Reports On Wuhan Outbreak Detail City Gripped By Rumor And Censorship

Five months since the last local symptomatic coronavirus transmission in Wuhan, new reports have shed light on the city during the early days of the pandemic. In a new series, The Financial Times asks: “could the world have been spared?” The first article of the series detailed the tick-tock of events at Wuhan Central Hospital in late December and early January, which detailed the toll of early coverups on the people of Wuhan

Another person who advises the State Council on public health matters said the problem ran deeper than the fog-of-war conditions on the ground in Wuhan. “The Chinese government, especially at local levels, lacks the ability to effectively communicate with the public in crisis situations,” he told the FT, also on condition of anonymity. “The main job of publicity departments is to keep the Communist party in power, not to promote transparency. The pandemic exposed the system’s weaknesses.”

The confusion among doctors at Wuhan Central about what information they were supposed to report to which authorities grew steadily over the first two weeks of January. They were variously advised by municipal and provincial health officials to “exercise caution” and “be cautious” before reporting any new cases, according to Dr Yin’s report. 

[…] Within days, however, the patients falling through the cracks in the reporting system were the least of Wuhan Central’s problems. The hospital’s own staff were beginning to fall sick, with at least 56 hospitalised by January 24. An outbreak among hospital staff is a tragic but tell-tale sign that a disease is transmissible between humans.[Source]

After spending nine days in Wuhan, the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler wrote about how those silenced during the outbreak have stowed away private histories in anticipation of a different future:

The other journalist, a print reporter I’ll call Yin, reminisced about the unusual freedom the press had been granted for a brief period in January. Journalists reported on whistle-blower figures like Li Wenliang, and they exposed some early missteps, like a failure by the Red Cross to distribute critical medical equipment. Such problems were quickly fixed, and Yin felt glad to be of service to society. “I could see what it means to be the fourth estate,” she said. But, in February, as the government started to get control of the pandemic, it also tightened restrictions on the press. “A friend of mine said that it was a very short spring,” Yin said.

After that, Yin reported on a number of issues that couldn’t be published or completed, and she often talked with scientists and officials who didn’t want to say too much. “One person said, ‘Ten years later, if the climate has changed, I’ll tell you my story,’ ” Yin told me. “He knew that he would be judged by history.” She continued, “These people are inside the system, but they also know that they are inside history.”

Yin described an interview with an employee at a research institution who was so upset that he began to weep. He wouldn’t answer her questions, but he said that he had been keeping a detailed diary. She hoped that someday such materials would be released. [Source]

Outlines of Wuhan’s underground histories can be traced through leaked censorship directives. CDT’s Minitrue Diary 2020 series has collected and translated propaganda orders issued by the Party center to state media organizations. The earliest known censorship directive, a January 2 message, reads as follows: 

Regarding the pneumonia of unknown origin that emerged in Wuhan, Hubei, use information released by authoritative departments as the standard, do not write baseless conjecture. If in doubt, direct questions to the National Health Commission to prevent fake news reports from triggering mass panic. [Source]

The following Twitter thread is a detailed diary of the coronavirus crisis through the eyes of Chinese censors:

In an essay published in The New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson noted how censorship sowed panic, while questioning whether greater transparency would have saved lives on a global scale:

The next three and a half weeks were decisive for billions of people around the world. In the end, the government did exactly what Fang Fang and her brother thought impossible: it blocked official channels of information, allowing rumors to cause panic among residents of the central Chinese metropolis. More importantly, the virus jumped from Wuhan to cities around the world. If officials had been more forthright, it might never have spread beyond Wuhan. Countless lives could have been saved.

But is this assessment realistic? Critics say yes, pointing to whistleblowers such as the doctors Ai Feng and Li Wenliang, whom local officials silenced. But a counterargument is that these concerns were initially vague. Taking concrete action required reliable knowledge about a new virus. It took experts time to figure out that it could be transmitted from person to person and did not simply spread from animals sold at the seafood market. If Chinese officials dithered, they were no different from elected leaders in Italy, Spain, the UK, and the US, who had weeks of advance notice and still did next to nothing. Holding China to an idealized standard of action is appealing but unfair. [Source]

China’s efforts at media control have extended to foreign media as well. In March, China revoked the credentials of American journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. In September, the last remaining credentialed Australian journalists working for Australian outlets fled the country after security officers visited their homes at midnight. Ian Johnson, author of the piece shared above, was likewise expelled in March. In a recent podcast, Emily Z Feng, one of the few remaining foreign correspondents in China, noted that the restrictions have seriously impacted journalists’ ability to accurately and fairly cover China.

Less reported on, but arguably as significant, are newly imposed restrictions on Chinese “news assistants,” often highly qualified reporters who, due to Chinese law, are prevented from officially reporting for foreign media outlets but nonetheless conduct research and interviews at great personal risk.

In this week’s edition of The China Story, Kerry Brown argued that anger at China is compounded by the expulsion of foreign journalists

Due to the centralising, nationalistic, and increasingly assertive nature of Xi’s leadership, evident in the widespread repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, its policy towards Hong Kong, and rising aggression towards Taiwan, there are certainly many elements to the China story that raise legitimate concerns, and deserve to be challenged. However, the danger at present is that most of the positives listed above receive very little coverage outside of China — so that any sense of balance is lost. This is in part because of the pandemic itself, which has limited the movements of people in and out of China, and hence their ability to observe first-hand what is happening there. But another part of the explanation lies in the fact that journalists are not on the ground reporting. This is the direct result of government decisions taken in Beijing, which indicate that expelling journalists in response to American action and Australian attitudes was deemed to be a good idea.

[…] Coming out of the pandemic, if these trends continue, it will make a bad situation worse. If there is a change of US President later this year, then one of their first moves should be to insist on restoring some of the free movement of people between both countries, including journalists, once it becomes safe to do so. In the same vein, for Europe and Australia, there needs to be a concerted effort to first of all ensure journalists and others continue to visit, live and work in each other’s country, and that information flows resume, and increase. The Chinese government may not like the way its story gets told sometimes. But it might come to appreciate that there is one thing worse than well-informed people pointing out your flaws — and that is dealing with people who know little about you, but with limited sources of information have a surfeit of negative opinions about you. An understanding of this point may well make Beijing welcome back its former irritants with open arms! [Source]


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