the coast of Fujian. The bloody dagger in Jiang’s hand bore the initials “US.” Across the top were the words: “Public Enemy: Chiang Kai-shek.”

An isolated Chiang Kai-shek, “public enemy,” appears on a 1962 comic magazine cover.

Also in 1962, a film called “Public Enemy: Chiang Kai-shek,” produced by the state-run August First Film Studio, was screened in Beijing. The following year the film won “best documentary” at the “Hundred Flowers Awards.” 

In July 1963, the Zhejiang Arts Publishing House published yet another collection of comics, this time by artists Zheng Wenzhong (郑文中) and Liu Yongfei (刘庸非). Chiang was depicted in a position of abject surrender, a dagger held in his teeth. The title: “Public Enemy: Chiang Kai-shek.”

American Imperialism and Soviet Socialist Imperialism

Under the foreign policy principle of “striking with two fists” (两个拳头打人) from the end of the 1950s and through the 1960s, both the United States and the Soviet Union were targets of Chinese ire, and both labelled as “public enemies of mankind” (人类公敌).

On July 25, 1958, the People’s Daily ran a piece called “The American imperialists are common enemies of the people of the world.” The rest of the headline alleged that newspapers in Jakarta had exposed American acts of sabotage in Indonesia happening even as “the United States set fire to the Middle East.” A piece in the newspaper the next month called the United States the “public enemy of the people of the Latin America,” while another about Thailand insisted that is was the “public enemy of the people of Asia.” Such headlines were not at all uncommon.

Meanwhile, though a bit later to the game, the Soviet Union came to share China’s rage with the United States. In March 1969, as a border conflict brought China and the Soviet Union to the brink of war, a wave of propaganda was unleashed against “Soviet revisionism.” On March 7 a report from the official Xinhua News Agency read: “The Soviet revisionists have bowed to the West German ruling clique to please US imperialism, have given way to the provocation of West German militarism, and have openly allowed West Germany to elect the West German president in West Berlin. The German people recognize that Soviet revisionism is the number one accomplice of the American imperialists, and is the public enemy of the German people and of the people of the world.”

Hu Feng and the “Gang of Four”

Public enemies were not just about foreign policy, but were also a way for the leadership to identify perceived internal threats. Both Hu Feng and the “Gang of Four” were labelled as “public enemies” in the midst of internal political campaigns. Articles criticizing Hu Feng as a “public enemy” appeared in the People’s Daily on May 26, 1955, and on June 12, 1969, under the headlines, “Hu Feng is the public enemy of the people,” and “Resolutely crushing the enemies of the people: the Hu Feng counterrevolutionary clique.”

As the Gang of Four were subdued in late October 1976, they were quickly labeled public enemies. On October 30, 1975, the People’s Daily published a front-page article decrying the crimes of the Gang, in which it said:

The “Gang of Four” are a group of bourgeois conspirators mixed in with the Party, bourgeois elements who suck the blood of the workers and poor peasants; walking capitalists who refuse to repent, they are public enemies of all the people of the nation.

Li Hongzhi and the Falun Gong

In emergence of the Falun Gang sect in China in 1999 presented the Chinese Communist Party leadership with another internal challenge. The group was outlawed in China in July 1999.

On February 2, 2001, the People’s Daily ran a front-page report called “The condemnation of the awakened,” which quoted a former (read, reformed) Falun Gong practitioner as saying: “When I saw reports yesterday about several deluded Falun Gong practitioners who blindly follow the cult of Li Hongzhi setting fire to themselves, I felt pained and so angry! These self-immolations again demonstrate that the Falun Gong is a wicked cult, and that Li Hongzhi is the public enemy of all the people of the nation, a running dog being used by anti-Chinese forces!”

The label “public enemy” was used frequently in reference to the Falun Gong. A People’s Daily article on July 10, 2002, for example, bore the headline: “The ‘Falun Gong’ is the public enemy of human society.”

The above examples from Chinese Communist Party history are just some of the more obvious illustrations of how the term “public enemy” has had a central role in the projection of the Party’s fears, of external threats and internal contagion. At its root, the notion of the “public enemy” is about the people and things China’s leaders imagine to pose an existential threat to the regime.  

For much of this year, the coronavirus has been public enemy number one in China, and leaders have hoped to focus anger and attention on the virus itself in order to deflect global criticism. Back in early March, after Fox News anchor Jesse Watters suggested China should be asked to apologize for its role in the spread of Covid-19, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian struck back, his first point emphasizing that facing the virus was an urgent struggle for whch all should be responsible: “First, the epidemic is the public enemy of mankind, and the people of all nations are victims. I don’t know where this idea of apologies even comes from?” Later that month, as the People’s Daily criticized Pompeo for calling Covid-19 the “Wuhan virus,” it again emphasized the human nature of the threat: “Diseases have no borders,” the paper said, “but are the public enemy of mankind, and for these American politicians to go against the most basic international consensus, if this is not just ignorance it is done with ulterior motives.”

As the war of words with the United States grows louder, the “public enemy” spotlight seems to have turned from the virus to Pompeo. The language is poisonous and personal, recalling the heat of attacks made against the public enemies of China’s past. Pompeo is “wicked Pompeo” (邪恶蓬佩奥). His remarks point to a “nervous disorder” (神经错乱). He “carries four sins on his shoulders” (背负四宗罪). He has “broken through the bottom line of being human” (突破做人底线).

Such direct attacks on a senior US official are very rare indeed — and a sign of just how seriously relations have deteriorated.

Returning to the Main Theme

Spring has arrived in the People’s Daily, and the 2020 propaganda themes leaders had originally envisioned to dominate starting back in January are now in full bloom, having survived the frost of the coronavirus epidemic. Chief among these are the themes of eliminating poverty and achieving a so-called “all-round moderately prosperous” society – 2020 having been designated back in 2013, at the start of Xi Jinping’s rule, as the year China would achieve both. [Image Above: An online poster in Party-run media advertises China’s “decisive war against poverty.”]

As CMP co-director Qian Gang wrote back in February, the People’s Daily stuck stubbornly to these pre-established propaganda themes through much of January, even as the spread of the coronavirus was of most immediate concern. By February and March, however, the epidemic had finally come to be reported more prominently in the Party’s flagship newspaper.

On the front page of today’s People’s Daily, the top three items all deal in some way with the war on poverty.

The first, placed directly under the masthead, is part of a series of community profiles in the “decisive war against poverty.” It talks about policies implemented in a poor county in Ningxia, and ends with the determined words of a local official: “Working together to overcome difficulties, we will not relax our efforts in overcoming poverty.”

Right beside this profile, text accompanying the main image on the front page is about the creation in one township in Jiangsu province of a nursery devoted to the selection and cultivation of seedlings. The text claims that the project, undertaken “in order to win the battle of poverty alleviation,” has “brought more than 50 low-income rural households out of poverty.”

The article immediately to the right of the masthead is a report on Xi Jinping’s recent trip to Shaanxi province, planned as part of the 2020 propaganda push on anti-poverty goals. While there is some suggestion that the global COVID-19 epidemic is a downward pressure on growth objectives, the determination to stay on theme is unchanged. The report concludes:

No matter how the external environment changes, it will not stop China from continuing to move forward. We must comprehensively implement the Central Committee’s decisions and deployments, adhere to the overall tone of steady progress, adhere to new development concepts, strive to overcome the adverse effects of the coronavirus epidemic, and strive to achieve higher quality, more efficient, fairer and more sustainable development, ensuring completion of the decisive battle and the goal of overcoming poverty, and building an all-round moderately prosperous society.

The report at the bottom right of the front page deals with Wang Yang’s inspection tour of Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. Coverage again stays with the central theme: “Wang Yang, member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP and chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, recently investigated poverty alleviation efforts in Yunnan and Guizhou.”

There is much talk, even in the headline of the Wang Yang report, of the importance of “alleviating poverty as scheduled” (如期脱贫), suggesting that the leadership’s “decisive victory” in the war on poverty is a goal that cannot be compromised, even in the face of a sharp economic downturn and an ongoing global pandemic. Even those articles on the front page that appear to deal more directly with the coronavirus epidemic are cast in the mold of the anti-poverty campaign.

Directly below the series profile under the masthead is an editorial by “this newspaper’s commentator,” signaling that it was written by the paper’s editors. Called, “People First, Life First,” the editorial is advertised as “the second thought on our great deeds in the fight against epidemic disease.” Emphasizing the “heroism” of the people as they stand with the CCP, the piece speaks of the “great efforts China has made in the struggle against the coronavirus,” but ultimately circles back to the theme of anti-poverty: “Insisting on the principle that everything is for the people and relies on the people, we will work together to overcome difficulties, ensuring completion of the decisive battle to overcome poverty, and building an all-round moderately prosperous society.”

Opening the Door

On Wednesday this week, Li Zehua (李泽华), a journalist who recently resigned from his job as a news anchor at China’s state-run China Central Television to report as a citizen reporter on the front lines of the epidemic in Wuhan, was apparently detained by officers from state security. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

Li, who had managed to livestream his dispatches, and who also reported continued harassment from local police and security guards, arrived at Wuhan’s Baibuting Community, an area hit particularly hard by the epidemic, on February 16. He livestreamed a story on February 18 from a crematorium in the city about how porters were being hired at high wages in order to transport corpses. On February 25, he did a report in which he interviewed migrant workers who were forced to set up camp in the underground parking garage at Wuchang Railway Station.

Li’s citizen journalism in Wuhan followed in the footsteps of two other journalists, Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, both of whom are now missing.

As state security officers caught up with him and prepared to detain him Wednesday, Li Zehua recorded a final message speaking to the men outside his door.

In this message, he talks about his belief in the importance of speaking up and the inspiration he took from Chai Jing (柴静), the celebrity CCTV anchor whose documentary “Under the Dome,” about serious air pollution in China, drew more than 300 million views online before being deleted by authorities.

Our translation of Li Zehua’s message follows.


OK, I’m getting ready to open the door. Can I say a few things?

First of all, I admire those of you who have hunted me down. I admire the diverse methods you employed under the light of day to track down my position so accurately. The way too that you managed to pressure my friends XX to come over.

Secondly, from the time I first arrived in Wuhan everything I have done has been in accord with the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China and with its laws. I had full protective gear for all of the places I visited that were designated as danger areas – a protective jacket, goggles, disposable gloves, disinfectant. I had plenty of all of these things, a full supply of materials. This 3M mask, this was bought for me by a friend who supported me. So right now I’m physically fine. My body is strong and healthy. If you say I have a temperature, this can only be because it’s too stuffy inside all of this gear.

Of course, the third thing is that I realize at this point that it’s highly unlikely I won’t be taken away and won’t be quarantined. I just want to make it known, thought, that I have a clear conscience toward myself, a clear conscience toward my parents, a clear conscience toward my family, and also a clear conscience toward the Communication University of China from which I graduated, and toward the journalism field in which I did my studies. I also have a clear conscience toward my country, and I have done nothing to harm it. I, Li Zehua, 25  years of age, had hoped I could, like Chai Jing [the former CCTV journalist who made the documentary “Under the Dome”], work on the front lines, that I could make a film like the one she did in the environment of 2004 about the fight against SARS in Beijing. Or like “Under the Dome” in 2016, the one that was completely blocked online.

I think if you big guys outside the door went to middle school, which of course you did, and if your memories are good, you’ll definitely remember the essay we all had to read by Lu Xun, the one called, “Has China Lost It’s Confidence?” There’s a line I’ve always found inspiring where Lu Xun says: “In this China of ours there have always been those who speak for the people, who fight tenaciously, who abandon their bodies in search of the truth . . . . In these people we discover China’s spine.”

I’m not willing to disguise my voice, nor am I willing to shut my eyes and close my ears. That doesn’t mean that I can’t live a happy and comfortable life with a wife and kids. Of course I can do that. But why did I resign from CCTV? The reason is because – I hope more young people, more people like me, can stand up!

But this isn’t for the sake of uprising or anything like that, that’s not what I mean. It’s not as though we oppose the Party simply by saying a few words. I know that our idealism was already annihilated in spring and summer that year [1989], and sitting quietly [in protest] no longer accomplishes anything.

Today’s youth, who go onto Bilibili, Kuaishou and Douyin and swipe their way through social media, probably have no idea at all what happened in our past. They think the history they have now is the one they deserve.

I think everyone is like Truman, and when they discover that strange radio frequency, and when they find the exit door, they walk out and feel they can never go back.

The last thing I’ll say is, I’m sorry.

I’ll just say, I really understand you guys outside the door. I understand the mission you’ve been given. But I also sympathize with you, because when you support, without conditions and without reason, such a cruel order, the day will come when the same cruel order falls on your own heads.

OK, that’s it. I’m ready to open the door.

The Li Wenliang Storm

The death of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang (李文亮) earlier this month set off a wave of anger in China that has presented a major challenge to the leadership in its efforts to control public opinion. In coverage from Party-state media we have seen sometimes sharply contrasting visions of Li Wenliang and how his story relates to the question information control — a central point of contention for many Chinese commenting on social media.

Li, the ophthalmologist from Wuhan Central Hospital (武汉市中心医院) who was infected with the coronavirus while dealing with patients on the front lines of the epidemic, was questioned by his hospital and by police several weeks earlier for warning through social media about the emergence in Wuhan of cases of atypical pneumonia. Add to this the fact that Dr. Li was young, by all accounts amiable, well-educated and enthusiastic about life, and his death becomes for many Chinese, and particularly the networked middle-class, a highly relatable tragedy. On top of all of this, details about the circumstances facing Dr. Li’s family in the wake of his death have again prompted public concern.   

Li Wenliang’s death was closely tied with many of the aspects of the treatment of the coronavirus epidemic by the authorities that have left people infuriated: lack of transparency of information, slowness in revealing the situation to the public, and the neglectful treatment of medical personnel. The young doctor’s death came as a shock to many Chinese.

Li Wenliang Timeline

On the night of February 6, a doctor at Wuhan Union Hospital broke the news of Li Wenliang’s death on Weibo. Shortly after, the hashtag “DrLiWenliangPasses” (#李文亮医生去世#) was created on Weibo by the official account of the Global Times, a newspaper published under the umbrella of the People’s Daily. The account offered the following introduction:

A Global Times journalist learned on the night of February 6 from numerous information sources that Wuhan Central Hospital doctor Li Wenliang has passed away from pneumonia resulting from the coronavirus.

After this, there were purported refutations of the news, suggesting it was a rumor and that Li Wenliang was still being urgently treated. The exact time of Li Wenliang’s death became a topic hotly discussed by internet users, again prompted deep and widespread distrust of official Party and government information channels.

On the afternoon of February 7, the National Supervisory Commission, the country’s top anti-corruption body, announced its decision to dispatch a special investigative team to Wuhan, with approval from the Central Committee, to “conduct a full investigation into public complaints about problem relating to Dr. Li Wenliang.” This announcement, essentially signaling that the central leadership was aware of the serious repercussions of Li’s death, effectively gave Chinese news media a “protective amulet” (护身符) that would allow for related coverage, at least for a brief window of time.

The following is a basic timeline of the breaking of the news of Li Wenliang’s death and the official media response.

As Anger Rises, Central and Provincial Party Media Follow Suit

Looking at coverage of the death of Li Wenliang in newspapers across the country from February 7 to 9, we can find the following central Party media reporting on Li’s death: People’s Daily, People’s Daily (Overseas Edition), the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Journal, Economic Daily, Legal Daily, Procuratorate Daily, China Discipline Inspection Journal and Xinhua Daily Telegraph.

The story was not reported by People’s Liberation Army Daily or by Guangming Daily, the former published under the Political Department of the PLA and the latter by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.

Looking then at provincial-level CCP newspapers, those published directly by the Party committees of various provinces, we find most papers reporting in some way on the Li Wenliang story, with the exception of Shanxi Daily, Xinjiang Daily and Tibet Daily. The following table shows all provincial and municipal-level newspapers and their commercial spin-offs, including only those that did report the story of Li Wenliang’s death.

地区 报纸数(家) 刊发李文亮相关报道的报纸
北京 4 北京日报、北京晚报、新京报、北京青年报
上海 5 解放日报、新民晚报、新闻晨报、文汇报、青年报
天津 2 天津日报、今晚报
重庆 2 重庆日报、重庆晨报
广东 15 南方日报、广州日报、中山日报、梅州日报、潮州日报、佛山日报、湛江日报、宝安日报、南方都市报、珠海特区报、深圳晚报、深圳商报、深圳特区报、信息时报、羊城晚报
江苏 14 新华日报、南京日报、常州日报、徐州日报、泰州日报、无锡日报、吴江日报、丹阳日报、启东日报、如皋日报、扬子晚报、常州晚报、江南晚报、金陵晚报
湖南 10 湖南日报、湘潭日报、郴州日报、益阳日报、株洲日报、衡阳日报、衡阳晚报、潇湘晨报、三湘都市报、湘西团结报
浙江 9 浙江日报、杭州日报、绍兴日报、湖州日报、丽水日报、余姚日报、每日商报、绍兴晚报、都市快报
河南 8 河南日报、郑州日报、开封日报、洛阳日报、平顶山日报、洛阳晚报、汴梁晚报、京九晚报
山东 7 大众日报、青岛日报、潍坊日报、菏泽日报、淄博日报、联合日报、烟台晚报
广西 7 广西日报、桂林日报、梧州日报、右江日报、柳州日报、玉林日报、西江都市报
山西 5 山西晚报、长治日报、大同日报、太原日报、太原晚报
福建 5 福建日报、福州日报、闽北日报、厦门日报、湄洲日报
辽宁 5 辽宁日报、大连日报、大连晚报、辽沈晚报、沈阳晚报
四川 5 四川日报、德阳日报、南充日报、凉山日报、成都商报
贵州 5 贵州日报、遵义日报、黔南日报、贵州都市报、贵阳晚报
陕西 5 陕西日报、咸阳日报、榆林日报、华商报、文化艺术报
青海 5 青海日报、格尔木日报、西宁晚报、西海都市报、海东时报
安徽 4 安徽日报、合肥日报、安庆日报、安徽商报
宁夏 4 宁夏日报、银川日报、中卫日报、银川晚报
湖北 3 湖北日报、三峡日报、襄阳日报
甘肃 3 甘肃日报、兰州日报、兰州晨报
河北 2 河北日报、张家口晚报
吉林 2 吉林日报、长春日报
江西 2 江西日报、赣南日报
云南 2 云南日报、都市时报
海南 2 海南日报、南国都市报
内蒙古 1 内蒙古日报
黑龙江 1 黑龙江日报

Much coverage of Li Wenliang molded his story into the normative CCP narrative of heroism and personal sacrifice, sidestepping the uncomfortable issue of his mistreatment by local authorities, and the fact that his openness in addressing the coronavirus epidemic contrasted sharply with the Party’s own whitewashing of the story through much of January.

On February 8, CCTV-1 broadcast its “2020 Lantern Festival Special Program” (2020年元宵节特别节目) corresponding with the final day of the annual Spring Festival. As the anchor narrated a segment called “What You Look Like” (你的样子), the following black-and-white image of Dr. Li Wenliang’s flashed by on the screen, treated as a “white angel of sacrifice” laying down his life for the lives of others.  

On February 10, the People’s Daily, Xinhua Daily Telegraph and Guangming Daily all ran the same review of the CCTV-1 program two days earlier, mentioning that “Li Wenliang, Song Yingjie and other doctors, and the heroic group portrait of police officers such as He Jianhua, Li Xian, Cheng Jianyang, Yin Zuchuan and Liu Daqing . . . had flashed across the big screen, bringing countless audience members to tears.”

Outstanding Pages and Commentaries

But there were also notable articles and page designs that put Li Wenliang’s story in a different light, stressing his role as a “whistleblower,” and his remarks about the need for diverse voices in a healthy society.

Below is a “special report” that appeared in the February 8 edition of Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, a commercial spin-off of the official Nanfang Daily newspaper. The cover includes a central image of flowers left in memory of Li, with a headline that read, alluding to Dr. Li’s posting on WeChat about the epidemic in early January: “Epidemic ‘Whistleblower’ Li Wenliang Passes Away.”

A number of front pages included the now famous image of Dr. Li wearing a protective face mask and staring straight into the camera. The February 7 front page of the Xinmin Evening News, a newspaper published in Shanghai under the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group (SUMG), included this photo in a black frame box, with the headline: “Farewell, Dr. Li Wenliang: So This is the Kind of Person He Was.” A commentary below, designed with commemorative burning candles below, was called, “Letting Openness, Transparency and Sunshine Break Through the Fog of Disease.”

A commentary in the Arts and Culture Journal (文化艺术报), “Remembering Dr. Li Wenliang is to Give Treatment to Ourselves,” included a pencil sketch of Dr. Li shared to various social media platforms in China. The commentary dealt directly with the issue of openness of information as a key component of a healthy society, even including a quote from Li Wenliang during a February 1 interview with Caixin Online: “A healthy society cannot have just one voice” (个健康的社会不该只有一种声音).

The following are pages from Yinchuan Evening News (银川晚报) and Shanxi Evening News (山西晚报). At left, the Yinchuan Evening News story is quite explicit in is rejection of overwrought notions of heroism, and emphasis on the “ordinary person.” The large headline reads: “There are No Heroes Who Drop Out of the Sky, Only Ordinary People Who Step Up.” Li is referred to on both pages as a “whistleblower,” or “’whistleblower’ Li Wenliang.”

The very notion here of the “whistleblower” – particularly in contrast to heroic narratives – is a slight provocation, a recognition that in order to uphold his professional responsibilities and basic conscience Li Wenliang had to act against the impulses of a system that worked to keep him quiet.

But one of the most evocative front pages came from the Economic Observer, a prominent business newspaper. The page was dominated by a dark image of Li Wenliang, rendered in grey and earthy tones, with a pair of bold, martial arts inspired characters that read: “Battling the Epidemic.” The sense was of Li as a popular hero, as opposed to the abstracted sacrificial character of CCP propaganda. The headline of the text below the image, against an oval design resembling the coronavirus, read: “Please Clear the Name of Wuhan’s ‘Rumor-Monger’”.  

The article referred to the now infamous letter of admonishment that Li Wenliang was forced to sign by local police in Wuhan confessing the error of his decision to shared information about the dangers of the coronavirus outbreak. The Economic Observer again shared the Li Wenliang quote from Caixin Online: “A healthy society cannot have just one voice.”

The following are translated portions of several articles, including the papers in which they appeared. They provide an interesting, if sometimes subtle, criticism of official narratives of abstracted “heroism” against genuine respect and protection of flesh-and-blood human beings committing simple acts of conscience.

“Forever Bearing in Mind the Weight of the World ‘People’” (永远牢记“人民”二字的分量)

Liberation Daily (Shanghai), February 8, 2020

Remembering Li Wenliang means a full and thorough investigation to respond to the most direct concerns and confusions of the public, letting the truth open the fog, using actions to provide answers – this is a consolation to Li Wenliang, and a consolation to all the good people who care for him and grieve for him. Remembering Li Wenliang also means respecting and protecting more Li Wenliangs, offering thanks and respect to the countless Li Wenliangs. This is not necessarily a tribute to “heroes,” but a tribute to the “people.”

“Remembering His Justice and Courage” (记住他的正义和勇气)

Nanfang Daily, February 8, 2020

Looking back now, his acts, whether from a medical perspective or from the standpoint of the interest of society, were doubtless acts of responsibility, warning signs given out of professionalism. He is a true hero. As a number of experts have said: “Commenting after the fact, we can give them the highest marks.” . . . . “The facts have shown that faced with an unknown and complicated epidemic disease, it is more responsible to treat small seedlings with an attitude of respect.”

“The ‘Whistleblower’ Has Gone: The Truth Should Remain” (“吹哨人”走了 真相应永驻)

Yangcheng Evening News, February 8, 2020

Those who embrace the public should not be left to freeze in the snow. Those who hold up a candle for the world should not be allowed to disappear into the night. Speaking truthfully, this is the basic ethics of any normally functioning society, and the cornerstone of maintaining fairness and justice. In the face of this epidemic, questions cannot be addressed only to this or that individual, or to certain [government] departments – we must all face them. In the swipe of the mobile era, grief and oblivion seem to come and go so quickly. But I hope we always remember him: Li Wenliang, the doctor and ‘whistleblower’ struck down so unfortunately by the epidemic.”

Two Embassies, Varying Opinions

The attitude toward the death of Li Wenliang in official circles, as glimpsed through media coverage on February 10, remained deeply divided, with an admixture of pragmatism.

On February 10, Shanghai’s Wenhui Daily ran a piece called, “Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Introduces China’s Epidemic Fight on PBS News Program, Says ‘This is a Tough Struggle We Are Confident We Will Win” (similar foreign ministry release). Perhaps with a thought to accommodate the feelings of his American audience, Cui Tiankai was actually quite moderate during his interview toward Dr. Li Wenliang, saying that “we encourage speaking the truth.” The story read at one point:

Cui Tiankai emphasized that we encourage speaking the truth. Perhaps at the start not everyone understands and accepts these people who speak the truth, and such things could happen in any place, but we encourage people to speak the truth, and to face challenges head on. Only those who don’t speak the truth and who don’t face challenges head on will be punished.

Cui Tiankai’s remarks, however, were quite different in tone to a piece released on February 9 through official WeChat account “Chinese Embassy In France.” The piece, called “Using Unity and Victory to Say Goodbye to Dr. Li Wenliang” (用团结和胜利告慰李文亮医生), was quite stern in its words for Chinese living in France who were voicing opposition in the wake of Li’s death. It said:

There are certain people with ulterior motives (别有用心的人) using the memory of Li Wenliang as an excuse to agitate overseas Chinese and overseas students in France who care about the epidemic and organize a so-called “Tonight, We Whistleblow for Truth” (今夜,我为真相吹哨) event. Everyone must know that “whistleblower” (吹哨者) was originally a derogatory term meaning someone who is an informer or undercover. When they use this word to describe Li Wenliang, this attaches to him a political label, with bad intentions, the goal being to divide Chinese opinion, and this spoils the reputation of Dr. Li Wenliang and it is immoral. . . . At this time, we need to think and decide cool-headedly, clearly separating those voices truly made out of a sense of justice and conscience, and those that are using our feelings of pity to obscure the facts and incite anger and hate in order to sow chaos in people’s hearts and destabilize the overall situation. Before our great enemies, we must prioritize the overall situation and not be self-defeating . . .

On February 10, the Study Times journal published a commentary called “Public Opinion Phenomenon of Skidding After Snow Deserves Study” (舆论雪后打滑现象值得研究), which expressed the view that the turbulent public opinion following Li Wenliang’s death was a treacherous (like an icy path) battle of ideas. It echoed the view expressed by the Chinese Embassy in France that unified calls around Li Wenliang’s death were a conspiracy to confuse and sow chaos:

In the battle for public opinion, the situation is far more complex, the enemy is often not even visible, and the front-lines cannot be made out clearly. If we do not maintain clear positions and rational thinking . . . . it will be difficult to avoid being engulfed in public opinion, becoming the passenger on the public bus skidding after the snow.

On social media, the talk of conspiracy was often even clearer. The views of a purported officer within the Public Security Bureau posted to WeChat (of unclear origin) and shared widely suggested that in view of the urgency of the epidemic and other problems facing China, public opinion had to be controlled, and sources of information must be centralized:

Right now the country faces an extremely complicated and severe situation, whether this is about facing domestic pressures or external pressures, or about facing the pressure in terms of the epidemic, production, food, supplies, public opinion, economy, finance, diplomacy, the military . . . . and so on. We can say the pressure is on all levels, and if any link experiences a problem this could have a serious chain reaction, creating a domino effect, and the consequences would be unimaginable! National security is the interest of the people. . . . .

The world is not so peaceful and harmonious as ordinary people generally think, and the more the country faces danger the more rumors fly, because the precision public opinion attacks from external forces begin, just as we’ve seen in Hong Kong. If the government loses its credibility and discourse power then it has taken irreversibly to the road of national decline! Why does public opinion choose Dr. Li? Because he is young, handsome, motivated and kind, and he is all the more capable of inspiring the sympathies of ordinary people, and more capable of stirring up public opinion . . . .

This post expressed concern at the intense criticism facing the police as a result of Li Wenliang’s treatment by police in Wuhan, and speculated that this could become a source of broader instability incited by vague “external forces”:

Fingers are now pointing at the Public Security Bureau over the epidemic, with criticism everywhere . . . . If they [the police] lose heart and forfeit their ability to maintain control, it is conceivable that the external forces will conduct their precision attacks with the intention of replicating the Hong Kong model!

These diverging views are of course not at all unfamiliar. On the one hand, the view that information openness is a crucial aspect in any society, and that the voices of professionals, journalists and all manner of ordinary people must be heard as a matter of basic health and social well-being. On the other hand, the view that public opinion is a toxic and destabilizing force, manipulated by hostile “external forces,” that must be controlled as an urgent matter of national security (overlaid, of course, with the question of regime security). The same divergence of views within the leadership and within official media emerged in the midst of the 2003 SARS epidemic.

In the light of the Li Wenliang case, many Chinese have noted the frustrating familiarities. It has been 17 years since the SARS epidemic, which at that time prompted soul-searching about the role of openness and information in dealing with issues of immediate public concern. And yet, some ask, have the costs of information secrecy and public opinion control changed?

One Chinese internet user commented on the frustrating lack of apparent progress between 2003 and 2020 by sharing side-by-side two covers of China Newsweekly, a leading news magazine. The first, dating back to 2003, bore the cover story: “SARS: What Price Must We Still Pay?” The second, from this month, bore the almost identical title: “Coronavirus: What Price Must We Pay?”

The Truth About “Dramatic Action”

“As far as I know, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science.” This was how Dr. Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s country representative in China, described the situation facing the city of Wuhan when asked late last week for his update on the coronavirus outbreak.

It was clear from Galea’s remarks that the total containment of Wuhan, the city where I have lived for the past few decades, was not a course of action the WHO had recommended. Nor did the organization have any clear view on whether such an action would prove effective in limiting the spread of the disease. “It has not been tried before as a public health measure,” he said, “so we cannot at this stage say it will or will not work.”

I am now one of 11 million people in Wuhan who are living through this grand experiment, a measure that, Galea also said, shows “a very strong public health commitment and a willingness to take dramatic action.” From inside the curtain that now encloses my city, I wish to offer my thoughts on this “dramatic action,” and to judge what we have actually seen and experienced in terms of commitment to public health.

Closing Up the Cities

At 2AM on January 23, authorities in Wuhan suddenly issued the order to close off the city. According to the order, from 10AM that same day, all public buses, subways, ferries, long-distance buses and other transport services would be suspended; the airport and train stations would be shuttered. At this point, the WHO might have had reservations about the necessity and effectiveness of this strategy – but in any case, is was irreversible, and it would soon extend to neighboring cities as well.

In less than two days, up to noon on January 24, a total of 14 cities in Hubei province would be brought into the quarantine zone. These cities, with a population of around 35 million, include: Huanggang (黄冈) and E’zhou (鄂州), were quickly brought under the order for closure. More cities followed: Chibi (赤壁), Xiantao (仙桃), Zhijiang (枝江), Qianjiang (潜江), Xianning (咸宁), Huangshi (黄石), Enshi (恩施)、Dangyang (当阳), Jingzhou (荆州), Jingmen (荆门) and Xiaogan (孝感).

This was no longer a city under lockdown, but effectively an entire province under quarantine.

Galea and other foreign experts have expressed a sense of awe about the boldness of the quarantine in Hubei province. Over the weekend, the New York Times quoted Dr. William Schaffner, an expert on infectious disease from Vanderbilt University, as saying that the lockdown is a “public health experiment, the scale of which has not been done before.” Schaffner was clearly astonished: “Logistically, it’s stunning, and it was done so quickly.”

China’s capacity to impress with such grand gestures calls to mind talk of the “Chinese miracle,” often used to describe the performance of the country’s economy over four decades. But is it fair to regard this case of large-scale quarantine also as a “Chinese miracle” in public health?

Shutting People’s Mouths

Everyone must understand, first of all, that this epidemic was allowed to spread for a period of more than forty days before any of the abovementioned cities were closed off, or any decisive action taken. In fact, if we look at the main efforts undertaken by the leadership, and by provincial and city governments in particular, these were focused mostly not on the containment of the epidemic itself, but on the containment and suppression of information about the disease.

The early suppression of news about the epidemic is now fairly common knowledge among Chinese, and many people view this failure to grapple openly with the outbreak as the chief reason why it was later seen as necessary to take the “dramatic action” of closing down my city and many others.

The direct cause of all of this trouble is of course the new coronavirus that has spread now from Wuhan across the globe and has everybody talking. Up to January 24, in Hubei province alone, there were 549 admitted cases of the virus. Among these there have been 24 deaths. But the real numbers are still unknown.

According to reports from Caixin Media, one of China’s leading professional news outlets, the entire situation began on December 8, with the discovery of the first known case of an infected patient in Wuhan, a stall operator from the Huanan Seafood Market. The Huanan Seafood Market is a large-scale wet market, with an area about the size of seven football pitches and more than 1,000 stalls. The market has a constant flow of customers, making it the ideal place for the spread of infectious disease. A seafood market only in name, it sells a wide array of live animals, including hedgehogs, civet cats, peacocks, bamboo rats and other types of wild animals. At this market, the nearly inexhaustible appetite, and insatiable greed and curiosity of Chinese diners is on full display.

The number of infected people rose rapidly, reaching 27 people within a short period of time. Health professionals in Wuhan began suspecting in early December that this was an unknown infectious disease, not unlike the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that emerged in southern China in 2003. The ghost of SARS seemed to wander Wuhan in December, and rumors spread farther and farther afield of a new disease on the prowl.

China is a society closely monitored by the government, and the shadow of Big Brother is everywhere. Social media in particular are subject to very close surveillance. So when the authorities detected chatter about the re-emergence of SARS, or of a similar unknown outbreak, they took two major steps initially. First, they tried to ensure that this new outbreak remained a secret; second, they put the stability preservation system into effect (启动稳控机制). On December 30, the Wuhan Health Commission (武汉市卫建委) issued an order to hospitals, clinics and other healthcare units strictly prohibiting the release of any information about treatment of this new disease. As late as December 31, the government in Wuhan was still saying publicly that there were no cases of human-to-human transmission, and that no medical personnel had become infected.

Science Versus Politics

The period from December 8 to December 31 was a crucial 23-day period. During this time, scientists in China were not in fact idle, but raced against the clock trying to trace the virus – and their performance was remarkable. Meng Xin (孟昕), a researcher at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has since disclosed:

So originally they [NOTE: Meng is referring here to the government] had one ace card in their hand. My colleagues worked hard through the night, and within one week had managed to: successfully isolate the disease, sequence the coronavirus genome (测完了序列), and confirmed the origin of the disease. In less than two weeks, they had developed test reagents and had distributed them to provincial CDCs, and they had reviewed anywhere from dozens to hundreds of specimens from Wuhan (the specific number is still unknown), actions that would earn unanimous praise from international colleagues and the World Health Organization, and that would save precious time in the prevention and control of the epidemic.

Meng is referring here specifically to the actions taken by scientists in Beijing. But Shanghai scientists were not far behind. According to a report in Health News (健康报), the official publication of China’s National Health Commission, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center (上海市公共卫生临床中心) had isolated a new strain of coronavirus by January 5, within just 10 days of its receiving samples from patients in Wuhan on December 26, and scientists at the center had obtained the entire genome sequence.

On January 11, on the basis of the latest research developments in Beijing and Shanghai, China officially confirmed that this new coronavirus was the pathogen causing the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic, and it shared the new coronavirus gene sequence information with the WHO.

But while the Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organization about these developments at the earliest opportunity, they did not inform their own people, but instead maintained strict secrecy. This meant no progress was made on prevention and control.

As the researcher Meng Xin put it:

The ace card [provided by scientists] was still played very poorly, because at the first opportunity politics came into play and directed strict confidentiality requirements – this can’t be talked about, that can’t be talked about, we must maintain stability, and so on. So the test reports were locked into the safety deposit box.

Here is how the situation looked from our perspective on the ground as Chinese citizens, and as residents of Wuhan.

On January 12, the Wuhan Municipal Health Construction Commission announced that there were no new cases and no close contacts as of the 11th.

On January 13, the Wuhan Municipal Health Construction Commission announced that there were no new cases and no close contacts as of the 12th.

On January 14, the Wuhan Municipal Health Construction Commission announced that there were no new cases and no close contacts as of the 13th.

On January 15, the Wuhan Municipal Health Construction Commission announced that there were no new cases and no close contacts as of the 14th.

On January 16, the Wuhan Municipal Health Construction Commission announced that there were no new cases and no close contacts as of the 15th.

Politics first. Stability preservation first. In such an environment, science can only sit by and watch. The scientific results could not be clearer, and the authorities likely had a decent grasp of the real situation. But nevertheless they could not speak the truth, and they spared no effort in keeping the outbreak under wraps. Front-line doctors who spoke up about the outbreak were taken in for questioning. Eight Wuhan citizens who dared to post about the outbreak online were summoned by the police and singled out in public announcements through official media in order to terrify the public and force people to remain quiet.

The focus of restrictions was to prevent the truth of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus from getting out. Wuhan officials continued to emphasize through January 14 that no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission had been found. Later, officials had to admit that there was evidence of what they called “limited human-to-human transmission.” Wang Guangfa (王广发), a member of the expert group from Beijing, came out and stressed that the disease was “preventable and controllable.” In light of these statements, the public remained unaware and unconcerned.

Politics as Usual

Up to January 17, tourism authorities in Wuhan continued to launch the “Spring Festival Culture Benefitting the People Campaign” (春节文化惠民活动), issuing hundreds of thousands of free tickets to attractions in Wuhan in order to encourage tourists from all over the country to come to the area for sightseeing. Through to January 19, Baibuting Garden (武汉市百步亭社区), an area advertised as a model residential community in Wuhan, was still holding a Spring Festival banquet celebration for its 40,000 residents. There was no attempt to stem the flow of people to Wuhan from all over the country and around the world. During what was the most critical phase for controlling the outbreak, Wuhan was essentially an open city owing to the efforts of local officials to keep a lid on the story.

The ignoring of the outbreak by Party and government officials can be seen clearly in the agendas of local officials in Hubei province. On January 11, after the disease was confirmed as a new strain of coronavirus, until January 20, when General Secretary Xi Jinping issued a notice on response and control of the outbreak, Hubei provincial officials and Wuhan city officials had no meetings or events having to do with the coronavirus outbreak.

From January 12-17, these officials were all busy prioritizing the provincial and city-level meetings of the people’s congresses and political consultative conferences, the so-called “two meetings” (两会) – the biggest local political meetings of the year. In all likelihood this is reason why, as outlined above, no new cases of the virus were reported – because a “harmonious” public opinion environment had to be created for the “two meetings.”

On January 18, a Saturday, there were no events scheduled by provincial or city officials, and this was most likely a day of rest. On January 19th, leaders at the provincial and city levels had their respective itineraries, but no officials voiced concern about the outbreak. The provincial Party secretary, Jiang Chaoliang (蒋超良), had three events on his schedule: a meeting with the Yangtze River Water Conservancy Commission; a meeting with retired cadres; and an appearance at a Spring Festival event for the military. His itinerary the next day: a visit with poor families in Daye City. Provincial governor Wang Xiaodong (王晓东) accompanied Jiang Chaoliang on his visits on January 19, and had nothing on his itinerary the next day.

Wuhan Party Secretary Ma Guoqiang (马国强) spent the day on January 19 attending a meeting of the Grass-roots Party Building Review and Appraisal Council. On January 20, he presided over a meeting of the Municipal Standing Committee. But the agenda did not touch on the coronavirus outbreak, focusing instead on language from the central and provincial Party leadership on “remaining true to our original aspiration, keeping firmly to our mission” (不忘初心, 牢记使命), this being a key phrase of Xi Jinping’s to talk about keeping to the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and pushing for the so-called “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

The only official who had any event related to the coronavirus outbreak on his agenda was Wuhan’s number two, mayor Zhou Xianwang (周先旺), who on January 20 attended a working meeting of the Epidemic Prevention and Control Command Center (疫情防控指挥部). This was on the same day that Xi Jinping finally issued his official instructions on dealing with the outbreak.

It was only after the conclusion of the provincial and city-level sessions of the “two meetings” that the authorities in Hubei province resumed reporting new disease cases, so that on the night of January 19 the number given suddenly rose to 136 new cases. But even with this dramatic increase from previous numbers, the leadership remained conservative and close-mouthed about the outbreak.

Even on January 21, the day after Xi Jinping’s instructions were conveyed nationwide on January 20, the provincial Party and government leadership went ahead with a grand Spring Festival Banquet in the Hongshan Assembly Hall, with performances from the provincial song and dance troupe. According to Party media reports, preparation for the banquet had top priority for the leadership and the Provincial Department of Culture and Tourism: “Lei Wenjie, the department’s secretary and director, personally reviewed various performance plans, provided guidance for the draft program, and reviewed the compositions and rehearsals for the show in person.” Reports even gave what now seem quite suggestive details, saying that the performers had “overcome a host of difficulties to achieve a perfect performance, including coming from long distances, enduring colds, stuffy noses, and bodily discomfort.”

As the province’s top leader, Secretary Jiang Chaoliang, and Governor Wang Xiaodong (王晓东) sat with row upon row of Party and government officials, they were the very image of peace and calm. But when news of the banquet was posted online, it met with a wave of anger as internet users bitterly criticized them for inaction. One user mocked these officials online with the choice words: “These public servants who need not concern themselves with the virus, reward themselves with flowers in the back courtyard.”

The Voice of Calm

The true turning point came as Zhong Nanshan (钟南山), the well-known Chinese pulmonologist who identified the SARS virus in 2003, paid a visit to Wuhan. On January 18, Zhong received orders in Guangzhou to head urgently to Wuhan. But even though Zhong was an esteemed member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and even though he was under urgent orders to become involved in a matter of national concern, his rank was apparently too low to merit special transport arrangements of any kind. Instead, he was forced to take a high-speed train in the evening, fighting against crowds heading home for the Spring Festival. He spent the entire journey settled in a corner of the dining car.

Looking back now, it’s clear that Zhong Nanshan’s orders at the time were not at all about researching the outbreak. As I’ve said, by this point scientists in Beijing and Shanghai had already made critical breakthroughs on that front, identifying and sequencing the pathogen in record time, and developing diagnostic kits. Unfortunately, the efforts of these scientists were largely snuffed out by the black box of Chinese politics.

Zhong Nanshan was brought into the picture because there was no way to really and truly turn the tide without the appearance somehow of a third party with sufficient credibility to break through the paper windows of reporting on the epidemic to that point – someone who could reveal the full nature of the epidemic to the public, and somehow reassure them. As Meng Xin, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention researcher, wrote: “Nothing could be done to hold back [the truth about the outbreak]. Our best bet was to have Old Dr. Zhong, this great god, come out and reveal something of the real facts of the situation, and try to calm people’s nerves.”

But the authorities still were not prepared to admit the full truth. There was no admission that the outbreak had been concealed, that there had been serious delays in reporting, that a “super-spreader” had infected more than 14 health workers in the city, or that hospitals in Wuhan were suffering shortages of critical resources. Zhong Nanshan simply came out and broke the news that the virus was now spreading from person to person. Beyond that, he said nothing.

And so it was that the seriousness of what was happening in Wuhan broke upon the nation, and my city became a city under lockdown – not out of an overriding concern for public health, but out of a conviction that politics and stability preservation must always come first.

The Ghost City

The quarantine of the city of Wuhan can be read as a sign of desperation at the top of the Party leadership, and at the provincial and city levels it was an unavoidable measure. There has been some talk that the closing off of Wuhan and much of Hubei province came after many other provinces and cities made an urgent request to the central authorities to take more urgent action to control the situation in Hubei and prevent people from Wuhan other cities from traveling all over the country.

Wuhan was the first to announce the closure of the city, but this was not at all done in a decisive way, but rather in a foot-dragging and non-committal way. Nothing whatsoever, to my mind, merits the suggestion from Dr. William Schaffner that, “Logistically, it’s stunning.” One might imagine this action was taken with some form of wartime control logic, but this was not actually the case at all. The order was issued at 2AM on January 23, but was not officially implemented until 10AM, which opened up an eight-hour window in which people who managed to learn of the situation could make a swift exit, taking to the expressways in their private cars.

We can be sure that a substantial number of the people who left the city at this point – some estimates are of as many as one million – were already by this point carriers of the coronavirus. This includes many people who had failed to obtain treatment in the city, and were hoping to find treatment elsewhere. Media have since reported cases of patients from Wuhan being successfully treated and discharged from hospitals in Shanghai, for example, providing a glimpse of what happened in that brief window between the announcement of the quarantine and its actual implementation.

Another aspect of the Wuhan quarantine has been its hasty nature. Even now, after several days of quarantine, no specific plan has been issued, suggesting no preparations were made at all before the announcement. What should be done to settle or assist the estimated one million refugees from Wuhan who made it out before the quarantine was implemented? During the quarantine period, how would food, water and other basic necessities be provided to residents of the city? How would medical personnel at hospitals and clinics be provided with the medicines and other essentials? How would the authorities deal with urgent transportation needs, such as medical staff getting to and from work and patients getting to hospitals for medical treatment? How would law and order be maintained? The government has so far offered no explanation for how these and many other urgent questions are being dealt with.

In the absence of answers, what we have is the shutting off and shutting down of a city, plain and simple. A quarantine that means 11 million people are trapped within their city. No one seems to have considered how public order will be maintained, and how our lives here in Wuhan will be supported.

This is the situation in Wuhan, Hubei’s capital city. We can suppose that the situation is no better, and is possibly worse, in the other cities that have similarly come under quarantine. Of the fourteen cities under facing lockdown, there are so far no exceptions in terms of the announcement of plans or preparations. They are equally in the dark, having become fourteen isolated islands, home to an estimated 35 million helpless citizens.

The results of this are already becoming clear. First, we are seeing a shortage of supplies of essential household goods in Wuhan, and inflation is out of control. The city was closed off early in the morning on January 23, and by noon the price of vegetables had already skyrocketed, some vegetables priced up to hundreds of yuan per half-kilo. By afternoon that same day, many supermarkets in the city had been entirely cleaned out. Fortunately, this is perhaps the one time during the year, with the arrival of the Spring Festival, that Chinese families tend to have reserve supplies at home to prepare for festivities. But if fresh supplies are not made available soon, it’s possible many families will not have enough to eat.

Another major problem right now is that major hospitals and frontline medical staff do not have sufficient supplies of protective equipment as they work overtime to treat a flood of patients. Even the best hospitals in Hubei, such as Tongji Hospital and Xiehe Hospital, cannot escape this basic problem. They have reported that even masks are in short supply.

In some cases, frontline medical personnel were unable to eat their New Year’s Eve meals last Friday, one of the most important meals of the year. This was not because there was no food to eat, but because their protective masks are single-use, and must be changed out any time they are removed, lest they become ineffective. But there were already an insufficient number of masks by the weekend, and so medical personnel didn’t dare remove them. More serious even than the shortage of protective equipment is the fact that many frontline medical personnel are exhausted and on the verge of collapse due to extreme mental and physical strain.

Another issue that has so far not been addressed is the fact that there are roughly one million Wuhan residents who managed to leave the city and who are now essentially refugees without any proper means of finding shelter or care, and who risk being chased down and harassed by local governments and communities out of fear. In some cases, they may present a real risk in spreading the virus. In other cases, they may face brutal treatment as refugees and outcasts.  

Wuhan under quarantine has already begun to feel like a ghost city. From New Year’s Eve into New Year’s Day, you couldn’t hear a single firecracker going off. I have lived in this city for decades already, and this is the first time that the Chinese New Year has passed without the sound of fireworks. The entire city is silent. The traffic lanes, usually jammed with vehicles, are empty. All public places are now inaccessible. No one is associating or organizing get togethers. There is no sense of community. No public life. We are all atomized individuals, living in isolation in our own homes, passing the time watching the television, or glued to our mobiles.

In this dead silence, fear spreads. Senior government officials are certainly living in fear. And just how afraid are they? After announcing the closure of the city, they failed to present contingency plans of any kind; and they have failed since to offer up any plans for future action. At a crucial point last Friday, on the eve of the New Year, none of them dared stand with front-line medical personnel in Hubei’s hospitals, or to offer them meals or encouragement of any kind.  

They can’t possibly be ignorant of the fact that such signs of leadership are the only way they can offer a thread of confidence to those on the front lines, and to the millions who are trapped in this sad city. And yet, they somehow find it impossible to take such steps. They appear not to have the courage.

And there may be a reason for this. Why? Because there are already concrete examples that deepen their sense of dread. On January 22, Huang Mouhong (黄谋宏), the deputy director of the Hubei Provincial Department of Commerce, was diagnosed with the coronavirus. Before this, there was news that Wang Guangfa, the expert who had flown to Wuhan from Beijing and announced that the disease was “preventable and controllable,” had been confirmed as infected shortly after his return to the capital.

In fact, both the provincial and municipal governments have already effectively been shut down, and to a large extent can be said to now be only caretaker governments (看守政府). These cowardly and incompetent governments obviously cannot take on the necessary responsibility of governing in what has already become essentially a state of war. This leaves the public in a state of deep concern and uncertainty.

On January 22, Zhang Ouya (张欧亚), a journalist for the official Hubei Daily newspaper, clearly at the end of his rope, fairly shouted online: “Wuhan must immediately change out its commanders” (武汉必须当机立断换帅了). For a brief time, this furious call proliferated online. Another meme was rapidly born, like a mutating virus, across social media. The word “coronavirus”, or guānzhuàng bìngdú (冠状病毒), was replaced with the identical-sounding “official virus” (官状病毒), mocking the cowardice and ineffectiveness of the government and of high-level officials.

We may find it hard to suppress a bitter laugh over such an acts of inventive criticism. But such a story cannot have a happy ending in China’s stability-obsessed political environment – where anything can be stopped. Zhang Ouya’s post was quickly expunged. The Party leadership of the Hubei Daily Media Group, Zhang’s employer, wrote a letter of apology to the Municipal Party Committee expressing its “deepest apologies” for Zhang Ouya’s “incorrect remarks.” The group also made clear that it was starting “relevant procedures” to hold Zhang accountable.

At the same time, while carrying on an investigation of Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, where the outbreak originated, Xiao Hui (萧辉), a reporter for Caixin Media, was surrounded and beaten by four security guards. Caixin journalist Wang Heyan (王和岩), one of the finest investigative reporters working in China today, contacted several doctors in Wuhan in order to verify infections among medical staff, but was not allowed to meet with her sources. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued an order saying that: “[Medical personnel must not, under any condition, accept media interviews, and must not leak information about the outbreak to the outside. Noone can accept interviews, even if journalists promise anonymity and agree to protect their sources.”

What will tomorrow bring? Here in Wuhan, 11 million of us are waiting — not for dramatic action, but for openness and a real plan of action.

Media Agency Websites "Rectified"

Through its official WeChat public account “Cyber China” (网信中国) today, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s central agency for internet regulation and control, announced that it had ordered the immediate suspension and “rectification” of the websites of two leading Chinese photo and media agencies — Visual China Group (VCG) and IC Photo. [ABOVE: Screen capture of the IC Photo website from October 2019, from Wayback Machine].

Both websites today were unavailable. The VCG website yielded a message on a blank white screen that read: “Implementing relevant management demands, the Visual China Group website is from this time undergoing a complete self-inspection and rectification, and the website will suspend service during the rectification period.”

The website for IC Photo similarly carried a message that read: “RECTIFICATION NOTICE: Implementing relevant management demands, the IC Photo website is from this time undergoing a complete self-inspection and rectification, and the website will suspend service during the rectification period — Shanghai Yingmai Cultural Communication Co.,Ltd., December 10, 2019.”

According to the CAC notice, both websites were cited for “illegally taking part in internet information services, illegally engaging in business cooperation in internet information services with overseas companies.”

The notice said the sites had “seriously disrupted orderly network communication” by engaging in these activities without proper permissions, and without first undergoing a security review (安全评估).

It is not yet clear what nature of content fell afoul of censors at the CAC. Established in 2000, VCG is the largest supplier of stock image and video content to commercial clients in China, and the third largest in the world.

China Gets First "Common Destiny" Center

At a ceremony held in Beijing on November 29, the Communication University of China formally announced the creation of the “Institute for a Community with Shared Future” — a new think tank paying homage to Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy concept. According to state media reports, this is the first research center in China devoted to the study of the notion of a “community of common destiny.”

The unveiling of the new center was attended by an array of foreign guests, including diplomats, university officials and think tank representatives, all of whom were pictured with the new director of the center, Li Huailiang (李怀亮), signing memoranda of understanding for unspecified cooperation. Participants included Brazilian Ambassador to China Celso de Tarso Pereira, Montenegrin Ambassador to China Branko Perovic, the president of Saint Augustine University of Tanzania, and Jean-Christophe Bas, the CEO of the Berlin-based Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute.

News reports gave little indication of the future research and cooperation to be undertaken by the center, although they did mention that the center’s director, Li Huailiang, read out loud an “Initiative on an International Scholarship Alliance” (人类命运共同体国际学术联盟倡议书). The principles of this initiative were broadly outlined as follows:

Cultural diversity is the basic character of the world; common prosperity, openness and accommodation are the common aspirations of people of all countries for a better life; the international scholarly community should actively promote consciousness of a community of common destiny for humankind, encouraging exchanges and mutual learning between civilizations; universities, think tanks and research institutes and scholars should be constructors of world peace, and contributors to global development, and protectors of international order.

This brief passage provides a tantalizing glimpse of the values underpinning the notion of “community of common destiny for humankind,” which in its official English-language translation has been called “community of common future.” Despite its apparent embrace of diversity, tolerance and mutual understanding, Xi Jinping’s notion of “common destiny” is premised on the supremacy of the state, and the priority of national development over individual and community values such as human rights.

The language of this International Scholarship Alliance,” therefore, would suggest that the new center’s interest is in encouraging greater tolerance and less criticism internationally for the policies and values of the Chinese Communist Party, on grounds of cultural relativism. It is the doctrine of non-interference translated into the realm of culture and scholarship.

Li Huailiang, the new center’s director, was the deputy editor of Hebei Studies (河北学刊), a scholarly journal of the Hebei Academy of Social Sciences, and the author of several books on media and culture. The Shanghai-based news site The Paper reported that Li is known as a pioneering figure in the field of “international culture trade” (国际文化贸易), noting that his book International Cultural Trade and Cultural Competition Today (当代国际文化贸易与文化竞争) was the first book domestically dealing with the field of cultural competition.

Censorship Imposters

On October 30, the Complaints Center (举报中心) of the Cyberspace Administration China released a statement saying that it had recently received repeated notification from internet companies reporting that they had received e-mail messages that appeared to be from the CAC or related bodies and demanded removal of content for supposed violations.
These “deletion orders” (撤稿指令), the CAC said, had been sent by “criminals” (不法分子) who had falsely represented themselves and sought to “obtain improper benefit” by removal of online content. The implication seems to be that individuals or firms have been offering for-pay deletion services to help clients remove content viewed as undesirable or harmful.

In its notice, the CAC said that two of the addresses used in the e-mails sent to internet companies — [email protected] and [email protected] – were, respectively, the official address of the agency and the address used for citizens to send complaints about problem content. But neither had ever been used by the department, the CAC said, to carry out disciplinary measures.
“We hereby firmly attest that our center has never issued so-called article deletion or post deletion orders to internet companies through the above-mentioned channels,” the CAC said in its notice.
The Complaints Center of the CAC said that on average it receives 100,000 complaints each month about internet content through its formal channels. After a “strict and regulated” process of assessment, it said, content requiring further action was either handled through “platform systems” (平台系统), an apparent reference to technical censorship procedures already established with internet firms, or referred to local offices of the CAC by official notification (公文).

China's "Mainstream"

Understanding China requires a high-level of sensitivity to the nuances of the political language used by the Chinese Communist Party, and also how that language impacts our imagined points of connectivity with China. Simple words like “innovation,” an apparent reference to Silicon Valley-style disruption through technology, can signal things we might not associate — such as tighter political and social controls, and widespread surveillance.
In the realm of media and public opinion, one of the most misunderstood words in contemporary mainland Chinese, completely co-opted by CCP discourse, is “mainstream,” or zhuliu (主流).

A March 2019 report from Xinhua about Xi Jinping’s article in Seeking Truth journal is chockfull of “mainstream” talk, all referring to CCP dominance of the media space.
For many of us, the word simply refers to ideas or beliefs that are shared by most people, that are conventional, or to media that cater to mass audiences and their views, beliefs and interests. But for the Chinese Communist Party, guiding and maintaining public opinion, ensuring that it reflects the interests of those in power, is essential to maintaining the regime. The “mainstream,” therefore is the prerogative of the Party itself, and when you talk about “mainstream media” in China, you are talking not about commercial newspapers and magazines or big-brand online news sites — you are talking specifically about Party-run media.
Back in March, when Xi Jinping wrote an article for the official Seeking Truth (求是) journal about the need to further advance convergence in the “mainstream media” in order to strengthen “mainstream public opinion” and “mainstream values,” he was of course talking about ensuring that Party media were on top of the latest digital trends so that they could “guide public opinion,” which is CCP code for media control and censorship.
Look up “mainstream media” in online Chinese sources like Baidu, and the definition is unmistakable. Here, though, is a source in the People’s Liberation Army that uses the terms  “mainstream media” and “innovation” together in ways that should make the differing contexts crystal clear: “The mainstream media operated by the Party and the government bear the Party’s chief responsibility for innovating theory and propaganda.”
The broader context and definition of “mainstream media” is crucial to understanding articles like this one appearing today at People’s Daily Online, sourced from the overseas edition of the People’s Daily, which reports that “mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong and various segments of Hong Kong society express support” for the SAR’s new anti-mask law.

An article from the overseas edition of People’s Daily claims “mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong” supports the anti-mask law.
Read that statement and you might expect a couple of things. First, you might feel, given normative definitions of “mainstream” in the West, that the sentence is repetitive. “Mainstream public opinion” and opinion from “various segments of Hong Kong society” sound very much like the same thing, don’t they? Second, you might anticipate a news story that offers you direct quotes from ordinary people on the street, or even public opinion polling data.
If, however, you understand the normative CCP understanding of “mainstream” as something manufactured and controlled, and as a tool of governance, then you expect something altogether different. First of all, the apparent repetitiveness of the statement no longer applies. We should expect first to have reference to Party and/or government views as “mainstream,” and then only after (in order of importance) reference to ostensible social organizations or groups that have quasi-official status. Second, we should expect no direct quotes from individuals, because they are irrelevant. Public opinion, after all, is given from the top in the CCP understanding, not gathered from below.
The People’s Daily report does not disappoint in this respect.
The first source cited as “mainstream public opinion” is the Wen Wei Po newspaper, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong controlled by the Liaison Office of the Central Government. The second source cited is the Ta Kung Pao newspaper, also a CCP organ under Liaison Office control.
As for “segments of Hong Kong society,” the report cites a statement issued by the conservative and pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), and remarks from the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, also pro-Beijing.
Next time you hear mainland Chinese media or leaders referencing the “mainstream,” take a careful look at who is talking. The hand, you will generally find, is reporting on the puppet.