In my column in WiC487, I applauded Wuhan-based writer Fang Fang for providing a detailed record of life, death and other emotions that she experienced under the lengthy lockdown of her city due to Covid-19.
Fang’s Wuhan Diary galvanised an online community that was angry at the government’s perceived mishandling of the pandemic in its early stages, scared of the deadly virus and uncertain about the outcome of the whole situation. Many also seized the opportunity to vent their frustrations at the stifling media censorship of recent times by fervently following and reposting her diary.
As a result, Fang became a symbol of “truth, compassion and defiance” and her fanbase ballooned during the two months of her online postings.
However, just three weeks after her last diary entry on March 25, Fang’s reputation has gone through a sea-change. Much of her fanbase has fallen away and she is now mostly associated with the term: si lie “撕裂”or “torn” – an equivalent to “polarised”. She has even been described as “the woman who has torn Chinese society apart”.
The trigger for the rapid reassessment of Fang’s reputation was the news that her Wuhan Diary is to be published overseas in foreign languages and that the pre-sale promotions are overtly scathing about her home nation.
The introduction to the book on Amazon explains that “the stark reality of this devastating situation drives Fang Fang to courageously speak out against social injustice, corruption, abuse, and the systemic political problems which impeded the response to the epidemic”.
The promotion of the German language version of the diary is more damning, according to a Chinese translation I read online, claiming that Wuhan Diary is “a unique testimony to the origin of this global calamity [i.e. Covid-19], to a terrorising and deceitful system, and to a commoner’s defiance to a seemingly all powerful political Party”.
This overly simplistic portrayal of the situation – which is becoming more frequent in the West, particular in political debates and media coverage – dismayed some of Fang’s former fans. They now fault her for providing devastating ammunition to Western media, which they already believe to biased or hostile towards China.
In addition, while her diary was largely truthful about the lockdown days, the situation in China and the world has evolved and popular sentiment has changed accordingly. As of now, China has come out of the pandemic in an orderly way and without major social upheaval. And in comparison to the Chinese experience, countries like the US, the UK, Italy, Spain and France are still seeing breathtakingly high infection and fatality rates.
Media in these countries is also exposing blunders by their own democratically elected governments. After criticising China’s draconian social distancing as an infringement of civil liberty, many Western governments are now imposing similar protocols. Faced with shortages of basic personal protective equipment, some Italian medical workers even said they were “so jealous” of their Chinese counterparts.
As a result, many Chinese have adjusted some of their opinion of their own government’s handling of the epidemic. They see the initial reprimand of the whistleblowers as a blunder by the Hubei government but one which was corrected at the national level. Li Wenliang, the deceased doctor who was among the whistleblowers is now being described as a “martyr” and his family has received an apology from the government. China’s ju guo ti zhi 举国体制, or ‘nationwide system’ (see WiC484), seems to have proved effective in tackling a crisis of such magnitude. One of the common themes on Chinese social media in recent weeks is that it’s probably safer to be in China than anywhere else.
While still supporting Fang for her work during the lockdown and not objecting to having her diary published overseas, I can’t help feeling regret that an unintentional consequence of publishing it abroad may be to deepen mistrust between China and the West.
With the rise of populism across the globe, what we desperately need is balanced and nuanced cross-cultural facts and views. But I’m afraid that many readers of the international versions will happily settle on an “I knew it” or “ I told you so” sentiment when the more incendiary passages from the diary are quoted by politicians or journalists. And that may just fuel a rising tide of China-bashing and racism.
A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective.
If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]
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