What kind of times are these, when  
To talk about trees is almost a crime  
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

     Bertolt Brecht “To Those Born Later”

Thanks to her efficient and eloquent translator Michael Berry, Fang Fang’s much anticipated Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City was published in English on May 15, less than two months after the last entry was written in Chinese.

Consisting of 60 entries from January 25 to March 24, the Diary provides a first-hand witness account of what happened in Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, during the city’s emergency lockdown. For readers currently experiencing a lockdown on their home turf, the Diary might read like a voice from the future, anticipating the anxiety, confusion, frustration, boredom, devastation, despair and eventual resignation many experience during this period of uncertainty. However, to some English language readers, the Diary is bewildering.

Indeed, it can be difficult to understand how such a repetitive, trivial, and bland account of daily affairs (too often sprinkled with unwarranted optimism) can possibly be the Diary that caused a tsunami on the Chinese web.

Since the news of its publication overseas spread in China, Fang Fang has faced countless vicious attacks from “patriotic” netizens. Accusations of Fang Fang’s profiting from the national disaster and consuming “steamed buns soaked in human blood” (an allusion to Lu Xun’s famous short story “Medicine”) flooded her microblog (Weibo) account. Hu Xijin, the editor of Global Times, faulted Fang Fang’s Diary for being a tool utilized by foreign powers to blame China for spreading the virus worldwide.  

Yet there is a story of truly remarkable courage behind this seemingly tedious account of Wuhan lockdown, owing to the ever-tightening censorship that the Chinese authorities are imposing on its citizens.

In February, the authorities arrested three citizen journalists, Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua for filming scenes of virus-stricken Wuhan and posting them on the internet. On March 1, the Chinese government issued “Regulations on Internet Content”, permitting only pro-government information to be published on the web. Any material deemed to be detrimental to national “honour” was to be eliminated.

It was against this backdrop that Fang Fang wrote her public Diary, recording and responding to the daily occurrences during the Wuhan lockdown. In her very first entry published on January 25, she wrote “technology can sometimes be every bit as evil as a contagious virus”. She told her readers that her Weibo was shut down after she posted an entry criticizing “young nationalists harassing people on the street with foul language”. She made a declaration announcing her intension to record the lockdown, while questioning whether anyone would actually see her post. Fang Fang was keenly aware of the “special feature” of Weibo– that some posts are only visible to the sender and not to the public.

The entry for January 25 illuminates the nature of the Diary. From its creation, it is not only a personal but a collective record. Fang Fang’s readers respond to her posts daily and send her information they believe worthy of recording. The lifespan of her posts relies on the collective effort of her readers saving and reposting them after the inevitable deletion of the original by internet censors. Therefore, despite its dullness and lack of any in-depth reflection, the Diary is nonetheless a phenomenal bottom-up, collective endeavour to preserve the early history of the pandemic.

On Chinese state-run media, authorities are aggressively rewriting contemporary history in an effort to make China an exemplar of success in the global battle against the virus. As Hannah Arendt argued, the maintenance of a state image requires “rewriting contemporary history under the eyes of those who witnessed it, […] every known and established fact can be denied or neglected if it is likely to hurt the image”.

The ultimate goal of such political manipulation of public opinion is to substitute lived experience with that of a State-constructed image.

Fang Fang’s Diary diligently records many of the lived experiences not reported by state media, thus resisting such substitution. No matter how grim the lockdown was, Fang Fang was compelled to express an obligatory optimism so that her posts could be seen by the public, albeit only for a few brief days or hours. Sinologist Perry Link once described Chinese censorship as “an anaconda on the chandelier”; people who live beneath it never know exactly when it will strike. Though never explicitly stated, awareness of censorship makes Fang Fang and her Chinese readers proceed with caution.

As the former chairperson of the Hubei Writer’s Association (a government funded organization), 65-year-old Fang Fang is well acquainted with the “anaconda” of Chinese censorship, having danced around it all her career. Her Diary is, for the most part, optimistic, grateful, and hopeful. Most entries end with an encouraging call for resilience and solidarity. However, her high praise is exclusively reserved for ordinary citizens — the streetcleaners’ tireless dedication to maintaining the city’s hygiene; the young volunteers’ timely aid for people in need; and most importantly, the medical professionals coming from around the country to rescue Wuhan.

To the authorities, Fang Fang has one simple and clear message: step down. Step down and take responsibility for creating a paralysis of leadership and creating hindrances to recovery that led to further misery. Fang Fang recounts the confusion caused by the ever-shifting narrative in the state-controlled media. Experts insisted that the virus was “preventable and controllable” before one of the very experts who made that claim was struck by the virus himself. Without warning, an unprecedented lockdown was issued, and millions of people lost their freedom overnight. Wuhan (and the whole of China) sank into a state-orchestrated dark period, like the one described by Hannah Arendt: “Until the very moment when catastrophe overtook everything and everybody, it was covered up not by realities but by the highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns”.   

The complete lockdown, implemented on January 23, was the moment catastrophe overtook everything and everyone in Wuhan. This draconian measure was a belated response to the now undeniable fact of the virus’ speedy and deadly contagion. Dr Li Wenliang and seven other medical professionals sounded the first alarm for the SARs-like virus on December 30, yet the authorities overlooked their warning, punished the whistleblowers, and hosted a 10,000 Family Lunar New Year Banquet on January 18.

Despite Fang Fang’s indignant condemnation of such an irresponsible decision tantamount to a criminal offence, the Hubei government hosted a massive song and dance concert on January 21. The number of confirmed cases surged, and entire families were infected. Film director Chang Kai’s whole family died within weeks of catching the virus. A child with special needs was left to fend for himself after his father was ordered into quarantine. The child “was dying of starvation” after five days.

Fang Fang’s Diary describes only the tip of the iceberg of the catastrophe that befell the people of Wuhan. A January entry recounts a farmer being blocked outside his village by a dirt wall erected by local officials. Though this happened in the middle of a freezing night, no matter how much he begged, he was not allowed to return to his village. In the February 4 entry, a couple with two children were trapped on a bridge between Chongqing and Guizhou, because each city would admit only its own citizens. The couple, one from Chongqing and the other from Guizhou, drove back and forth on the bridge unable to enter either city as a family.

Fang Fang recalls with dismay that in contrast to 2020, two warlords in the middle of a civil war in 1926 were able to negotiate successfully and allow the civilians to leave a city under siege unharmed.

Her February 22 entry tells the story of a patient on his death bed who volunteered to donate his body to the state. Then he asked, “what about my wife”? The state media reported his donation but refused to mention the dying man’s concern for his wife. In the media, selfless sacrifice is glorified, but concern for the individual is callously deleted.

Fang Fang’s March 8 entry reports that 71 patients under quarantine in Xinjia Hotel in Quanzhou were crushed when the hotel collapsed. They escaped the virus, she laments, but were not able to escape shoddy construction. She points out that dogma and callousness are far more harmful to China than the virus itself, as there is no doctor for a society plagued by an indifference to human lives. 

Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary was written in measured language in a voice choked by censorship as if she were conversing with a noose around her neck. Yet the Diary offers more than a record of human experience under quarantine. As the virus made it impossible for people to occupy public spaces, and state-controlled media made truth and fiction indistinguishable in virtual spaces, Fang Fang’s Diary became a battleground where Chinese people could preserve some truth of their collective history.

Emma Zhang

Emma Zhang is Lecturer of English at Hong Kong Baptist University