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Coronavirus: The new and ingenious ways Chinese citizens are evading censorship to learn about the outbreak


China’s headlines are full of triumph this week. The country’s pending victory in the war against the coronavirus epidemic, they say, is a testament to the decisive leadership of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, and to the strength and unity of the people.

Xi’s presence in Wuhan this week, his first visit to the center of the epidemic, was reportedly met with euphoria. The piece at the top of the official People’s Daily, which chronicles Xi’s tour through a residential community, finishes emotively:

As he left the community, the voices echoed for a long time in the spring sun: “Greetings, General Secretary!” “Go China!” “Go Wuhan!”

A report featured at the top of the newspaper’s website elevates Xi with the word “leader,” or lingxiu (领袖), an appellation dredged up from the shadows of China’s Maoist past: “The Party and the people are as one, the leader’s heart touches the hearts of the people.”

people's daily xi jinping march 11

People’s Daily Online on March 11. The top headline: “In 1 Month 3 Visits to the Frontlines! The General Secretary is With the People in the War Against the ‘Epidemic.’”

But beneath this towering wave of propaganda and positivity, another war has unfolded—a guerrilla war for greater openness, honesty and reflection about the tragic events of the past two months.

As Xi Jinping toured through Wuhan this week, a bombshell feature story by reporter Gong Jingqi (龚菁琦) in the latest edition of China’s People (人物) magazine made the rounds on social media. The story was based on an interview with Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, one of the hospitals most directly affected by the epidemic in the provincial capital.

In her account Ai talks about her decision on December 30 last year to share with another health professional an image of a diagnostic report for a patient showing that they had “SARS coronavirus.”

It was this image, passed between doctors in Wuhan, that resulted in eight doctors, including the now-deceased Li Wenliang, enduring harsh reprimands from local police. At the time, Ai was herself called in by the Disciplinary Office of her hospital and accused of “manufacturing rumours.”

Doctors of Wuhan.

The cover of the most recent edition of People magazine, the main story on “The Doctors of Wuhan.”

Ai shares her sense of regret now that she did not choose to speak up loudly and repeatedly, most of all for the sake of her colleagues, several of whom have now died as a result of the virus.

The Gong Jingqi piece is one of the strongest to appear to date in the Chinese media, and it paints a damning picture of how the signs were wilfully ignored by officials at the start of the outbreak, when more might have been done.

During her reprimand, Ai Fen is told by the hospital disciplinary official: “When we go out to take part in meetings we can’t even raise our heads. This or that director criticises us and talks about how our hospital has that Ai Fen. As the head of the emergency unit at Wuhan Central Hospital, you are a professional. How can you go and stir up a rumour like this without reason, without any organisational discipline?”

The story was called, “The One Who Handed Out the Whistles,” a reference to Ai Fen’s insistence in her interview that she is not a “whistleblower,” but that her sharing of the original diagnostic report had enabled others, including Li Wenliang, to blow the whistle.

But, of course, the publication of Gong’s piece was just the beginning of its own story. The article was shared feverishly on social media, and just as feverishly expunged by the authorities. For such a report to circulate on the day of Xi Jinping’s “front-line” visit to Wuhan was of course unacceptable.

wechat announces people magazine story removed

A notice on WeChat announces that a post on the People magazine feature story has been removed.

The authorities pushed. And Chinese pushed back on social media, with a level of creative defiance that was all at once ingenious, mystifying, heartening and sad. For reference, here is the opening paragraph of the story, translated from the original Chinese.

It was at 5AM on March 1 that I received a text message from Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department of Wuhan Central Hospital, agreeing to an interview. About half an hour later, at 5:32AM on March 1, her colleague Jiang Xueqing, director of the Breast and Thyroid Centre, passed away, having contracted Covid-19. Two days later came the death of Mei Zhongming, her hospital’s deputy director of ophthalmology. He and Li Wenliang had been in the same department.

And here is one attempt a user made to share Gong Jingqi’s story as the original versions were being taken down one after the other. The top of the post reads: “That piece, ‘The One Who Handed Out the Whistles.’” But this is not in Chinese characters, readable by automated filters. Rather, it is in pinyin, a Chinese romanisation system, with tonal marks over the words.

That piece, ‘The One Who Handed Out the Whistles

In this form, Gong’s article is of course still readable. A method like this may work for a period of time before censors grow wise and remove it, often when it is seen to attract a critical mass of attention.

And when this fails? What then? How do you share “that piece,” the one everyone is talking about, the one that makes a farce of state propaganda?

Another internet user answered this challenge by posting the entire article in Korean, a language not recognised or prioritised by online censors. The story could then be copied by readers and put through a translation engine.

Gong Jingqi story in Korean

Gong Jingqi’s feature story is shared in Korean to evade censorship.

If Korean fails, the article can also be shared paragraph by paragraph through a series of QR codes. Try scanning this and you should see the story’s lede.

Gong Jingqi story QR code

Still another reader chose to share and preserve this important story by reading it aloud in its entirely and recording it, then posting it to the audio site Ximalaya. He prefaces the piece by saying simply: “In this way I’ll voice my views and record history.”

Gong Jingqi story on ximalaya

But the prize for creativity goes perhaps to a WeChat post that reached back into the history of communication to find new inspiration. The post explains to readers what a telegram is, and its history in China, in which unique four-digit numbers were assigned to Chinese characters, which could then be decrypted. The post follows with a long list of four-digit numbers:

Gong Jingqi story on wechat

What does this say when you decode it? The first four sets of characters spell out the beginning of Gong Jingqi’s story as provided above. Here are the codes highlighted with their corresponding Chinese characters.

Gong Jingqi story code

This is just a taste of the ingenious workarounds that appeared this morning, and which still continue. Taken together they mark a determination not to be silenced, not to allow the truth to be swept away on Xi Jinping’s tide of “positive energy.”

A very brief portion of the People feature story is translated below.


It was at 5AM on March 1 that I received a text message from Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department of Wuhan Central Hospital, agreeing to an interview. About half an hour later, at 5:32AM on March 1, her colleague Jiang Xueqing, director of the Breast and Thyroid Centre, passed away, having contracted Covid-19. Two days later came the death of Mei Zhongming, her hospital’s deputy director of ophthalmology. He and Li Wenliang had been in the same department.

As of March 9, 2020, four medical staff at the Wuhan Central Hospital had died of Covid-19. Since the coronavirus outbreak, this hospital, located just a few kilometers away from the Huanan Seafood Market, has become one of the hospitals in Wuhan with the largest number of medical staff to become infected by the virus. According to media reports, more than 200 people from the hospital have been infected, including three deputy hospital directors and multiple directors of various departments. Many department directors are currently undergoing ECMO treatment [for acute lung failure].

Embed from Getty Images

The shadow of death hangs over this, the largest of Wuhan’s three primary hospitals. One doctor tells People that almost no one among the medical staff speaks. They only mourn quietly and discuss privately.

There was at the start an opportunity to avoid this tragedy. On December 30, 2019, Ai Fen received a diagnostic report from a patient with an unknown form of pneumonia, and she drew a red circle around the words “SARS coronavirus.” When she was asked about the case by a college classmate, she took a photograph of the report and sent it to the fellow doctor. That night, this report made its way among doctors in Wuhan, and among those to share the report were the eight doctors later taken in for questioning by the police.

This created problems for Ai Fen. As the source of the communication, she was called in for a chat with the Disciplinary Office of the hospital and received a “harsh and unprecedented reprimand,” told that she was manufacturing rumours as a professional.

 Embed from Getty Images

On the afternoon of March 2, Ai Fen was interviewed by People at the Wuhan Central Hospital wing on Nanjing Road. She sat on her own in the emergency room office, and the emergency room that had over the past day received more than 1,500 [coronavirus] patients had now become quiet, with just a single vagrant loitering in the waiting room.

A number of previous reports have said, referring to Ai Fen, that “another female doctor who was questioned has surfaced.” And some have called her a “whistleblower.” Ai Fen corrects these accounts, insisting that she is not a whistleblower — rather, she is the “one who handed out the whistles.” In her interview, Ai Fen used the word “regret” many times. She regrets that after she was reprimanded that first time she did not continue to blow the whistle, especially for those colleagues who have already passed on. “Had I known this day would come, I would have cared nothing for their criticism, but would have spoken up wherever I could, right?”

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