Author still dealing with backlash over Wuhan Diary on city’s fight against COVID-19

Linda Lew, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 24 2021 07:43 AM

The coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan 12 months ago brought a new kind of fame to the Chinese author who goes by the pen name Fang Fang.

She wrote what became known as Wuhan Diary , a book about life in the city of 11 million during a lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19. Even though the book was never approved for publication in China, it became the catalyst for a campaign that led to fierce online criticism of Fang that continues to this day.

In an email interview, Fang, 65, said the book was an attempt to share a truthful, personal account of events. It was translated and published in English, German and Japanese just as the pandemic poisoned relations between Beijing and Washington, politicising the cause of the disease, and stoking nationalism in China.

The author, whose real name is Wang Fang, said she was still unable to publish a Chinese-language version of Wuhan Diary or any new works in China. But she spoke of the online attacks that followed the book's publication overseas in May and repeated calls for accountability among officials for what she called the early mishandling of the outbreak.

"My biggest feeling has been surprise. I never could have imagined the things that have happened, either the catastrophe that is the pandemic or the online harassment," she said.

Wuhan Diary contains praise for the health care workers, community workers and volunteers who saved lives, and explains the sense of solidarity that grew among the people of Wuhan. But the mishandling of the pandemic response is a consistent theme and officials are described as having blood on their hands and the author calls for those responsible to resign.

Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang, who faced widespread criticism over the slow response to the outbreak, did step down on Friday. He was transferred to the Communist Party's provincial political advisory group, but no reason was given.

Fang was born in east China's Jiangsu province but has lived in Wuhan since she was two. She said she worked at a delivery company before entering Wuhan University in 1978 to study Chinese.

She published her first work in 1984 and dozens more since, according to a profile on the Hubei provincial government website. She is no stranger to controversy, and has had her fair share of disputes with fellow writers, with at least one suing her for defamation.

Fang's 2016 book, Soft Burial, was taken off the shelves due to criticism of its portrayal of the Communist Party's Land Reform Movement of the 1950s. The topic is highly sensitive as the redistribution of land at the time caused a massive upheaval and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in class-motivated killings.

But the vitriol levelled at her and her supporters over Wuhan Diary was something she said she never expected.

"Even though I'm over 60, this is something I've never experienced in my life," she said.

Chinese tabloid newspaper Global Times said the book "serves as a weapon for the West to deny all the efforts and support by the Chinese people to Wuhan".

Since the publication of Wuhan Diary, Fang has been reported to the authorities for offences ranging from corruption to using her connections to flout lockdown rules, all of which she denied. The online attacks reached the point where she turned off the commenting function on her Weibo account, a China version of Twitter.

Zhang Boli, a doctor recognised as a "People's Hero" by Chinese President Xi Jinping for his efforts in fighting the pandemic, said in an online conference that people like Fang had "twisted values and souls" and only saw darkness instead of light.

Zhang Yiwu, a Chinese literature professor from Peking University, wrote on Weibo that interviews Fang gave to the international press showed she was working with "anti-China forces".

Some of those who came out in her support faced even worse.

Hubei University literature professor Liang Yanping backed Fang in an article she shared online, saying the critics of Wuhan Diary ignored the city's suffering in favour of a victory narrative only.

Liang was reported for inappropriate speech and in June she was fired by the university and her membership of the Communist Party was revoked. The official reason given was inappropriate comments relating to Japan and Hong Kong, which were posted before her Fang article.

Fang said she was outraged, writing on Weibo in June that Hubei University brought shame to all universities in China and had been hijacked by "ultra-leftist forces" and online thugs.

Still, she said she later realised that anger would not help.

"As time went on, the things they have said appear more ridiculous," she said.

Wuhan Diary began as online posts published on Weibo, where Fang has more than 4.8 million followers. She started on January 25, two days after Wuhan went into lockdown.

Her posts were censored but she continued writing and readers shared them in different ways to evade the censors and posted on other social media platforms like WeChat. Some of her Weibo posts attracted over 27 million views.

Readers seemed drawn to her critiques of officials and honest depictions of life under lockdown. She wrote about Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who was given an official warning by the police for raising an early alarm about the new coronavirus, the disease which would eventually kill him. She paid tributes to friends whose lives were taken by the virus.

The public confidence crisis sparked by Li's death saw the Communist Party's disciplinary watchdog form a task force to investigate. But a report released in March had only one sentence that said the Wuhan police that reprimanded him had not acted in accordance with procedures.

The watchdog said in May that more than 3,000 officials in Hubei had been punished for failing in their jobs to prevent and control the Covid-19 outbreak, but did not name them, give details of their failures or what their punishments were.

As of Saturday, the death toll from Covid-19 in Wuhan was 3,869. Fang continues to call for full accountability for those who died.

"I have not seen any public admission of responsibility or repentance and an apology from those responsible. There has been nothing," she said.

Michael Berry, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of California Los Angeles, translated Wuhan Diary into English and also faced online attacks. Some came through his Weibo account, where he has about 25,000 followers.

"I still get these nasty letters and nasty posts," he said. "That's continued now in a protracted campaign that's lasted more than 10 months. So that's been kind of horrific to live through."

Berry said Fang gave a fair and balanced account of what happened and gave credit where credit was due and also called out certain mistakes.

"That's all she did in this record and unfortunately it's been twisted and contorted," he said. "A lot of that unfortunately has to do with the way in which geopolitical shifts were taking place as she was writing the book."

One of those shifts was former US president Donald Trump calling Covid-19 the Chinese virus and blaming Beijing for the pandemic, which fed anti-US commentary in China, he said.

The English version of the book went on presale the day Wuhan's lockdown was lifted, which may have changed Chinese readers' perception of it, Berry said.

As part of the official narrative of how China handled the outbreak, China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in June that the fight against the outbreak should leave "correct collective memories", while state broadcaster CCTV made a television series highlighting the heroism of those on the front line.

But Fang said that "correct" memories should have more than one source.

"I have always encouraged everyone to record. Every person has their own perspective. If everyone can truthfully record then we can get as close as we can to the truth," she said.

"If there are many records like mine, then people can easily see the truth of the event and can easily judge what is correct or not."

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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