Censorship Strikes Satirical Essay “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Swab”

Censors have deleted an illustrated WeChat essay in which author “里尔李” (“Lierli,” a pen name), channeled the dark humor of Kubrick’sDr. Strangelove” to grapple with her tortured relationship with PCR testing. “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Swab” garnered over one hundred thousand views in the few hours that it was online, maxing out WeChat’s view counter. The 4,000-character illustrated essay was published as a single long image, partially in an effort to avoid censorship. It is but the latest in a series of domestic criticisms of China’s COVID policy to be censored

The essay begins with an admission: “I used to believe that a human lifetime was an insubstantial thing.” PCR testing disabused her of that notion. In searingly personal prose, Lierli details her initial acquiescence to lockdowns, her subsumption of the self into a “marionette” within the COVID-testing ecosystem, misplaced hope that the vaccine might bring an end to COVID control measures, and attempts to “lie down” her way out of testing. Later in the essay, she comes around to a highly sardonic embrace of the “freedom” of daily testing—the meaning it gives her life. 

The event that spurred Lierli to “fall in love” with COVID testing was her humiliation at the hands of a school security guard after she arrived at the campus gate before her test results had come back. The guard denied her entry and threatened, “The school will issue a public notice criticizing you for this.” 

“It’s possible they’ll tell the whole school that at 4:00 p.m. on July 2, 2022, I took a PCR test, the results of which had still not come back by 10:00 p.m., which makes me a despicable piece of trash, a liar, a naughty student who deserves to be forced to stand outside in a typhoon and get drenched, a persona non grata on campus.” [Chinese]

Her shaming precipitated a breakdown during which she realized that without PCR test results, humans have no dignity, no home, and no basic human rights. Her calls for dignity echo those made in mid-Octoberby the Sitong Bridge protestor, who wrote: “We want food, not COVID tests … We want dignity, not lies.” Lierli’s despair led her to become a PCR test administrator, an experience that introduced her to the thrill of power: “I pinch ten human existences in my hand when holding that test tube.” The essay culminates in an outpouring of poetic ecstasy worthy of the mad Dr. Strangelove: 

It’s true—

It’s the light before dawn,

the red sun over the yellow earth.

It’s our destination: happiness.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the swab! [Chinese]

After Lierli’s essay was censored, she posted a defiant note to her followers, explaining that the illustrated essay format was an attempt to dodge censorship, and that she would not be deterred:

The portkey for “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Swab” has been censored. 

Some of you have asked why, I’d like to know too: Why? They didn’t even give an explanation. In another sense, I already know why and had already put this piece in a “404” compendium. Thanks to all who enjoyed it. I thank even those who reported it and then informed me of their action. I set out to make an illustrated essay precisely because I was unable to publish the text. They wanted me to edit it, but there wasn’t a single word I was willing to change. 

It won’t get past the censors if I post it again, so there’s no way to reupload it. My server is also down but when it is back up, those who reply with “Love the swab” should be able to see an image-only version in full. If you search for the Weibo user “The Other Half of 404,” you can also see a version there. (The sooner, the better.)

Even if all my efforts end the same way, I will continue to write, and write more. Once again, thank you everyone. [Chinese]

In 2021, CDT published a translation of a Shen Maohua WeChat essay in which he similarly vowed: “Believe me, I will always come back.” Shen, who writes under the pen name “Wei Zhou,” continues to write, and continues to be censored—over the weekend, CDT Chinese published his recent piece on the suicide of a woman in Hohhot, which he was blocked from uploading to WeChat, but eventually published to Baidu’s blogging platform. 

Criticism of the excesses of China’s “zero-COVID” policies has also come from more privileged individuals. On November 5, octogenarian Tao Siliang wrote a searing takedown of the “pop-up windows” on Beijing’s “Health Kit” app that prevent people from entering the city. Tao Siliang is the daughter of the late Tao Zhu, a Communist revolutionary who was helicoptered into the Politburo during the early days of the Cultural Revolution, only to die after persecution by ultra-leftists. In 1978, Tao Siliang earned national renown for writing “A Letter Posted at Last: To My Father, Tao Zhu.” Published in People’s Daily, the letter recounted the ostracism the family endured while Tao Zhu was being persecuted, as well as the brief moments of happiness her father experienced when his isolation was temporarily lifted. The 1978 letter reverberated across the country, as many had experienced similar ordeals. In her recent essay, Tao criticized the arbitrary power of “pop-up windows” and called attention to the plight of others who have had it harder under China’s “zero-COVID” policies

The Beijing Health Kit, as part of a broader high-tech system, is both a sword the Beijing government uses to manage the pandemic, and a shield that Beijing residents rely on to survive. It is indispensable for work, school, or shopping, for seeing a doctor, going out to eat, or finding accommodation. Millions of people’s lives and livelihoods are bound to this one small application of vital importance—it’s a chain that cannot be broken, and one that should not be treated lightly!

[…] I’ve spent the last two days feeling dejected and listless. But then I think about those truck drivers stuck quarantining along the side of the highway, the migrant workers stuck living in makeshift dormitories, the cities and towns that have been under L O C K D O W N [Tao spells out the pinyin for the term jingmo 静默 in block capitals] for countless months, and those workers who trekked home from that well-known factory (I won’t mention which one) … What do I have to complain about, being trapped in this pleasant little river town? 

“Pop-up window,” you’re truly amazing. You’re like a magician, able to freeze countless people in the blink of an eye, anytime and anywhere, with no explanation given whatsoever. [Chinese]

Unsurprisingly, Tao Siliang’s essay was censored too.


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