A 12 months After Wuhan, China Tells a Story of Triumph (and No Errors)

In a museum in Wuhan, China, an expansive exhibition tells a moving story of how the city’s victims led to triumph over the coronavirus and ultimately rebirth in a brutal 76-day lockdown.

For the show, which featured a hologram of medical workers moving around a hospital room, heartbreaking letters from frontline health workers, and a replica of a mass quarantine facility with beds, miniature Chinese flags, and toothbrush cups.

What is also noticeable is what is not included. There is no mention of the whistleblowing role of Ai Fen, one of the first doctors to raise the alarm in Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated, or the decision of Zhang Yongzhen, a Shanghai doctor, to share his genome with the world against official orders.

Visitors are invited to hang a virtual chrysanthemum on a martyr’s wall, which includes Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist at a Wuhan hospital whose death from the virus led to nationwide grief. However, one crucial fact is missing from his brief biography: Dr. Li was reprimanded by the government for warning colleagues about the virus from which he later died.

China has spent much of the past year narrating the pandemic as the undisputed victory of the ruling Communist Party. The state news media has largely ignored the government’s missteps, portraying China’s response as evidence of the superiority of its authoritarian system, particularly when compared to the US and other democracies, which are still struggling to contain angry outbursts.

These efforts have been given renewed urgency as January 23 of Wuhan’s lockdown approaches. Over the past few weeks, the government has deployed an army of censors to alert the Internet of the critical coverage of the Wuhan outbreak. Terms such as “first anniversary” and “whistleblower” were temporarily deleted from Chinese websites.

A recently passed propaganda directive specifically banned coverage of the anniversary of the outbreak, according to state news agency journalists who were briefed on the order. Instead, propaganda agencies have released feel-good videos and articles depicting Wuhan as a reborn city while downplaying residents’ ongoing grief and anger.

The praise for Wuhan’s success is well deserved. Since the lockdown ended in April, city life – long known as a bustling commercial center where tourists eat fiery sesame noodles, listen to punk music and catch a glimpse of the mighty Yangtze – has largely returned to normal in most of China. While many people in virus-stricken countries rang their doorbells in 2021 alone, images of crowded New Year’s Eve celebrations in Wuhan were spread across the Chinese state media.

With nationalism and public support for the party appearing to grow, the assertive rebranding campaign is a sign that China’s leaders have little interest in pondering the past or reconsidering its mistakes. Experts say their goal is simple: to make sure nothing undermines the party’s triumphant narrative.

“China’s response has been portrayed as a great victory for the Chinese Communist Party,” said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, a research program at the University of Hong Kong. “History is written for China’s leaders.”

The Chinese authorities have long feared sensitive anniversaries and released few details on how they will mark the grim occasion.

So far, the only event on the official calendar is the release of a government-sponsored documentary “Days and Nights in Wuhan” on January 22nd. It is a moving homage to the city’s “common heroes” and contains a song entitled “You Are So Kind” by the well-known Chinese actress Zhou Xun, whose gentle lyrics, according to the words of a state-run media company, are intended to convey “warm power” .


Jan. 10, 2021, 1:26 p.m. ET

Instead, recent state media coverage of Wuhan has mainly focused on the city’s booming tourism and economic revival. A video produced by CCTV, the state broadcaster, is based on interviews with workers at one of the city’s train stations to tell a story of courage and sacrifice during the lockdown. In three days, it had more than 2.5 million views on Weibo, a popular social media platform.

Another widespread video recently released by the state-sponsored Changjiang Daily shows executives from companies like Lenovo and Gree hailing the city for its speedy recovery. “What doesn’t kill me will only make me stronger,” says the narrator, while dramatic orchestral music swells in the background.

Officials also raise the issues of resuscitation and rebirth. Wang Zhonglin, the city’s top party official, spoke highly of Wuhan’s ambitions at a December forum to promote economic development along the Yangtze.

“Don’t slow down efforts to become an international metropolis,” he said of Wuhan. “Rise from the ashes and regain fame.”

The boom in propaganda came along with tightened controls in the media. A year ago, Chinese news outlets, sometimes less censored than usual in the first few days of a crisis, published some of the most powerful exposés of the government’s sluggish response to the virus and healthcare failures.

In the past few weeks, Chinese journalists say, editors have advised them not to advertise the anniversary of the ban on social media websites. Some said they were also directed to abandon plans to interview people who lost relatives in the earliest stages of the outbreak.

The government underscored its message to the media last month when it sentenced Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old citizen journalist who documented Wuhan’s ordeal, to four years in prison. She is the first person known to have been tried for chronicling the China outbreak.

The censorship around the anniversary is part of an ongoing campaign to cleanse voices that question the official narrative. Activists have been arrested and outspoken relatives of people who have died from the virus are routinely harassed. A study by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto last year found that thousands of pandemic-related keywords were censored on WeChat, a popular messaging app. Many of the deleted posts were critical of Chinese officials.

The authorities are particularly sensitive to efforts to get Dr. Pay homage to Li, the Wuhan ophthalmologist, whose death led to rare calls for free speech in China.

Several recent articles written to Dr. Remember Li’s actions have been deleted from the Internet. At the same time, Global Times, a state-sponsored nationalist tabloid, has sought to redefine the legacy of the doctor who has become a hero for many Chinese people.

“Observers said that for mainland China, Dr. Li was not a figure representing opposition to or confrontation with Chinese authorities, as reported by some international politicians and media,” a recent article said. “Dr. Li was more of an ordinary hero with the courage to speak the truth, Chinese observers said.”

The government’s goal is to “create a state-approved version of the collective memory of the coronavirus pandemic for the public,” said Lotus Ruan, a researcher at the Citizen Lab.

There are many heroes in the official narrative of the pandemic. But China’s front runner Xi Jinping is undoubtedly the star.

In the cave-like exhibition hall in Wuhan, visitors are greeted with a large photo of Mr. Xi, who looks stern as he presides over a meeting. A timeline of nearly 50 feet records the heroic actions Mr. Xi is said to have taken day in and day out during the crisis. Throughout the show, he is portrayed as a determined leader who controlled the outbreak almost from the start, although there is limited evidence of it.

“The Chinese people have shown resilience, diligence and bravery,” reads the concluding text of the show. “And, as always, the Chinese Communist Party has put people and their lives first.”

Reporting and research were contributed by Keith Bradsher, Amy Chang Chien, Albee Zhang, Liu Yi, and Amber Wang.

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