Wuhan diary intensifies tussle for control of virus narrative

The English publication of a Chinese writer’s account of the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan has stoked a fierce debate over what happened in the city where the pandemic began.

Wuhan-based novelist Fang Fang was thrust into the national spotlight in January when she began to publish an online diary of her city being overwhelmed by the virus.

For many in China, her entries, written in direct yet restrained prose, quickly became the go-to unofficial account of events unfolding in Wuhan, capturing in real time the bungled early response of Wuhan officials and the suffering and despair that followed.

On Friday, a collection of Ms Fang’s essays and social media posts will be published in English as an ebook by HarperCollins. The work is expected to be translated into 15 languages.

Nationalist commentators responded to news of the release by accusing her of “hating the nation” and failing to highlight China’s success in containing the spread of Covid-19. Instead, they said, Ms Fang cast events as a mistake of historic proportions.

On Tuesday, Zhang Boli, a traditional Chinese medicine expert involved in Wuhan’s quarantine response, accused Ms Fang of being among a “small number of intellectuals who spread distorted values during the outbreak”.

The backlash against Ms Fang began in earnest in March, after she responded to a letter from a high school student who questioned the accuracy of her accounts and asked her to have more “positive energy”.

Ms Fang wrote in response that the student was repeating the mistakes she had made during her childhood in the Cultural Revolution: believing everything she was taught.

Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said it had become easier for critical intellectuals to fall foul of grassroots nationalism in China.

“Criticism used to come because someone was said to make China look bad or poor. Now it’s that you did not praise China’s response enough,” she said.

Ms Fang’s opponents have been aided by Chinese authorities, who have shown a marked intolerance for anyone challenging the official narrative of its Covid-19 response.

The first weeks of the outbreak — made worse by a failure to cancel events, a delay in warning the public and punishing doctors who tried to raise the alarm — were followed by a brief flowering of hard-hitting reporting, critical online commentary and citizen journalism, mostly targeting local officials in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province.

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After the central government took charge of the response, that window for open criticism was slammed shut. Video bloggers who had shot footage of crowded hospitals went missing. More of Ms Fang’s posts were censored, although fans would still pass screenshots.

Liang Yanping, a Hubei university professor who supported Ms Fang on social media, was placed under investigation last month after critics combed his internet history and reported him for making “inappropriate remarks” about the country.

“People think that they need to protect Chinese society from instability or to improve its international image, but this goal should not preclude people being critical,” David Zhang, a Beijing-based lawyer, said. “If there is only one voice, then that’s definitely a bad thing.”

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