By Marina Rudyak
The seminar “Reporting Corona: State Media, Critical Journalism and Citizen Witnessing during the COVID-19 Outbreak in Wuhan” at the Institute of Chinese Studies at Heidelberg University, which I taught in the summer semester of 2021, explored the news and information production in locked-down Wuhan. It analysed the different types of reporting and writing, their motivations and their ways of coping with censorship.
The lockdown of Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and one of China’s largest industrial hubs, was announced overnight. On January 22, 2020, a Wednesday before the weekend of the Spring Festival, China’s most important holiday, the Chinese government declared that starting at 10 a.m. the next day, all train stations and the airport would shut down. No one would be allowed to leave the city.
At the same time, an online propaganda campaign was launched to promote positive, patriotic, and nationalistic messages. On the second day of lockdown, 24 January, a video showing five medical staff from Wuhan East-West Lake District People’s Hospital, dressed in full hazmat gear, wishing everybody a Happy New Year – “We are here, you can spend the new year at ease!” (有我们在, 大家安心过年！) – was promoted all over the Chinese internet to ease the Corona virus panic. The official narrative focused on the unity of China and the dedication and resilience of common Chinese people, particularly emphasising the contributions of medical and army personnel. Beijing declared a “People’s War” against Corona. Meanwhile, hospitals in Wuhan and media outlets received orders not to talk about the outbreak; infected medical personnel were ordered not to tell anybody about their infections.
The lockdown was expected to last for at least one month (it lasted for 76 days). After the announcement, everybody who was not Wuhan-based tried to leave the city, including journalists, both Chinese and international. From the international media, only one person stayed: the veteran China correspondent Chris Buckley, who reported for the New York Times (he was expelled from China in May 2020). From the Chinese media, a few remained to provide critical coverage, largely unchallenged by the propaganda apparatus, with virtually no state media present on the ground. Only on 4 February did the Propaganda Department announce that it would send more than 300 journalists to Wuhan and the Hubei Province to “report” and “guide the public opinion”.
Despite the government orders, critical journalists, citizen journalists, and bloggers produced accounts that significantly challenged the official narrative that the leadership had everything under control. What all accounts had in common was the expressed wish and sense of responsibility to witness and record.
A journalist team from Caixin (财新), a privately held media platform known for its investigative journalism, decided to stay, despite concerns for their health and safety. The executive deputy editor of Caixin Media, Gao Yu (高昱), explained their motivations in the article “Reporter’s Notebook: We Stayed in Wuhan as the Trains Pulled Out” on 23 January:
We’ve seen many issues that need to be clarified and covered by journalists… As journalists, I hope we can record what is truly happening, no matter whether fortunate or not. What we can do is to strive to record the truth for the future.
The Caixin team spend 76 days in Wuhan until the lockdown was lifted, focusing on in-depth coverage of the origins of the outbreak and uncovering that the virus had been identified on 24 December 2019 and sequenced on 27 December; on 1 January 2020, the province had ordered scientists to destroy the samples. The report, like many other Caixin articles, was censored but remains stored in a web archive.
Ordinary citizens, too, challenged the official narrative. Recording what was going on with smartphones and social media accounts, they shared their own stories and the stories of others in Wuhan. Some of them, like the lawyers Chen Qiushi (陈秋实) and Zhang Zhan (张展), identified themselves as “citizen journalists” (公民记者) – a term that first became prominent in the immediate aftermath of the South Asian tsunami of December 2004. In the absence of professional journalists, first-person accounts, filmed with camcorders, mobile phones, and digital camera snapshots, posted online through blogs or personal webpages filled the gap. Research on citizen journalism in China describes the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake of 12 May 2008 as the formative moment for Chinese citizen reporting. While the authorities banned most reporting on the scene, requiring journalists only to channel the official version of the events produced by the state media agency Xinhua or the central television outlet CCTV, reporting by ordinary citizens relayed first-hand news about the earthquake. With a ban on reporting and only a few critical journalists who tried to circumvent it on the ground, Wuhan presented a similar scene.
The Beijing lawyer Chen Qiushi arrived in Wuhan on the Lunar New Year’s Eve, 24 January, on the last train from Beijing. His first video log starts with the words:
Why am I here? Because this is my responsibility as a citizen journalist. If there is a disaster and you don’t rush to the front-lines, what kind of journalist are you?
The last sentence was a side blow to all the state media journalists who left Wuhan. Chen was more explicitly critical of China’s President Xi Jinping, whose noticeable absence in the early phase of the outbreak was widely discussed on the Chinese internet:
I don’t care where Xi Jinping went, but I, Chen Qiushi, came here.
Chen, a well-known citizen journalist in China with a huge online following, had covered the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests. For that, he had been blocked from Chinese social media:
I will use my mobile phone camera for witnessing and reporting the real situation of the outbreak in Wuhan, and I want to feature the voices of Wuhan people. Although I am blocked on the Chinese internet for reporting on Hong Kong, I still have Twitter and YouTube.
However, by reverting to Twitter and YouTube, he was violating Chinese law: both are censored in China and can only be accessed with the help of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) client, which is outlawed for most in China. By 10 February, Chen had 433,000 subscribers on YouTube and 246,000 followers on Twitter despite the Great Firewall. His videos were translated into other languages on YouTube by online volunteers. He also became known to the international audience after being interviewed by several international media outlets. Chen recorded 14 episodes of “Citizen Journalist Chen Qiushi’s reportage of the Wuhan epidemic” (公民记者陈秋实武汉疫区采访实录), the last one on 4 February – the same day the Propaganda Department announced to send more than 300 journalists to Wuhan. Thereafter, Chen Qiushi went missing and remains under arrest till now.
By now, more known internationally than the Caixin-Team or Chen Qiushi reporting is the series of blog posts by the acclaimed Chinese writer Wang Fang (汪芳) that have been translated into English and German as the “Wuhan Diary”. Wang, who writes under the pen name Fang Fang (方方), was with her family in Wuhan when the city went into lockdown. She started writing on 25 January:
I just received a message from [an] editor for the literary journal Harvest, suggesting that I start writing a series that we could call “Wuhan Diary”, or “Notes from a Quarantined City”… I really should start writing about what is happening. It would be a way for people to understand what is really going on here on the ground in Wuhan.
After the first entry on 25 January, 59 more entries followed, with tens of millions of netizens following her account, even though many of her posts were quickly censored (they are archived on China Digital Times).
There is another “Wuhan Diary” (武汉日记), written by an anonymous citizen of Wuhan and published by the Australia-based political artist and dissident Badiucao ( 巴丢草). The first entry, written on January 23, starts with the line “23 January 2020. The first day of lockdown. Let’s consider it a record for ourselves.” The author wrote 56 posts, most of them are translated by Badiucao on his blog. Badiucao, who has over 70 thousand followers on Twitter, used his platform to raise awareness for the blog:
I am helping a #Wuhan resident to translate, illustrate & share diary to the world. An insight of real life under quarantine of #COVID2019 from China. Please read and share! #coronavirus #武汉肺炎
Initially, there was a brief window of non-sanctioned storytelling, different in scale from any previous major outbreak or disaster in China. After the Lunar New Year, articles, blog posts, or any type of witnessing on Chinese social media that did not fit the official narrative were quickly censored, often within hours. To preserve them for posterity, anonymous activists created web archives and Telegram groups where alternative links or screenshots of posts censored on the Chinese web were stored. Some witnessing accounts circumvent the censorship by posting on platforms outside China, mainly on YouTube and Twitter. Together, they constitute a huge body of primary sources for future scholarship and material to teach how those in the epicentre of the Corona outbreak witnessed and reported it.
This article was originally published in the second issue of CATSarena, the newsletter of the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS) at Heidelberg University. You can find the newsletter here and subscribe to it here.
Marina Rudyak is Assistant Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at Heidelberg University. Her research focuses on China’s international development cooperation and political ideology.
Citation: Marina Rudyak, Reporting Corona, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.01.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/31509