For over two months, Chinese author Fang Fang kept an online diary that detailed people’s lives and suffering in Wuhan, the Chinese city that has been under lockdown since late January after the novel coronavirus was discovered there. Her diary offered not only a precious window into which people could get a glimpse of the situation in Wuhan, but also a rare critical Chinese voice that dared discuss the government’s missteps in handling the crisis.
As the pandemic appears to be under control in China, Wuhan is set to lift its lockdown measures on Apr. 8. Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, opened back up this week. With the impending end of this unprecedented experiment in social control in human history, Fang, who has lived in Wuhan for over 60 years, wrote her last entry in her diary yesterday.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” wrote Fang at the end of the entry, citing the Bible, which is the 60th one since Jan. 25, two days after Wuhan was put on lockdown. “Some told me that they don’t think anyone will be held accountable [for the sufferings of people in Wuhan] by the authorities… Regardless of what the authorities might think, as a Wuhan citizen who was under lockdown for two months, as a witness of the miserable days in the city, we have the responsibility and obligation to seek justice for those who died for nothing,” she wrote in the article (link in Chinese).
Fang, who writes in a down-to-earth tone and is sharp in her criticism of the government, became the face of the collective memory and misery of Wuhan’s people. The 64-year-old, now dubbed by some as the “conscience of Wuhan” (link in Chinese) due to her courage to speak up in China’s authoritarian environment, had previously been known for her novels on the lives of grassroots Wuhanese.
“If we give up on seeking justice, if we forget about the days under lockdown, and if we could not remember the desperation experienced by people like Chang Kai, then I will say: Wuhan people, what you will bear are not only the [consequences] of this disaster, but also shame! Shame of forgetting!” she wrote. Chang was a Wuhan film director who died from the virus within days of the outbreak, along with (link in Chinese) his father, mother, and sister.
Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has killed at least 3,287 people in the country.
“Fang’s diary has a huge impact in China. The fact that it is so popular in the country shows how two voices were missing: one showed how ordinary citizens were living through the crisis, and the other reflected how the disaster unfolded and who should be responsible for it,” said Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor in journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Both voices have been drowned out by China’s official narratives that highlight the [government’s] achievements and heroes during the outbreak.”
As public anger swelled following the death of doctor whistleblower Li Wenliang in early February, China has been fervently trying to re-shape the narrative around the virus both at home and overseas. It’s sent journalists to Wuhan, for example, to churn out positive coverage about the pandemic. More recently, Chinese diplomats and state media outlets have capitalized on Western countries’ mishandling of the pandemic to sow confusion about the origins of the virus, and to spread messages highlighting China’s role as a responsible provider of aid and medical equipment.
In a bid to keep the stories of ordinary people alive and heard above the government’s messaging, Fang focused on the personal price that people in Wuhan paid in order to contain the virus, including a child with cerebral palsy who died as he was left alone after his other family members were taken away for quarantine, and doctor Li, whom she called “a beam of light in the dark night” (link in Chinese).
One line in particular written by Fang (link in Chinese) became a popular phrase used by people to refer to the sufferings of ordinary citizens in China during the pandemic: “A grain of ash of the era, if it falls upon the head of an individual, will become a big mountain.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of people who died in Chang Kai’s family.