Chinese Character

Virologist goes viral

Six months ago few would have predicted Zhang Wenhong’s stardom


Zhang Wenhong: China’s foremost coronavirus celebrity

Hu Yaobang, a former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, was one of the first of China’s leaders to switch to Western-style suits in the 1980s. And at a time when the country was beginning to experiment with market reforms, Hu even suggested his compatriots should ditch chopsticks.

“We should use knives and forks more, buy more plates and sit around the table to eat Chinese food in the Western style, that is, each from his own plate,” he suggested during a visit to Inner Mongolia in 1984. “By doing so we can avoid contagious diseases.”

But chopsticks have been used by the Chinese for thousands of years and Hu’s idea about changing to cutlery was never going to stick.

Neither did Hu. As a flag-bearer for the economic reform of the time he was soon being targeted by hardliners, who accused him of being a “bourgeois liberal”.

Hu was forced to resign as Communist Party leader in 1987.

The debate about the role of chopsticks in combating the spread of viral diseases has been a stubborn one, however. And new attention on ‘family’ dining culture (i.e. dipping into food on shared plates with chopsticks) has been stoked up by Zhang Wenhong, an expert on infectious diseases.

“Separate dining” – each person eating from their own plate of food – should become a “new normal” just like wearing face masks and washing hands, Zhang suggested at a forum in Shanghai to promote the city’s restaurant industry after the Covid-19 outbreak.

“What is the most terrible thing that’s happening?” he asked. “This would be people putting food on your plate with their chopsticks”.

“You may focus on the food when you raise your chopsticks,” he continued. “But from my point of view what I see are all the viruses and bacteria.”

When Hu Yaobang’s suggestion on knives and forks was made public in 1984 he was widely ridiculed. Zhang’s attack on Chinese dining culture has been greeted less aggressively. As news of his comments started to spread on social media, some even called it a “the soul-searching question”.

No doubt some of that response is being shaped by the realities of the Covid-19 outbreak, which has forced people to look at their lives differently. That said, Zhang Wenhong is no ordinary medical expert. Indeed, at a time when advice from the best known of the country’s medical experts is being followed closely, the 51 year-old has emerged as one of the most authoritative voices. His official WeChat account has attracted nearly a million fans – more than many pop singers and actors – and his blog posts, usually related to the Covid-19 pandemic, get over 10 million views.

One prominent blogger sums up Zhang’s popularity like this: “Among all frontline doctors fighting the outbreak, he is the most inspiring social media influencer. He has the best knowledge in fighting the outbreak. His biggest contribution in fighting Covid-19 has been about educating the public [on popular science], which is something even a thousand leading doctors cannot achieve together.”

So how did Zhang attain such rock star status as an epidemiologist?

His official title is head of the Centre for Infectious Disease at the Shanghai-based Huashan Hospital (it is affiliated with the prestigious Fudan University). He is also the leader of the Shanghai government’s Covid-19 clinical expert team.

Before the pandemic his WeChat account had no more than 20,000 followers, comprised mostly of his past and present students. But he shot to nationwide attention in late January – literally overnight – when he told reporters that he was assigning medical staff who were Communist Party (CPC) members to frontline positions in fighting the outbreak in Shanghai (Zhang is a Party member himself).

“Didn’t CPC members all pledge an oath when they joined [that they would serve the Chinese people]?” Zhang asked. “I don’t care if they agree or not… The decision was non-negotiable.” Spreading like wildfire across social media, the comment resonated with people who were frustrated by what they regarded as empty talk by Party officials. Equally importantly, Zhang’s stance won the approval of Party leaders, who realised that his no-nonsense style was needed at a moment of national crisis.

In the months that have followed, the authorities have played a crucial role in amplifying Zhang’s influence. For instance, almost in tandem with his advice on cutlery, the Shanghai government released a standard for “separate dining” to promote the use of serving chopsticks (chopsticks that don’t come into contact with diners’ mouths) and spoons.

So far up to 30% of all eateries in the city have followed the new protocols, Xinhua reports.

This month local newspapers have picked up on his comments again, running a series of experiments that found that levels of bacteria on dining tables without serving chopsticks could be 100 times higher. As a result there has been plenty of praise for Zhang in making the same point, with some of the media now classing him as more influential than Zhong Nanshan, the man leading China’s national effort against Covid-19 (hierarchically that means Zhong is Zhang’s boss).

Zhong is arguably the most respected medical expert in the country because of his role in identifying the coronavirus that caused the SARS epidemic in 2003, and thereafter playing a key role in countering the virus.

Zhang stands out more as an effective public speaker, who even cracks jokes amid conversations about complicated issues– doing so in a straightforward style.

Using the jargon of Chinese social media, Zhang is a punster, always ready with duanzi – short catchy phrases that spread quickly as internet memes.

Many of his comments have been widely forwarded as duanzi.

“All of you being isolated at home are warriors… You feel bored? Two more weeks, even the coronavirus will be bored to death by you.”

“Corporate bosses please don’t worry too much about donating medical gear to us. Let your staff work from home. Keep paying their salaries. This will be your biggest contribution to the country.”

Zhang is a native of the entrepreneurial city of Wenzhou. He graduated from the Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University in the 1990s and he spent time at Harvard Medical School in the US. Before becoming a specialist in infectious diseases, he worked at a faculty that set out to prescribe traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in conjunction with conventional Western medicine (see WiC493).

Among his colleagues and students, he has the nickname “Dad Zhang” because of his fatherly style behind the scenes. But fame has brought a more critical reception from those who disagree with his ideas.

For instance, Zhang suggested earlier this month that children should have eggs and milk for breakfast and that porridge or congee – a common Chinese breakfast – should be not allowed during the pandemic prevention period.

The suggestion was based on the fact that the production of antibodies requires a lot of protein, thus kids should take in more eggs and milk rather than rice and congee (which is richer in carbohydrate).

Soon afterwards the hashtag “Zhang Wenhong said no congee for breakfast”, had received more than 100 million views and 65,000 comments on Sina Weibo, according to the Global Times.

Zhang’s loudest critics are giving him the same brickbats that Hu Yaobang received back in the 1980s as being too ‘Westernising’. “If he is not xenocentric, why did he advocate Westerners’ breakfast so much to replace the food that most Chinese people have become used to eating in their lives?” was a typical question in the discussions on Sina Weibo.

Others suggests that Zhang has departed too far from his principal role as a physician, and that instead of working on treatments to counter Covid-19 he is simply being too talkative.

Zhang seemed to acknowledge some of the backlash in comments that hinted that he was looking forward to leaving the limelight once Covid-19 has been beaten back completely. “We have a problem if people like me [an infectious disease expert] are getting too popular,” he wrote recently. “When the curtain falls [i.e. when the Covid-19 pandemic subsides], I will leave the stage quietly.”

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.