The Digital Radicals of Wuhan

Guobin Yang

February 3, 2020

Since the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, social media have become a particularly important means of communication for people in Wuhan and other Chinese cities. The multi-function instant-messaging platform WeChat is crucial for relatively private communication among family members and acquaintances, as well as for public dissemination and discussion of outbreak-related information. In recent years, the microblogging platform Sina Weibo has been cleansed of its critical sentiments amidst state-sponsored campaigns of civilizing the web. Now it seems that Weibo has recovered from its reluctant docility, if only temporarily. It is filled with angry tweets about the scandalously inept responses of bureaucrats and government institutions to the public health crisis. Touching stories about ordinary people’s livelihood in Wuhan also abound.

Many internet users who are actively communicating about the outbreak on social media fall easily under the categories of digital radicals I discussed here. In fact, diverse types of digital radicals have appeared on Chinese social media in recent weeks. I would like to tell the stories of two groups of them. The first group may be called digital whistleblowers. They are individuals who posted critical information about the coronavirus on WeChat at a time when public health authorities in Wuhan were still withholding the information from the public. By using social media to publicize such information, they practiced a form of radicalism. Social media diarists are the second group. They are individuals who started publishing personal diaries of their everyday lives in Wuhan after the city was closed down on January 23, 2020. These diaries offer insights into everyday life in times of an extraordinary public health crisis. They are deeply humane stories with a personal touch. They also contain diarists’ observations and thoughts on what is happening around them and as such, are critical social commentaries. Note that these individuals call their postings “diaries,” not “blogs.” The word “diary” seems to carry a sense of somberness that is missing in the word “blog” or “blogging.” We think of the “war diaries” left behind by soldiers and civilians from the great wars of the past. And the fight against the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is often compared to a war situation, reinforced by photographs of devastation, empty streets, and over-crowded hospitals on social media.

 Digital Whistleblowers

The “digital whistleblowers” I will talk about here are eight anonymous individuals in Wuhan who posted information about a SARS-like illness in their WeChat groups on December 30, 2019. In the next few days, they were questioned and reprimanded by their respective employers and the police for “spreading rumors.” On January 1, 2020, the Public Security Department of the Wuhan Municipal Government issued a public statement on its official Weibo account, announcing that the department had summoned and “dealt with” eight individuals who had “posted or forwarded untruthful information” about an unidentified form of pneumonia. To warn other citizens not to spread such information, this news was widely re-posted by state media agencies and broadcast on China’s Central Television.

In late January, as the coronavirus outbreak was finally publicly acknowledged and Wuhan abruptly shut down, people realized that the alleged “rumors” posted by the eight individuals were not rumors, but the truth that had been covered up. Information was leaked online that the eight individuals were not any random internet users, but were front-line doctors who had direct contact with patients in their hospitals. At least one of them, Dr. Li Wenliang, was later infected with the virus through contact with his patient. In his interview with Caixn Media, Dr. Li explained that his original message was posted in a WeChat group of about 150 people, who were all former medical school classmates. Screenshots of his WeChat messages show that one of the things he said was that “The most recent news is that coronavirus has been confirmed… Please do not communicate this information beyond this group. Let your families and kinsfolk take precautions.” He also posted a doctor’s note of diagnosis (with patient’s name blotted out).

Another doctor who was reprimanded by the police was Dr. Xie Linka. In her interview with Caixin, Dr. Xie reveals that she works in the Wuhan Union Hospital, one of the main hospitals designated to treat coronavirus patients in Wuhan. At 8:48pm on December 30, 2019, she posted a message in one of her WeChat groups, warning its 443 members about an unidentified pneumonia: “Don’t go to the South-China Seafood Market nowadays. Multiple people there have come down with an unidentified pneumonia (similar to SARS). Today our hospital treated multiple patients of pneumonia from the South-China Seafood Market. Please be careful and wear masks and have adequate ventilation.”

Screenshots of both Dr. Li’s and Dr. Xie’s WeChat messages were cross-posted and circulated on social media. This apparently caught the attention of public security authorities. In the morning of January 1, the department of supervision in Dr. Li’s hospital questioned him about his WeChat posts. And then on January 3, his local police station called and asked him to sign a disciplinary document. The document warned him that his behavior of posting “unverified information” had “seriously upset social order.” Dr. Xie was questioned by the propaganda department of her own hospital and received a phone call from the police. The police officer did not ask her to sign anything, but warned her not to spread unverified information.

Neither Dr. Li nor Dr. Xie knows whether they are among the “eight individuals” mentioned in the statement issued by Wuhan’s public security authorities on New Year’s Day. Information about the eight individuals is still unavailable as of this writing. However, on social media and in some mainstream print newspapers, Dr. Li, Dr. Xie, and the eight anonymous individuals are hailed as heroic whistleblowers who issued early warning signals. Li and Xie do not think of themselves as whistleblowers, insisting that their original intention was merely to warn their friends about potential health risks. The fact is that just a month ago, they were punished for sending that critical information, their message was blocked from reaching a wider public, and a precious opportunity was lost to contain the coronavirus outbreak in its early stage.

Social Media Diarists

After Wuhan was closed down, a genre of writing called “diaries in a lockdown city” began to spread on Chinese social media. Most of the diaries are texts accompanied by photos; some are short videos. Most diaries are about Wuhan, although there are occasional pieces about Wuhan’s neighboring cities which are in equally dire situations. These diaries offer valuable and timely glances into how ordinary people were coping with the crisis in their daily lives. They are documents of everyday life with news value. 

Of the many diaries about Wuhan which are appearing on social media, I would like to mention those written by Guo Jing (郭晶), a social worker and feminist activist. Guo is the founder of a legal aid hotline for female professionals who are victims of workplace discrimination. She began publishing diaries about her life in Wuhan on January 23, the day Wuhan was shut down. The most recent one was published on February 3. As of this writing, she has published 12 diaries in the twelve days of Wuhan’s lockdown. In one of them, she wrote that she had just moved to Wuhan in November of 2019 and did not have many friends there.  Her Weibo account shows that she was previously based in Hangzhou. I first read her diaries on WeChat, where they are published in a public account run by a friend of hers as a series of long essays. The first four days of her diaries, from January 23 to 26, 2020, appeared as one long essay under the title “The diaries of a female who lives alone in the locked-down city of Wuhan.” The essay has over 100,000+ views, the sign of a viral posting on WeChat. Her diaries from January 27 to 29 are published under the title “Rediscovering my place in an isolated city.” Her diaries from January 30 to February 1 are published with the title “Living with a sense of helplessness.”

Some of Guo Jing’s diaries describe her efforts to deal with daily existential concerns. For example, on January 24, she wrote:

The world is so quiet it’s scary.

I live alone. It’s only from the occasional sound in the corridor of the building that I can make sure there are still people around.

I have a lot of time to think about how to survive. I have no resources or social networks within the establishment. If I’m ill, I will be as unlikely as many other ordinary people to receive medical treatment. Therefore, one of my goals is not to let myself get sick. I must persevere in doing physical exercise. To survive, I will need the necessary food, and therefore I must find out about the supply situation of daily necessities…. Therefore, today, I went out….

Guo Jing’s diaries contain many critiques of the social and political problems exposed and exacerbated after the lockdown of the city. In her entry on January 26, she wrote about the difficulties she encountered in publishing her diaries on social media:

Not only one city after another is being shut down. People’s voices are also blocked. The first day when I tried to post my diary on Weibo, the photos didn’t go through. The text of my diary didn’t go through either. I had to convert the text into an image file to post it. Yesterday, even if I converted texts into an image file, I still failed to post it in my WeChat moments. After I posted it on Weibo, access to it was evidently limited. My Weibo post on January 24 was retweeted over 5,000 times. Yet my post yesterday was retweeted only 45 times. For a moment I wondered whether it was because I didn’t write well. Internet censorship and control did not start now, but they look particularly cruel at this point. Many people are stuck at home after the city is locked down. They depend on the internet for information and to keep in touch with families and friends. We become isolated islands without the internet.

As a social worker and activist, Guo Jing tries to rediscover her place in an isolated city, to paraphrase the title of one of her essays. She explores the streets and the food marts in her neighborhood to see how the lockdown and the illness have affected the city. She talked to the street cleaning workers to find out about their lives. In her diary on January 28, she wrote:

I interviewed eight street cleaning workers, six women, two men. They work for about seven or eight hours a day. Their salary is about two thousand and three or four hundred Yuan, which is less than two thousand after tax.

I asked them whether their salary might be different during the pneumonia period. Some said that for three days during the Chinese New Year they would earn twice their normal pay. Others didn’t know anything about this.

Every day they could receive “84 Disinfectant” and reusable gloves. They had no disposable gloves and were all short of masks. The lucky ones among them may receive 20 masks at a time and can go back for more after using up. One poor guy received only two masks since the city was locked down.

They are all very kind people. Some don’t have disposable medical masks, so they would use their scarves to cover their mouths. I had three disposable medical masks with me in case I might need them outside. I gave the masks to them …. I asked them whether they are worried. One big sister said of course. She was already living separately from her son and daughter-in-law. They don’t go out, and she would buy things for them and deliver them to their door.

From her diary on January 29, we learn that Guo Jing met the same “big sister” again the next day and chatted more with her. Guo learned that the woman’s husband died many years ago. Her son had a heart surgery two years ago and is still on medication.  She used to work at a factory but retired at the age of 45. The woman has now worked as a street cleaner for a year. She takes one day off each week and has never missed a single day of work. Most of the time when she is at work, she cannot sit down, so that by the time she gets home at night, her legs are sore.  Each of the cleaning staff covers one designated section of the street. They are not supposed to talk with fellow workers even when taking a break. Which means they often do not say a single word the whole day.  She told Guo that she had just spent 198 Yuan on 100 masks, but the masks were stolen from her when she was taking her break.

Guo Jing wrote that what “big sister” said to her was like a protest at the injustices of society. Guo herself wanted to be a “connector,” to quote her own word. Her latest diaries all end with a call for people to link up with her so they can act together:

I would like to become a connector. I hope to build connections with more and more people. So we can act together. My WeChat ID is: 1461177244. If you are in Wuhan and would like to be a volunteer, please message me offline and let me know, so we can do something together.

woman and others exiting building with armed guards

Guobin Yang is the Grace Lee Boggs Professor of Communication and Sociology at the Annenberg School for Communication and Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication and Director of the Center on Digital Culture and Society.

Image by GUO Jing