When SARS broke out in 2003, I was in graduate school. Shanghai was not a hot zone, with only eight people infected out of a population of 17 million. The campus was not under quarantine, and there was no social media to spread alarm. Summer came, and the virus waned.
The new coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – has already infected more people than SARS. Besides the lungs and respiratory tract it can also affect the oesophagus, heart, kidneys, ileum and bladder. A definite diagnosis isn’t always easy: blood tests aren’t reliable and the standard nucleic acid test, which uses swabs from the throat or nose, produces a high rate of false negatives – especially in the middle of a public health emergency, when large numbers of people are being tested in a short space of time under conditions that are hard to monitor. The patient may have a cough or a fever, or be short of breath – but there are also many cases of asymptomatic infection, making an outbreak significantly harder to contain.
Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, where the virus emerged, was locked down on 23 January. Since then misinformation and disinformation have dominated Chinese lives. Before the lockdown, experts said there was no evidence of human to human transmission and therefore no need to panic. Business carried on as usual. Wuhan hosted the Two Sessions, an annual gathering of the regional branches of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. One city district held a mass banquet for forty thousand families, with a world record-beating 13,986 dishes, to bring in the approaching Chinese New Year. No need to disappoint so many good people with inconvenient public health alerts.
The lockdown was imposed the day before New Year’s Eve, by which point – as revealed by data harvested from Baidu’s maps app, which is installed on nearly every smartphone – five million people had already left the city, going back to see family or heading abroad for the holiday. Hospitals in Wuhan began sending out messages on Weibo in a call for public assistance: this was a situation they could no longer manage. It all came as a shock. Having repeatedly insisted that they had everything under control, the authorities were now putting nearly nine million people under indefinite quarantine – an absurd overreaction, many felt. Soon the whole country was mobilised to collect donations of money and medical supplies – face masks, biohazard suits, safety goggles, sterile gloves, tampons for female medics. Teams of doctors arrived from every province in China to join the effort and an army of engineers was deployed to build two new hospitals in ten days. Millions of people watched the buildings go up.
Yet the hospitals – more and more of them – kept on calling out for help. People started to wonder where all the money and supplies were going. The Chinese public is supposed to make donations through the Red Cross, which then directs resources to where they’re needed most. But the Red Cross in China is also known as the Red Lice (the words for ‘cross’ and ‘lice’ share the same sound, shizi), thanks to a series of scandals and accusations of corruption. A particular bombshell was the Guo Meimei saga of 2011. A pretty young woman who claimed to be a Red Cross manager – her Weibo profile had a blue verification badge confirming it – was seen all over the internet flaunting her Maserati, Hermès bags and generally extravagant lifestyle. There was an uproar on social media: she was doxxed and trolled and called ‘China’s most despised woman’. Guo may not have had an official connection with the Red Cross – her actual association was murkier – but the episode drew attention to the organisation’s many shady commercial affiliates and the money being splashed around. Its reputation has never fully recovered. After the scandal, a new chief was appointed, Zhao Baige, who promised to do everything it took to restore public trust. She failed colossally. When she left the post in 2014, she didn’t say a word to the media. People who knew her say she was broken by the online mobs: no matter what she did, it was never good enough. Sceptics wonder whether she did very much at all.
The Wuhan Red Cross, like other local branches, has a tiny staff – no more than a dozen or so people. Under ordinary circumstances a job there is quite the sinecure – you get paid for doing next to nothing. Salaries are on a par with those of civil servants but there is no requirement to sit the challenging civil service exam which Long Ling described so vividly in a recent issue of the LRB (13 January). The staff’s capacity to deal with an emergency had never previously been tested. They were soon overwhelmed by the flood of donations, and it was clear that they had no idea how to allocate resources efficiently, or at all. Packages arrived from all over the world and were piled up in warehouses without being documented or sorted. Hospital workers are required to produce an official letter before they can collect supplies, and they then have to sieve through mountains of boxes to find what they need. Another state-backed nonprofit, the Wuhan Charity Federation, received around three billion yuan – more than £300 million – in public donations. After endless questions on social media about how it was planning to use the money, it decided simply to hand over 2.7 billion to the municipal government. The message this sent was: ‘This is too much money and responsibility for us. We’ll take 10 per cent, you handle the rest.’ Of course the fact that some of the funds weren’t going to be disbursed at all was only a ‘rumour’, officially denied.
There are endless ‘rumours’ out there to be dispelled. One day we’re told that children are less likely to be infected, the next day that pregnant women and children are more susceptible. One day they say the virus can’t survive outside the body, the next that it can live on hard surfaces for up to five days. One day we learn that the virus is capable of aerosol transmission via coughing or sneezing, the next day we’re told that’s not something to worry about. According to one piece of advice – perhaps issued on the basis that people can’t live on bad news alone – the chances of infection may be reduced by the moderate consumption of alcohol. In the face of such contradictory and shifting official guidance, a good number of people – young people especially – have been working tirelessly to challenge the rumours spreading online. It’s a thankless task, since attempts at rumour-dispelling are instantly dismissed as rumours themselves. So people meticulously record the timestamps of dubious posts and track down their sources – all in the hope that the false doesn’t drown out the useful.
The censor machine is working tirelessly too. Public mood is constantly monitored and analysed by AI, with countermeasures devised to match it. Take the case of Li Wenliang. Li, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, was one of the first to warn people about the new virus. On 30 December he messaged a group of colleagues about a possible outbreak; a few days later he was summoned by police and reprimanded for ‘making false statements that disturbed the public order’. Li continued his work at the hospital and on 10 January started experiencing symptoms of infection. On 6 February, his heart stopped. Several news outlets immediately reported his death, and the country began to mourn. I’ve never seen anything like it on social media: everyone was sharing the story, praising Li’s bravery as a whistleblower. Many said they hoped it was only a rumour, that he was ‘still with us’. And then suddenly new information popped up: apparently Li remained on life support and the hospital was working to revive him. At this announcement the previously united mourners split into several camps: some sincerely prayed for his recovery; others condemned the media’s earlier reports of his death as ‘thriving on human blood’; the rest of us had suspicions about what was going on and were furious. The mock salvation ended in the early hours of the morning of 7 February, which became the official date of his death. When you wake up hearing the same news for a second time, you may still be angry – but perhaps without the same level of shock.
Since the Wuhan lockdown began, there have been tensions between local government and the central organs of the state. There is a phrase in China for the way such tensions are manifested: when everyone denies all responsibility and tries to shift the blame back onto the blamer, they are busy ‘throwing woks’. The Wuhan municipal government maintained that it had reported the virus to the central health authority in Beijing as soon as details emerged, and that Beijing’s team of experts had responded by telling them that there was no evidence of human to human transmission and the outbreak was containable. So Wuhan followed the advice it was given and carried on as normal. The experts in Beijing, meanwhile, insist that Wuhan didn’t provide them with reliable data, which made it impossible to respond with an accurate assessment. The woks flew back and forth for so long that Beijing lost patience. People under quarantine were whipping up a storm on social media in the hope of landing a hospital bed; seriously ill patients were being ignored or denied treatment; desperate sufferers were being driven to suicide; senior officials were seen on TV news using high-end N95 respirators while frontline doctors made do with disposable medical masks. The incompetence of local government, as Beijing saw it, could no longer be tolerated. An envoy was dispatched to Wuhan to inspect the mess, with a group of journalists in tow. It took the journalists no time at all to find a bus full of sick people to interview but the driver hadn’t been told where to take them. The bus drove around for hours, until the journalists finally found them a hospital. The next day, the heads of city districts were summoned into the envoy’s presence to receive their reprimand: they were made to apologise and bow to the patients they had overlooked.
Throwing woks is an art you need to understand if you want to get things done in China. Whether you’re building an airport, applying for a research grant or inviting a foreign national to give a talk, you have to fill in so many forms, and get approval from so many departments with all their competing demands, that you risk getting trapped somewhere in the middle: whichever way you turn you risk causing upset or offence in one quarter or another. In the workplace too, a step in the wrong direction can provoke a superior and ruin a career, so that sometimes it’s wisest to do nothing at all. Until a virus strikes, that is.
After the envoy’s visit, the party secretary of Hubei province was summarily removed from his job and the mayor of Shanghai, Ying Yong (the name rhymes with the word for ‘bravery’), flew in to take over. The next day, the official number of newly confirmed cases in Hubei skyrocketed, from 1638 to 14,840. Surely the virus hadn’t suddenly developed superpowers. The medical explanation was that more capacious diagnostic criteria had been applied; the media explanation was that truth will always out; the political explanation was that a new leader wants to make his mark. Or you could look at it in banking terms: bring off-balance sheet items onto the balance sheet and expose the bad debt, then adjust the accounting rules to make up for the loss in goodwill. People saw significance in the fact that Hubei’s new party secretary has a background in law enforcement and a reputation for cleaning up mess. Like the other new top-level appointees – the party secretary of the city of Wuhan was replaced the same day – he knows inside-out how bureaucracy works and how pervasive it is. Such people send a signal that they are not to be fobbed off with the usual excuses local officials mutter in their own defence. No more flying woks.
The citizens of Shanghai agreed to ‘donate’ their mayor, ‘so long as we get to keep Dr Zhang’. Zhang Wenhong, director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital, became a national hero for a press conference speech:
The first-aid team put themselves in great danger. They are tired and need to rest. We shouldn’t take advantage of good people. From now on, I’ll replace all the frontline medics with party members from different sectors. Didn’t you all swear to put the people’s interest first when you joined the party, whatever the difficulties? I don’t care what you were actually thinking when you joined the party. Now it’s time to live up to what you promised. I don’t care if you personally agree or not: it’s non-negotiable.
The video went viral and now local citizens wouldn’t trade him for anything. When Dr Zhang told people to stay at home, they listened.
Despite the evasions and failures of party bigwigs and moguls, a fierce battle is being fought by the people on the ground. Frontline medics are working under extreme physical and mental pressure. They wear adult nappies so they don’t have to waste time taking their biohazard suits on and off when they go to the loo. Volunteer drivers are delivering medical necessities while normal transport networks remain suspended. Chinese people living overseas have been buying up stocks of face masks in Europe and beyond to send back to their families and friends. A picture of an unfazed young man in a hospital bed reading Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order was suddenly all over the internet. It reminded me of the photograph of three Englishmen choosing books in what remained of Holland House library after the Blitz. The young man received a great many love notes.
Chinese medicine has played a dubious role in all this. Many believe the virus originated in a wild animal market in Wuhan. Trading and eating wild animals isn’t uncommon in Asia, partly because traditional medicine holds that some animal parts have near-magical properties. Pangolin scales are supposed to help new mothers produce milk; manta ray gills clear the lungs and cure chickenpox; the penises of pandas, tigers and bears can do the same trick as Viagra; a bit of monkey brain can make you smarter. But the market in such delicacies has also been blamed for the transmission of viruses from animals to humans. Traditional Chinese medicine may have contributed to the outbreak of the epidemic but some cling to the hope that it may also come to the rescue. On 31 January the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica announced that a herbal mixture called shuanghuanglian might be effective against the coronavirus (the banlangen root was similarly said to treat SARS). Shuanghuanglian sold out even more quickly than face masks. People want to believe there’s a cure. It’s true that the concoction may soothe a sore throat – the only problem is that you might catch the virus while queuing to buy it.
Schools are suspended until further notice. With many workplaces also shut, notoriously absent Chinese fathers have been forced to stay home and entertain their children. Video clips of life under quarantine are trending on TikTok. Children were presumably glad to be off school – until, that is, an app called DingTalk was introduced. Students are meant to sign in and join their class for online lessons; teachers use the app to set homework. Somehow the little brats worked out that if enough users gave the app a one-star review it would get booted off the App Store. Tens of thousands of reviews flooded in, and DingTalk’s rating plummeted overnight from 4.9 to 1.4. The app has had to beg for mercy on social media: ‘I’m only five years old myself, please don’t kill me.’
With couples confined together 24/7, ordinary marital friction soon escalates into all-out war. Domestic servants, often migrants, who went out of town over the Chinese New Year, have been unable to return to work – but someone still has to do the household chores. Men slump on the sofa playing video games or hide behind a laptop pretending to work, while still expecting three meals a day and fresh laundry. A joke went around:
Client: My wife and I have been quarantined together for 14 days and we’ve decided to get back together! I don’t want to go ahead with the divorce. Can you refund the fee?
Lawyer: 14 days … hmmmm … Let’s not rush it: I think we’re still in business.
Few are profiting from the situation. Tourism is paralysed – the cruise industry may never recover – and many factories, malls, shops and restaurants are closed. The economy has suffered a huge blow. It’s like a high-speed train slamming on the brakes. Many smaller companies will be bankrupt in two or three months. Yet against all logic, the stock market is going strong. Thank heaven for the ‘invisible hand’.
I have now been at home for a month. I order food on my smartphone and a courier delivers it to the gate of the compound. In China, internet shopping took off after the SARS outbreak in 2003 gave Jack Ma the inspiration for Taobao, an online shopping platform on which virtually everyone these days relies. Now that the number of confirmed cases of infection is dropping, people are preparing to return to work. A real-time map allows us to monitor whether there are any cases nearby.
Those of us in quarantine spend most of our time browsing social media, commenting on news stories, rumours and conspiracy theories. People on the left call for a united front against the virus. Liberals are determined to hold the government to account for everything that has gone wrong. In the West, panda-huggers say no other government would be doing better under the circumstances; dragon-slayers are cheerleading for the end of communist rule, as they do every time there is trouble in China. Whatever happens, those arguments won’t change.