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Chen Meili (not her real name) is a recent university graduate in her early 20s, born and raised in Wuhan, China. She had been living and working in another province for about a year when she returned to her hometown for Lunar New Year celebrations on January 19—just days before the city was placed under lockdown on January 23 to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Since then, she hasn’t stepped foot outside. No one in her immediate family got sick.
As China has begun to report fewer new domestic coronavirus cases, and the epicenter of the pandemic has shifted toward Europe and the United States, the Chinese government is slowly easing its quarantine measures. Yesterday, residents in Hubei Province outside of Wuhan, the capital city, became able to travel again for the first time in more than two months; Wuhan residents will be allowed to travel starting April 8. While Wuhan appears to have emerged from the darkest period of this crisis—with authorities reporting a near-zero community transmission rate—many distrust official figures and remain concerned about potentially asymptomatic residents.
Speaking over Skype and social media, Chen told The Nation how the virus has upended her community and her country, and about the trauma it leaves behind. This interview has been edited and condensed from four conversations.
When I returned home, I had no idea my city was about to be shut down. I wanted to spend Chinese New Year with my family. We had a massive gathering planned. I remember reading some foreign news reports on the virus in early January, but we weren’t too concerned. After all, it wasn’t being reported in Chinese media, so we assumed it was just fake news. Then the government announced the lockdown.
In those early weeks, I was in a constant state of anxiety. I would wake up in the morning and immediately check my phone for the latest updates: what developments there were, whether my loved ones were safe, how many were infected, what policies were being put into place. The rules, like the ban on private cars, seemed simple at first. But when put into practice, cracks appeared, and things started to get chaotic. It became a pattern: a very broad and ambiguous policy would come out, there would be problems, and officials would adjust.
But they were too slow. Stories about hospitals overwhelmed with patients and medical shortages began circulating. My phone was constantly buzzing. I found myself unable to tear my eyes away from heartbreaking messages about doctors and nurses running out of masks, but still risking their lives on our behalf. On the streets, there were social workers checking people’s temperatures, but none of them had masks on despite coming into contact with dozens. The situation seemed out of control. Government measures seemed to always be one step behind the virus.
Many of us agreed with the lockdown. None of us wanted to be infected, and we didn’t want to spread the virus. So we sacrificed our freedom. In China, everyone is on WeChat and Weibo, so although we were all isolated, we were connected through these social media platforms. We felt a powerful sense of responsibility toward one another. I was in a news group on WeChat when someone messaged me asking whether I was a volunteer. “No,” I replied. “Do you want to be?” they asked. I wasn’t sure, and they sent me a bunch of information about volunteering and asked me to think about it. It seemed overwhelming, but I was in the group already so I started to observe what they were doing. That’s how I became a grassroots volunteer.
There were all kinds of volunteers: those driving hospital staff to and from work, those collecting pleas for help and editing them for resharing, those running errands for vulnerable members of the population, such as disabled or elderly people. Stuck at home, I mainly used social media to connect people who needed resources to those who could provide them. Most of us were young people. Suddenly, everyone was trying their best to help one another, because we knew that we needed to. I felt proud of my community.
One of my friends volunteered to fundraise and source supplies for a hospital. She found and bought materials and tried to have them shipped to China, which meant going through customs and finding routes into Hubei Province. There weren’t efficient channels for doing this, and it was super stressful. All we had was social media. The hard part was finding products that matched health standards, and to not get cheated because there were many fraudsters trying to make a profit. There was also a risk that your supplies wouldn’t make it to the designated hospital in time, or that they would be intercepted by officials. It was difficult and discouraging. But she succeeded in shipping masks to a hospital in Hubei with money to spare, and returned the rest to the donors.
As the lockdown intensified, it became harder to get supplies. The quarantine became more restrictive and fewer people were able to leave their homes. There was not much we could do, so we had to rely on, and trust, the government. When Li Wenliang died on February 7, our family was in shock. He was a doctor who had tried to warn people about the virus in December but was silenced by the government; eventually, he was infected himself. We were depressed, and felt so much anger. It was like we were paralyzed. That evening, we had a small ceremony to commemorate him. We turned off the lights, played some music, and read an article about him aloud. My mother then ranted about local officials’ repressing the truth for 30 minutes straight. She couldn’t stop.
This pandemic is like a mirror reflecting all the hidden problems in society. It made me aware of things that I had somehow never noticed before, but now seem so obvious. I tried to search on Baidu, China’s Google, for statistics on how many medical workers had died. But I couldn’t find this information anywhere. There were lots of news stories about how many masks were being made or supplies being shipped, but none describing the shortages we still faced or how many were becoming ill. I felt very frustrated. I understood that the government didn’t want to cause panic, but I felt like we should be trusted to know the truth. I felt patronized, being made to look at things through their filtered lens.
The sad thing is, now people don’t want to talk about how sad or angry they are. They feel like if they speak about it online, their posts will be censored anyway. Or worse, they may face the same fate as Li Wenliang. I’ve never seen censorship being exercised so quickly and frequently in my life. I would share an article, and it would be deleted just hours later. This would happen four to five times in one month. I’d never experienced this before. In China, there is also this culture of staying positive. This makes many people feel like they can’t express themselves, and if they tried, they would just be misunderstood. So we suppress our emotions. Now, I don’t see many personal posts about the coronavirus because people are tired. If you’re angry for so long, you just want a break.
Recently, I turned on China Central Television, which I’d never really watched before. All I saw was positive news, which made me depressed. Half was about leaders of other countries praising the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts in battling the virus, half was about volunteers and other feel-good stories. I know they want to send hopeful messages to the public. But I couldn’t help but feel like they were just choosing not to recognize the deaths of countless people.
When I heard about journalists disappearing in Wuhan, I watched a few of their videos. I thought that Li Zehua—the CCTV reporter who quit his job to do his own reporting in Wuhan, before going missing—was definitely biased against the CCP. But it’s unnecessary to make him disappear. And if there were more journalists out there doing what he was doing, his videos wouldn’t be so eye-catching, and we would have more objective news sources.
My parent’s generation feel proud of our country and how the government handled the crisis. My father, who had a tough upbringing, is very pro–Communist Party. If I say anything critical about the government, he would say: “Look what they’ve achieved! Unlike us, you never had to starve.” Then, he wouldn’t want to talk anymore. Things are a bit better with my mom, but it’s frustrating because she’s become more nationalistic after this virus became a pandemic. We young people are very disgusted by this type of nationalism, especially when we read blatantly nationalistic news stories. It’s like they’re trying to manipulate us by further distancing China from other countries and fostering fake pride.
Before this, I never used to talk about politics. I didn’t feel like I knew enough. But this crisis has forced me to become political. I see now that we have a system that dictates which views are “correct” and silences others. I’ve always disliked censorship in my country, but now I’m realizing just how unhealthy it is. It’s very vulnerable to have a society that can’t handle different views. It makes it easier for people to be misled. As a Chinese person, I see people from other countries also being prejudiced against us because they don’t trust us. The tension between China and other countries stems from censorship, which is a double-edged sword. I don’t think I’m living in a healthy society, or a healthy world.
Now the situation in Wuhan is improving, and I’m thankful. As the virus moves to other countries, some of which are having trouble containing the spread, many Chinese people feel lucky to be under the rule of a central government that was able to implement a lockdown so quickly and respond to the crisis with exceptional efficiency. I’m planning to stay in China at least until the end of the year. I don’t know where, exactly, since I’m really not sure whether there will be a second wave of the virus, and where that might take place. I’m worried about the number of imported cases that are quickly increasing in several big cities, and I’m also worried about discrimination against people from Hubei. If I tried to move, I might be refused entry to some cities or be forced to quarantine at my own expense.
This experience has made me reflect on how hard it is to be Chinese. Either I choose to be honest, to speak the truth, express my anger like a complete human being, and face the consequences—or I choose to be the good citizen the government wants me to be, and stay safe. It’s a very unfair situation. If we do speak out, we’re also worried that our words will be twisted by Western media. I feel tired when I’m asked questions by foreigners that seem designed to fish out some hidden facts about how the CCP has deprived us of basic human rights in the lockdown, or read reports that only focus on this angle and omit other parts of our story that I feel are equally important. The fear of our words’ becoming exaggerated by Western media and causing chaos makes us repress how we really feel.
I think many people are like me: angry and refusing to give up on spreading the truth. I see a lot of friends still sharing sensitive articles before they’re deleted. Most of us also love our country and our people. We don’t directly point our fingers at the CCP; we’re sickened by propaganda and the problems caused by a bureaucratic system, but we don’t deny the party’s contributions. They did lead us out of extreme poverty and a century of humiliation. None of us want to experience war and chaos again.
I think the rise in Chinese nationalism and the rise in discrimination against Chinese people go hand-in-hand. As a young Chinese person who disagrees with these ways of thinking, I think I will find it hard to live anywhere—either inside or outside of China—and steer clear of both.