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How China used nationalism to hide coronavirus truth

Thousands of Chinese nationalists sent death threats to an author for writing a diary documenting the world's first coronavirus lockdown. Why?

For two months, Fang Fang documented life in COVID-19's ground zero. Using Weibo, China's Twitter equivalent, the 64-year-old novelist and poet wrote 60 posts over 60 days about inhabiting Wuhan as it was being quarantined by Chinese authorities. 

The posts, which ranged from one to several pages in length, went viral in China. The "Fang Fang Diary" topic had over 380 million views on Weibo. Millions in and outside of Wuhan read her daily updates, clinging to them as a comforting routine at a time of disorienting uncertainty. 

Generation China is a CNET series that looks at the areas of tech where the country is seeking to take the leadership position. 

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The world changed in those two months. Fang was among the first people on Earth to experience coronavirus quarantine. By March 25, a third of the globe's population was on lockdown. 

Public sentiment was with Fang at first. At various points, she condemned officials' fumbling response to the coronavirus -- "It is pretty clear," she wrote in her second entry, "during the early state of the outbreak, officials from Wuhan didn't take the virus seriously enough" -- and asserted the need for more freedom of expression. Commenters vented dissatisfaction with the ruling Chinese Communist Party, even if posts would only be up for minutes before being removed by censors, accusing it of covering up crucial coronavirus information. 

But as the epicenter of the coronavirus moved from Wuhan to Lombardy to New York, countries like the US and Australia began to scrutinize China's role in the outbreak. President Donald Trump said the country had mistakenly allowed COVID-19 to spread in its effort to cover up the initial discovery.

This stirred China's nationalists, who made it their mission to intimidate Fang and undermine her credibility.

The incident shows how Chinese nationalists will defend the country in even the most dire of crises. Extreme nationalism and violent political discourse are present in every country, but experts fret about China in particular. Lack of freedoms for press or expression makes public opinion difficult to monitor, but most agree nationalism is rising in China -- and that it's often buoyed by the government. China's education system has encouraged it for three decades, many argue. Another key factor: Strict censorship laws and an energetic propaganda machine amplify many narratives that nationalists cling to.

Though the movement has a presence around the world -- protesting in Australia and New Zealand against Hong Kong democracy, demonstrating numerous times against Japan and Taiwan, suppressing Uighur activism in Canada -- it's most keenly felt within China. Citizens who make enough noise dissenting from the party line can be smeared and abused. 

Anti-Hong Kong democracy protesters in London last August. "Kneel down and lick your master's ass," one sign reads.

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To these "ultra leftists," as they're called by some, Fang beseeching the government to relax censorship and "let Wuhan people speak" was not a call to improve the lives of Chinese citizens. Instead, it was seen as harming China's position on the world stage and giving ammunition to the country's Western enemies.

This friction turned into hostility in early April when it was announced that Fang's Weibo musings would be translated into English and German and sold as a book, Wuhan Diary. State media insinuated that she's a traitor, and she was swiftly denounced by many citizens for dishonoring China. 

The death threats have yet to stop rolling in. 

World's biggest firewall

Chinese censorship is most known in the West for The Great Firewall, a series of internet blockages that keeps Western sites, platforms and publications out of China. The party banned Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in 2009, with Instagram, WhatsApp and Google's entire suite soon following. Visit the mainland and you'll also find The New York Times, Reuters, The Washington Post and dozens of other outlets suddenly inaccessible. 

For China's citizens, however, the censorship goes far deeper. News channels and newspapers are overseen by the propaganda department, according to Kevin Carrico, senior lecturer of Chinese studies at Monash University. Not only is there an army of human censors who take down online comments and posts deemed inappropriate, but an increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence network automatically deletes disapproved rhetoric.

"Another category of censorship, which I tend to think is the most insidious, is self-censorship," he said. An environment of constant monitoring and control, Carrico argues, inevitably turns speech control into some degree of thought control. Exerting more pressure is the power of appointment: Criticize the party too severely and getting a job becomes much harder.

Fang Fang, author of Wuhan Diary.

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Yet like most issues regarding China, it's complicated. Ying Jiang, of the University of Western Australia's Confucius Institute, says China's censorship is exaggerated in the West. VPNs are simple and cheap, she said, making many Western sites and platforms easy to access. In 2017 it was estimated that 14% of the 731 million people accessing the internet in China use a VPN each day

"The common theoretical position in the West sees all forms of censorship as limiting freedom of speech," Ying wrote in her 2012 book Cyber Nationalism in China. "By contrast, in China, where censorship has been and is still much tighter than in the West, the majority of present-day Chinese people tend to be satisfied with the existing more relaxed, though still limited, freedom of expression."

(Confucius Institutes around the world have been accused of being under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party. They reject the claim.) 

"If [censorship] was so severe, we wouldn't be having this conversation," a citizen of Guangdong, who preferred to remain anonymous, said to me in an interview over WhatsApp in May. He uses Facebook and Instagram every day, as well as Google and YouTube for work. 

These conflicting ideas of censorship in China encapsulate a ubiquitous problem. There's constant tension between how the West and China perceive each other and themselves. The West views China as being close to a totalitarian state. China views itself on the road to becoming a superpower, and the West as throwing up roadblocks in the interest of retaining power.

History augments China's feelings of grievance. The period from 1839 to 1949 -- in which China lost Hong Kong to Britain, suffered an embarrassing defeat to Japan in a war for Korea, had economic zones carved out of it by European powers, and then suffered catastrophic losses to Japan during World War II -- is known as the Century of Humiliation.

It's seared into public consciousness by the Chinese Communist Party. The period is regularly invoked in politics, as when President Xi, speaking in Hong Kong in 2017, said that the country's 1997 return from Britain to China "[washed] away the Chinese nation's hundred years of shame." State media regularly makes reference to the term, notably during the US-China trade war. It even has its own day: Sept. 18 is Humiliation Day.

"The notion of humiliation returned to state propaganda after the [Tiananmen Square] massacre," said Carrico. At the time, he argues, it was a tactic to take public anger aimed at those responsible for the massacre and deflect it at external enemies. 

"The sad part is that it really works," he adds, explaining its continued use today.

It underpins a fundamental tenet of Chinese nationalism: that China was a victim, and that the West in general, and the US in particular, is trying to keep it that way. It's part of how we see censorship as totalitarian, and some Chinese people can see Western criticism of the party's censorship as overblown and self-serving. It also allows nationalists to dismiss a number of other critiques Westerners make of China, including the state forcing Uighur Muslims into work camps.

"We study-abroad students don't know anything about politics, we just know our personal interest and our sense of belonging to our nation," a Chinese student who objected to a Uighur activist speaking in a Toronto university told the Washington Post last year. "If other people hurt us, smear us, we have to counterattack." 

The Rape of Nanjing saw Japanese troops kill between 50,000 and 300,000 Chinese people during a six-week period in 1937-38. It's a key event in China's Century of Humiliation. 

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The doctor who knew

"The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige," wrote George Orwell in a 1945 essay, "not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality." Associated most with the 18th and 19th centuries, nationalism isn't new, but it's a nebulous term. The goal of nationalists, propagandists and autocratic governments is not to improve their society but to project the strength of that society.

So when an eye doctor in an eastern Chinese city last year cautioned a WeChat group of friends that he'd encountered a clump of patients with SARS symptoms, the response of officials wasn't to investigate or ring the alarm bells. Instead, it was to sweep a potential crisis under the carpet. Because these comments on SARS symptoms went viral, the ophthalmologist was made to apologize to authorities for "spreading rumors." 

Unfortunately, the SARS symptoms he reported on Dec. 31 were actually COVID-19 symptoms. The physician was Li Wenliang, of Wuhan Central Hospital. He became a hero after his death, on Feb. 7. The 34-year-old was one of six doctors from that hospital to die from COVID-19.  

"It has now been 16 days since the quarantine was imposed," Fang wrote on Feb.7, Day 13 of her Wuhan Diary. "Dr. Li Wenliang died overnight and I am broken."

Dr. Li Wenliang was commemorated in ceremonies around the world, including in China, Hong Kong (pictured) and the United States.

Anthony Kwan/Stringer

Li was hailed as a whistleblower, and countless other Chinese citizens were outraged by his death and his official admonishment. The WeWantFreedomOfSpeech hashtag garnered 2 million views in 5 hours (between the low-traffic hours of 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. no less). By the time most citizens started work that next day, it was completely scrubbed. Offline, citizens amassed outside Wuhan Central Hospital and blew whistles in tribute to Li.

The Chinese government retracted Li's admonishment and posthumously honored him as a martyr. When it came to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the party went the other way. 

A physician in Wuhan told China Newsweek that hospital bosses instructed doctors not to share information about the growing number of cases. Wuhan's provincial health commission as early as Jan. 1 blocked scientists' inquiry into the new coronavirus, according to the Caixin publication. These reports, preserved by freelance journalist Shawn Yuan, were taken down or censored soon after being published. 

"Beijing has used the crisis to further tighten its control of the media," notes Reporters Without Borders, which ranks China 177th out of 180 countries for press freedom, "banning the publication of any reports that question how it has been managed." A White House official reportedly compared the party's response to the Soviet Union's in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion.

Wuhan emergency workers responding to new COVID-19 cases in January.

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Online, people tried to circumvent censors. When an interview with Ai Fen, one of Wuhan's first doctors to encounter COVID-19, was scrubbed, Weibo users tried translating it into different languages including Star Trek's Klingon, Lord of the Ring's Sindarin and Morse code. It didn't work. Others attempted to protest by posting sections of the Chinese Constitution, which states that "citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration." This too was censored. 

While the authorities suppressed China's ignominies, and vigorously broadcast the success of Wuhan's lockdown, state-run outlets were broadcasting the West's. "A hospital in New York used garbage bags as protective clothing, and a medical worker died of infection," one headline read, while another article spotlighted the UK's shortage of medical equipment

Such duplicity is common in the party's information control system: Though talk of atrocities committed against China are encouraged, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which the People's Liberation Army opened fire on students protesting for press and democratic freedoms in Beijing, is among the most taboo topics on China's internet

"I believe that today marks the Seventh Day since the passing of Li Wenliang," Fang wrote on Day 23. "The Seventh Day is when those who have embarked on their distant journey return one last time. When Li Wenliang's soul in heaven comes back to this place of old one final time, I wonder what he will see."

Weaponizing information

"One has to wonder how her book came out so quickly in the US and Europe," reads one of around 60 one-star reviews Wuhan Diary received on Amazon. "Fang doesn't speak English or German and yet somehow it was 'translated' almost instantaneously and made it to the book stand in the West."

"Makes one wonder if this wasn't simply a constructed, coordinated effort with anti Chinese forces in the West intent on smearing China." 

Michael Berry, translator of Wuhan Diary and a friend of Fang's, said these reviews are part of a campaign to discredit Fang. Detractors make Amazon accounts, give the book a bad review and then cite the bad review on Weibo or WeChat as evidence that the book is being poorly received in the West. 

"Around April 7 is when the attacks started coming at me," Berry said, adding that this was when news of the book's Western translations was announced. Within 24 hours, he received around 300 messages on Weibo. Some were insults, others were death threats. Some accused him of being in the CIA, or that he and a team of other agents wrote the book. It reached 600 a few hours after that, plus private messages, and it didn't stop. 

A pro-Beijing protest in Vancouver, British Columbia, last August voices frustrations with Hong Kong's democracy movement. 

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"There's fear on the part of Chinese nationalists that this book would be 'weaponized' and [the US] would use it as a tool to hurt China," said Berry. But, he adds, anyone who reads it in search of such scandal will be disappointed. Wuhan Diary is as much a love letter to Wuhan as it is an admonishment of the country.

While nationalism is on the rise, everyone I spoke to agreed it's a multifaceted issue: There's truth in the narrative that China was victimized, and cultural norms, like the importance of hierarchy and "saving face," affect how moderate Chinese citizens react to Western criticism. But systems that control what information people see, hear and read matter too.

The strength of the connection may be debatable, but its existence is easy to see. Much of the criticism Berry received alongside death threats reads like official rhetoric. "Her global rise propelled by foreign media outlets has also sounded the alarm for many in China that the writer might have become just another handy tool for the West to sabotage Chinese people's efforts to fight the COVID-19 outbreak," cautions the party-controlled Global Times newspaper. "Fans disappointed as Wuhan Diary's overseas publication 'gives ammunition to antagonist forces,'" reads another headline.

Part of the problem with assessing the impact of censorship and propaganda is that, by their nature, they make it difficult to measure public opinion. But it's not just that pro-free speech, pro-democracy or, in this case, pro-Fang Weibo posts get deleted. It's that making public statements can get you attacked.

Berry said he received over 2,000 private messages from Chinese citizens apologizing for the way he's been treated. He noticed that, though there were certainly death threats mixed in, most of his private messages were positive, while the overwhelming majority of public comments directed at him were negative. 

"Ultranationalists are not only prevalent and so vocal, they also don't play fair," he said. "They send death threats, they send insults. When you use those kind of bully tactics, fair-minded people just curl up in a ball and hide away." Chinese people online who are concerned about their country or nationalist sentiment make up a "silent majority," he added. 

State trumpeting of President Xi Jinping as China's leader.

Andrea Verdelli/Stringer/Getty

Exacerbating nationalistic frenzy is the 50 Cent Party, "online commentators" named because they are paid 0.5 yuan per post by the CCP to amplify party victories, steer conversation away from discussions that reflect poorly on the party, or reprimand people who are critical of the party. A 2017 study estimates around 448 million state-directed posts go up each year.

"Almost every morning at 9 a.m. I receive an email from my superiors -- the internet publicity office of the local government -- telling me about the news we're to comment on for the day," one such commentator told The New Statesman

Barry is sure that the 50 Cent Army was part of the wave of abuse that crashed upon him following Wuhan Diary's English translation. 

"They came so quickly," he said, "in such a coordinated fashion, hundreds of messages, some of them within minutes like a machine gun firing, all of them hitting the same talking points, as if they're reading from a script, someone sent them a directive saying attack this person on points A, B and C."

A confident China

Just as the Century of Humiliation is used to evoke a sense of victimhood, China's propaganda system rouses pride by regularly pointing to the country's astonishing rise from the "sick man of Asia" in the '70s to now being a world power. And just like the Century of Humiliation, this narrative isn't a fallacy. Less than 1% of Chinese lived on $1.90 or less a day in 2015 -- compared to 66% in 1989.

It's no surprise that nationalism has grown alongside China's power. Market reforms that began in the '80s freed up China's hitherto state-controlled economy, causing an industrial boom. But the market reform meant the party needed a marketing reform, too. Profit was now encouraged, so the old rhetoric about class warfare that the communist government had historically relied upon was now outdated. The answer was nationalism.

"[It was] a massive shift to nationalism," Carrico said of the time. "Get mad at the foreigners, not your leaders." In the '90s, as China's economy expanded by nearly 10% every year, children were learning from a new curriculum in schools: aiguozhuyi jiayu, or patriotic education.

Since 1991, Chinese youth have gotten what's known as a "patriotic education".

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"After years of schooling, every Chinese national is left with a wardrobe of collective enemies: the Western countries and Japan," Jianan Qiang, a Chinese author, wrote of his childhood. "No sensible adult would be foolish enough to adopt this completely black-and-white view. But a hostile mindset can still get the better of us when nationalistic sentiments are involved."

The party's encouragement of nationalism and its discouragement of dissent have magnified since 2013, when Xi Jinping became president. His government has waged a war against "historical nihilism," a confusing term has been used as a pretext to silence historians and public intellectuals who question the party's narratives.

"It's become harder to be a dissident in Xi's China," said Kerry Brown, author of CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping. "He's used nationalism in particular as a way of making sure people don't rock the boat, so it makes it seem that you're not disloyal to the Communist Party, you're disloyal to the Chinese nation."

China has never had complete freedom of expression. But there was room for some figures to critique party policy in the name of "loyal opposition." That's gone under Xi, said Brown. "If you don't agree with the party, that's disloyal. Period."

Technology empowers Xi's enthusiasm for censorship. "If we do our job really well, we can be in a place where every piece of content is flagged by artificial intelligence before our users see it," Facebook's data analytics VP Alex Schultz once said of extremist, hateful content. China's government has much the same idea, but a much different idea about what constitutes extremist, hateful content. 

Xi's reign has also been noted for its self-assured stance on foreign policy. The country's rejection of any blame for the coronavirus outbreak is just the latest example. It follows China's encroachment on Hong Kong (a new national security bill introduced in July looks to undermine the territory's sovereignty), and its surge of activity in Vietnamese, Indonesian and Philippine territories of the South China Sea, among other things. While many in the West criticize these moves as aggressive, nationalists champion a newly confident China under Xi.

Much of China's nationalist movement is made up of young people, born from the '80s onward. Having not experienced the horrors of the 20th century, and exclusively seeing China as a growing power rightfully reclaiming its place on the world stage, this sect of nationalists have a name in China: Fenqing, or Angry Youth. 

China has gotten more assertive under Xi Jinping.

Pool/Getty

Danger zone

"I'm not sure if I'll be able to send anything out through my Weibo account," Fang's very first Wuhan Diary entry begins. "It wasn't until too long ago that I had my account shut down after I criticized a group of young nationalists who were harassing people on the streets with foul language."

For a country so keen to suppress sensitive information, it's miraculous that all of Fang's diary entries ended up on Weibo. Her posts would invariably be taken down, and eventually her account would be blocked. But in these cases, friends and fans would share and reshare new and old entries. 

"When controversy around the diary first started, that was shortly after the whole Li Wenliang controversy had broken out," said Berry. "There was so much anger at that point at the government [due to Li's death] that, had they done something to Fang Fang at that stage, I think that it really could have blown up in their face."

Wuhan on Jan. 26, three days into the world's first citywide coronavirus quarantine. 

Xinhua News Agency/Getty

The consequences are often far more severe. In February, two video bloggers, Bin Fang and Chen Qiushi, vanished after posting videos documenting life in Wuhan that contradicted the official narrative. After writing an essay criticizing the Communist Party's coverup, billionaire property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang also went missing and now faces prosecution. Compared to this, the chore of having to evade censors felt mild. 

Berry rejects this suggestion that Fang got off light. She may not have gotten official punishment, but aggressive nationalists are picking up that slack.

"On a daily basis, she's still getting hundreds, if not thousands of messages, online cyberattacks and death threats," he said. "They have posted videos online that are kind of investigative report exposes into her private life, her home address was posted, there were public calls to kill her from some very prominent individuals, like one of China's leading MMA fighters. She hasn't been arrested or anything like that, but what she has faced has been really, really horrific."

I asked Berry if Fang does interviews in English. Anxious about attracting any more attention to herself, Fang isn't doing any press for the book.