Born, raised, and based in Wuhan, writer Fang Fang began her first hand chronicles of life in the original epicenter of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on January 25—two days after authorities launched an unprecedented lockdown in the city. Many of her daily entries, collectively known as the “Wuhan Diary,” have been censored amid authorities’ struggles to control the narrative surrounding the disease and government response, and her Weibo was temporarily suspended in February.
While not overtly or excessively critical, her firsthand account from inside the sealed city has at times contradicted officially sanctioned information, and she is clear on her belief that free expression is essential for both public safety and dealing with trauma. Early on, in anticipation of imminent state propaganda efforts, Fang Fang implored her fellow writers to think twice if asked to praise the government: “You will likely be asked to write celebratory essays and poems. Please pause before you write – who do you want to praise?”
While Fang Fang’s writings have resonated with many Chinese, their growing international prominence has attracted fierce criticism from others who feel that they harm the country’s reputation at a time when it is already under fire over the origins of the pandemic. A WeChat article recently posted by @习华观察, whose deletion from the platform last week was confirmed by CDT Chinese editors, criticizes China’s massive state propaganda apparatus for failing to reflect deeply on Fang Fang’s diary and the backlash against it. The article first recalls a 2016 social media incident, in which People’s Daily Online asked its Weibo followers to weigh in on a simple language question to get an idea of regional variation. Respondents instead covertly criticized the state media outlet’s role in disseminating Party propaganda by echoing the language standard in state censorship and propaganda directives. The censored WeChat post is translated in full below:
In order to protect local dialects, People’s Daily’s Weibo recently interacted with its followers.
In one post, People’s Daily put a photo of sugarcane underneath the question: “Where you are, what is this called?”
The first netizen responded: I don’t know, everything should use Xinhua News Agency draft as the standard.
The second netizen responded: Hmm, I wouldn’t dare engage in improper discussion.
The third netizen responded: Don’t trust rumors, don’t circulate rumors.
The fourth netizen responded: Whatever the leadership said it’s called, that’s what it’s called.
The fifth netizen responded: Regardless of what it is, you say it’s a deer, so we simply can’t say it’s a horse.
The sixth netizen responded: wait for the [official] manuscript.
The seventh netizen said: the manuscript says its wheat, and I trust that.
Then, after all this, People’s Daily Online stealthily deleted the post.
This brings to mind Fang Fang’s diary. In actuality, it isn’t especially critical. What it says is based on fact. Its arguments are common sensical. And, it’s written simply and modestly.
If we hold objective reality in high esteem then we know, it’s precisely this type of daily personal diary that allows thousands of news organizations, several hundred thousand propaganda personnel, and thousands of reports each day to fade into the background.
This many news media professionals, this many propaganda mechanisms, but when facing Fang Fang, there’s no need to reflect?
A bundle of sugarcane, everyone knows it’s called sugarcane and everyone could just shout “sugarcane.” In a normal society, this is simply common sense with no need for dispute.
But under special contexts, if people daren’t call sugarcane, this isn’t some light joke, it induces heavy anxiety. It reminds and reveals a serious problem that society must face directly and correct properly.
This problem is a matter of political integrity and accountability. On its surface, it’s merely about a locally-designated term, but deeper down it shows the [political] direction of our era. [Chinese]
At the Los Angeles Times last month, Alice Su described Fang Fang’s appeal to her supporters across the nation through the worst days of the outbreak in Wuhan and the rest of China:
Hers is a voice of rare authenticity, an antidote to the flood of Chinese propaganda celebrating the country’s victory over the coronavirus. She weeps, she shouts, she describes corpses in bags, dragged away and burnt while their loved ones mourn alone. She curses those who concealed the truth and won’t apologize even as thousands die. While state media trumpets hero stories and upbeat slogans, Fang Fang speaks plainly of her people’s suffering.
Readers from across China say they wait past midnight every day, refusing to go to bed before they read Fang Fang’s posts. Some of them are censored by the morning.
[…As Wuhan’s viral situation has come under control and lockdown measures have begun to be lifted] Fang Fang has continued to seek accountability for those who rebuked Wuhan’s doctors, covered up the outbreak and prioritized face-saving politics over “negative news.” [Source]
However, public reception of Fang Fang’s diary hasn’t been entirely positive. At The Diplomat last month, Hermant Adlakha described how the Wuhan Diary has sparked a fierce online debate surrounding the limits of valid criticism:
It is no exaggeration to say the ongoing swelling debate over Wuhan Diary on both WeChat and Weibo – China’s main social media platforms – has led to a near vertical split among the country’s educated millions. Viewed in the context of how Charter 08, a manifesto for constitutional reforms issued by Liu Xiaobo and others, jangled the nerves of the Communist Party of China more than a decade ago, Wuhan Diary and the emerging discourse it has triggered have to be understood in the context of political criticism at home during the current health crisis, the critics in China are telling us. Of course, both supporters and opponents of Fang Fang can be found in large numbers.
For example, one online group of Fang’s detractors spelled out 20 reasons why Wuhan Diary deserves to be rejected and condemned. Reason 20 for “Why we are opposed to Fang Fang” — as the group is called in English – reads: “Some people are really weird and crazy. The more they have to appear in front of the public, the more they show off. These people easily get excited and go berserk. They fiercely start attacking all those who disagree with them. When provoked, these people will not only bully others. They will even pull out a gun if necessary!”
[…] The controversial and at times acrimonious debate over Wuhan Diary touches on a wide range of issues – political, social, cultural. But a fundamentally disturbing aspect of the debate invokes the specter of the Cultural Revolution. A few days ago, an “open letter” written by a 16-year-old boy challenging Fang Fang, not only sent shockwaves through China’s netizens but it shook everyone who had experienced the 10 chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution – including Fang Fang. The reason for the shock, according to Li Yongzhong, China’s leading anti-corruption scholar-expert, is that “our generation, including Fang Fang, always thinks that the Cultural Revolution has gone, at least our generation will never see the Cultural Revolution again.” But the open-letter by the high school student rekindled the memories of the nightmare that teenager Red Guards unleashed to commit violence, especially targeting intellectuals. [Source]
This month, it was announced that Fang Fang’s diary would be translated into English by Michael Berry and published by Harper Collins. This news came as the U.S. and China engaged in an ongoing exchange of COVID-19 blaming and criticism, and as Beijing’s external propaganda attempted to cast China as a leader and generous aid source in the global pandemic fight. This has kicked the debate over Fang Fang’s diary into a new phase. Earlier this month at The Guardian, Helen Davidson reported on nationalistic online backlash:
“Wuhan Diary is a knife handed over to foreigners and a bullet shooting at Chinese,” said one poster on Weibo.
Another wrote: “The woman only writes articles in her own small blog, and does not know the overall situation of our country at all. Maybe she does not admit that she is unpatriotic, she thought we were extreme, in fact she was just a stupid old lady.”
[…] “The attack on Fang Fang is so vehement and hateful that it’s scary to watch,” said Li Yuan, a New York Times columnist. “Fang Fang herself said that it reminded her of the Cultural Revolution.” [Source]
Then news broke that Fang Fang’s “Quarantine Diaries” would be translated and published in America and Germany this summer. Back home, the shift in opinion was brutal. The social-media hashtag “Fang Fang’s Diaries” has received 550m views and 194,000 comments. Recent posts are overwhelmingly hostile. Netizens have been challenging her moral authority, lobbing the revealing insult “Ni bu pei!”, or “You are not qualified!” Though Fang Fang has pledged to give away her book royalties, she is charged with seeking fame at the expense of the dead—eating “buns made with human blood” as some have put it, borrowing an image from Lu Xun, China’s greatest 20th-century literary moralist.
China’s tightly censored internet is unusually exhausting just now, filled with the din of performative patriotism, and rows about who has a right to be heard. A self-declared ex-fan of Fang Fang’s, claiming to be a surgeon from Hubei, the province of which Wuhan is the capital, fumed that she had handed a sword to China’s enemies. The surgeon said history, as written by the Chinese people, would judge her harshly. His post earned more than 118,000 likes. Various conspiracy theories have cast the diarist as a mercenary. Her links to the China Writers Association, a semi-official body, have led to accusations that she is betraying her country while on the public payroll. The Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, cited an unnamed “whistleblower” who alleges that she owns five villas. Fang Fang denies any illicit wealth, and says she will sue her accusers. State media have noted netizens’ suspicions that her work was translated so quickly that, in their view, foreigners surely commissioned her to write an anti-China screed. Fang Fang retorts that she began writing with no plans for a book, and learned only later that her work was being translated. [Source]
English reports from state-affiliated nationalistic tabloid Global Times have amplified these criticisms. By quoting online comments, an April 8 article points out that, counter to Harper Collins claim that Fang Fang is one of China’s “most acclaimed writers,” she is “not the most famous writer,” and cites official information that diverges from her diary as proof to question its authenticity. An April 20 article portrays her as a divisive figure that the people of Wuhan are keen to forget.