A year ago this week, the Chinese Communist Party was on the verge of its biggest crisis in decades. The corona virus brought the city of Wuhan to a standstill. In the days that followed, the government’s efforts to hide the pandemic would go public, sparking an online backlash unlike anything the Chinese internet had seen in years.
Then, when the blows landed faster than the Chinese propaganda machine apparently could handle, some liberal-minded Chinese began to think the unthinkable. Perhaps this tragedy would force the Chinese people to push back. After decades of mind control and the deterioration of censorship, perhaps this was the moment when the world’s largest and most powerful propaganda machine would crack.
It was not like that.
A year later, party’s control of the narrative has become absolute. In Beijing’s narrative, Wuhan does not stand as evidence of China’s weaknesses, but of its strengths. The memories of last year’s horrors seem to be fading, at least judging by the online content. Even moderate dissent is shouted down.
The people of China should bow their heads this week in memory of those who have suffered and died. Instead, the Chinese internet is on fire over the scandal of a Chinese actress and her surrogate babies, a tabloid controversy sparked by Chinese propaganda.
Anyone looking for lessons about China in the years to come must understand the consequences of what is happening in 2020. The tragedy has shown that Beijing is able to control what people in China see, hear and think to an extent that exceeds even what pessimists believed. During the next crisis – be it a catastrophe, a war or a financial crisis – the party has shown that it has the means to get people together, no matter how tenacious Beijing is about it.
This week I went through my Chinese social media schedules and screenshots from a year ago. I was shocked at how many posts, articles, photos, and videos were removed. I was also surprised to remember the feeling of hope in that moment, despite intense anger and sadness.
The shift was particularly evident on the night that Dr. Li Wenliang, who was silenced after warning of the outbreak in late 2019, died of the virus.
That night, numerous Chinese people led an online riot. They posted videos of the song “Les Misérables” “Can you hear people singing?” They repeatedly shared one of Dr. Li’s quotes: “A healthy society shouldn’t have just one voice.”
Even one of China’s propaganda guidelines warned that Dr. Li’s death was an “unprecedented challenge”. Young people told me that the official news media had lost credibility.
One of my followers on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, apologized for attacking me earlier. I used to think people like you were bad, he wrote. Now, he added, I know we have been betrayed.
A middle-aged intellectual told me he expected the population of liberal-minded Chinese – those who want more freedom from Beijing’s controls – to grow from its estimate of 5 percent to 10 percent of the total population to 30 to 40 percent.
As those hopes rose, others tried to stifle the excitement. A political scientist suggested that the proportion of liberal-minded Chinese internet users would shrink, not increase. In three months, she predicted, the Chinese public, led by the great communist government, would celebrate the glorious victory over the outbreak.
Unfortunately she was right.
In order to get the narrative back in the early days of the pandemic, as my colleagues have reported, the Chinese government began a tremendous effort behind the scenes to make sure the censors took control at the local level as well. They listened and read almost everything people had written. Then the censors either addressed the problems or silenced those who thought differently. Chinese officials say police investigated or otherwise treated more than 17,000 people who they said had invented or distributed fake information about pandemics.
The lockdown in Wuhan ended after 11 weeks. By the summer, a photo of a crowded Wuhan swimming pool appeared on the home pages of many websites around the world. China became a success story as infection cases and the death toll skyrocketed in the US and many other Western countries. The contrast made the effectiveness of the party’s strong hand an easy sale.
The Chinese Communist Party has a long history in control of history. In the United States, historical narratives shift and compete, causing argument and sometimes violence, but constantly shedding light on new perspectives and providing a better understanding of what underpins national identity. In China, however, the government has successfully taught its citizens that the country is almost ungovernable unless a strong hand controls the narrative.
The Communist Party reports severely on its most serious mistakes, including the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and crackdown on Tiananmen Square. Immediately after the Cultural Revolution, so-called scar literature – memoir-style novels by people who suffered during this difficult time – became a popular genre. The party quickly realized the danger of the public sharing their individual trauma and banned the books.
Under Xi Jinping, the party has become even less tolerant of unorthodox historical ideas. In 2016, Yanhuang Chunqiu, a monthly history magazine in which moderate retired officials published articles, was forced to cede its editorial powers to the authorities.
The narrative of the current pandemic is no exception. Journalists, writers and bloggers whose account of the outbreak differs from the official version have been arrested, disappeared or silenced.
Fang Fang, a Wuhan-based writer, became the most vilified figure on the Chinese internet in 2020. Your crime? Documentation of their lockdown experiences in an apolitical account in an online diary.
People on the internet call her a liar, a traitor, a villain and an imperialist dog. They accuse her of slandering the government and causing the Chinese people to lose face to the world by publishing an English translation of their diary in the United States. A man asked the government to investigate her for the crime of undermining state power. A high-ranking medical doctor punished her for lack of patriotic feelings.
No publisher is willing or able to publish their works in China. The social media posts and articles they endorse are often censored. Some people who spoke out for them publicly were punished, including a literary professor in Wuhan who lost his Communist Party membership and right to teach.
“I think Fang Fang wrote about what happened,” said Amy Ye, the organizer of a volunteer group for disabled people in Wuhan. “In fact, I don’t think she included the most serious situations. Your diary is very moderate. I don’t understand why something like this couldn’t be tolerated.”
This requirement for a single narrative carries risks. It silences those who might warn the government before it does something stupid, like stumbling into conflict or disrupting China’s economic growth machine.
It also hides the real feelings of the Chinese people. On the street, most Chinese people like to tell you what they think, maybe in great detail. But China became more opaque in 2020. Online censorship got tougher. Few Chinese are willing to take the risk of speaking to Western news media. Beijing has expelled many American journalists.
This single narrative also means that people who don’t fit in run the risk of being left behind.
Ms. Ye, the volunteer organizer of the Wuhan Group, doesn’t think Wuhan can win a victory over the pandemic. “My whole world has changed and it will probably never go back to what it used to be,” she said.
She is still struggling with depression and the fear of getting out of her apartment. As a pre-pandemic outgoing person, she has only attended one social gathering since the lockdown ended in April.
“We were suddenly locked up at home for many days. So many people died. But nobody was held accountable, ”she said. “I would probably feel better if someone could apologize for not doing their job.”
“I can’t forget the pain,” she said. “It’s engraved on my bones and my heart.”