Netizen Creativity Preserves Censored Interview With Wuhan Doctor

This week, Chinese magazine People (Renwu 人物) published an interview with Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital. In the interview, which was quickly censored, Ai detailed her censure by hospital authorities for sharing a diagnostic report on WeChat showing a patient with SARS-like pneumonia in late December. The alarm that Ai sounded would soon after be shared by Wuhan Central Hospital colleague Dr. Li Wenliang and the seven other medical workers who were branded “rumormongers” and officially admonished by Wuhan authorities for spreading “illegal information.” Li died on February 7 after contracting the disease from a patient. Despite censors’ attempts to limit relevant online discussion and reporting, his death provoked web users to echo his claim that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society” as they called for free speech online.

The People article, published on Tuesday as President Xi began his first trip to Wuhan since the outbreak, was quickly deleted from social media sites and from People’s webpage. At The South China Morning Post, Kristin Huang summarizes Ai’s People interview, which becomes another piece of evidence suggesting that an earlier warning from Wuhan health authorities could have helped to minimize the impact of the disease:

In the interview, Ai said she initially shared the diagnostic report with a messaging group on WeChat and its members then circulated the photograph.

Ai said the report, which she had been sent by a colleague, concerned her because the infection appeared to be similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome.

[…] Ai told the magazine she alerted the hospital’s community health service centre and infectious disease control department immediately.

[…] Two days [after Ai sounded the alarm and received an all-staff message forbidding illness related diclosures], an official in charge of the hospital’s supervision department gave Ai a dressing down for “spreading rumours” – a reference to the photograph she had posted online.

The official told Ai to notify all staff in her department not to disclose anything about the disease – and to say nothing about it to anyone, not even to her husband, according to the magazine. […] [Source]

At The Guardian, Lily Kuo relays more from the interview, and reports on netizens’ creative attempts to evade censors when sharing it:

“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand. I would have fucking talked about it to whoever, where ever I could,” she said in the interview.

Since Tuesday, Ai’s interview has been posted and quickly deleted from Chinese social media sites. Renwu has removed the article and Ai could not be reached over the phone. Internet users have moved quickly to save the article, posting screenshots of it.

New versions of the article, in attempts to evade censors, have proliferated, from one partly written in emojis to another done in morse code, as well as pinyin, the romanisation system for Mandarin.

[…] “I am not a whistleblower,” Ai told Renwu. “I am the one who provided the whistle.” [Source]

An English translation, one of the many tactics used to preserve the sensitive interview, is still live on WeChat at the time of this posting (and has been archived by CDT Chinese). At Quartz, Jane Li reports further on some of the methods web users are employing in their attempt to outrun censors’ attempts to clear Ai’s story, putting that into the context of similar citizen attempts at countering Beijing’s narrative on the COVID-19 narrative:

[…] Chinese internet users have since come up with various ways to preserve and share the article in a show of defiance towards the censors. Some wrote the story backwards, while others used “Martian” language, or Huo Xing Wen, a coded language based on popular ancient Chinese characters used often by Chinese internet users to bypass censors, to republish the article.

Some also turned to the help of emojis and braille symbols to make the text more difficult to be recognized and scrubbed by censorship programs. There are also English and German translations of the article published on WeChat. While the various versions of the story are being deleted one after another, people are still racing with censors to share ever more versions of the article on a growing number of platforms.

Chinese internet users have been pushing back for months against official efforts to shape the narrative around the virus—which have seen the government send dozens of journalists to the worst-hit areas to highlight the efforts of those on the frontlines of fighting the outbreak. Three Chinese citizen journalists have also gone missing after they uploaded videos showing a critical view of the situation in Wuhan to YouTube and Twitter.

Chinese citizens living overseas, for instance, set up a GitHub project to document coronavirus news and personal accounts. But the almost collective nature of the effort to save the magazine interview with Ai stands out. […] [Source]

Twitter users are sharing examples of the myriad ways web users are sharing the interview:

At China Media Project, David Bandurski goes into further detail on the “ingenious workarounds” used to share the interview. In his intro, he contrasts the online fervor to preserve the People article with the triumphant propaganda state media served as Xi was visiting Wuhan:

China’s headlines are full of triumph today. The country’s pending victory in the war against the coronavirus epidemic, they say, is a testament to the decisive leadership of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, and to the strength and unity of the people. Xi’s presence in Wuhan yesterday, his first visit to the center of the epidemic, was reportedly met with euphoria. The piece at the top of the official People’s Daily, which chronicles Xi’s tour through a residential community, finishes emotively:

As he left the community, the voices echoed for a long time in the spring sun: “Greetings, General Secretary!” “Go China!” “Go Wuhan!”

A report featured at the top of the newspaper’s website elevates Xi with the word “leader,” or lingxiu (领袖), an appellation dredged up from the shadows of China’s Maoist past: “The Party and the people are as one, the leader’s heart touches the hearts of the people.”

But beneath this towering wave of propaganda and positivity, another war has unfolded—a guerrilla war for greater openness, honesty and reflection about the tragic events of the past two months. […] [Source]

Read the entire People interview with Dr. Ai Fen, as translated into English and circulated on WeChat. For more on Chinese censorship amid the COVID-19 outbreak and relief efforts, see prior CDT coverage. See also The Citizen Lab’s “Censored Contagion: How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media.”


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