In May, Wuhan Diary, the Chinese writer Fang Fang’s account of the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, was released in English by HarperCollins.
Fang is no radical. She’s the former chairwoman of the Hubei Provincial Writers Association, a government-linked group. She did criticize the initial coverup of the virus by local officials in Wuhan, but didn’t raise any questions about the response of the central government in Beijing, or about the authoritarian political system that encouraged the cover-up. Fang also generously praised low-level Communist Party cadres, front-line health workers and volunteers.
The book, adapted from a series of posts on Chinese social media, was published at a time when many across China were enraged by the death of Li Wenliang, a young Wuhan doctor who was punished for circulating an early report of the virus and then died of Covid-19. So one would think that Fang’s book would have been welcome—a very moderate assessment of the crisis, at a moment when many in China were already reflecting on the political system’s strengths and weaknesses in handling the virus.
That’s not what happened. Instead, Fang’s decision to have her diary published internationally unleashed a backlash in China—and not from the Communist Party, but from Chinese citizens online. The critics, mostly young people, accused Fang of failing to highlight the Chinese government’s success in containing the outbreak, and of being a tool for “anti-China forces.”
On the popular Chinese microblog Weibo, a user commented, “the West smears us and wants to get together to demand sky-high compensation. Fang Fang passes the sword hilt to them to attack the nation.” Another user blamed Fang for racist attacks on ethnic Chinese in Canada. Some exposed Fang’s personal information, including her home address, and alleged that she lived a luxurious lifestyle at the expense of taxpayers, which Fang refuted.
This attack on Fang illustrates a striking change in China under President Xi Jinping, especially among the internet-savvy and globally connected young Chinese who have long been most open to different worldviews.
For many years, the internet in China was seen as a channel for new thinking, or at least greater openness; Chinese citizens could go online to expose government corruption and criticize leaders. Online discussions were relatively free and open, and users, especially younger ones, had an eager appetite for learning and debating big ideas about political systems and how China should be governed.
That has changed sharply in recent years as a crackdown on the internet and civil society has become more thorough and sophisticated—and the government’s messaging has grown more nationalistic.
While nationalistic sentiment among Chinese youth has always been strong in certain areas of national security—especially when it concerns “sovereignty” or territorial issues, such as the Senkaku Islands, Taiwan and Tibet—in recent years it has increasingly spread to discussions of culture, technology and even medicine. Now young online Chinese, once conduits for new ideas that challenge the power structure, are increasingly part of Beijing’s defense operation.
Widely popular movies, TV shows and books portraying the Chinese society in a critical light are attacked for being “unpatriotic.” The 2001 comedy Big Shot’s Funeral, critically acclaimed in China at the time, a stinging satire of China’s fledgling capitalists, is now deemed “a smear on national entrepreneurs.” Once a hero for making Chinese innovation global, TikTok’s founder, Zhang Yiming, is denounced as a U.S. “lapdog” for negotiating to sell TikTok’s U.S. operations—despite the fact he didn’t actually have a choice. Chinese scientists who question the scientific proof, clinical validation and effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine are labeled “Han traitors.”
For anyone concerned about U.S.-China relations, or China’s with the rest of the world, it’s hard to overstate the importance of this change. The past 10 years in China have seen a combination of communications crackdown, ramped-up propaganda and rapid expansion of surveillance efforts that—when paired with China’s rising global ambitions—have changed the public conversation in China, even among educated and younger people. It will make it harder, even in a post-Trump world, for the world’s great powers to avoid splitting further apart, perhaps dangerously.
To anyone who believes global openness in the internet is a one-way street, the situation in China is a troubling rebuke. What happened?
Ten years ago, it was possible to believe we were heading to a very different direction. Millions of people—many my age—used social media every day to discuss social and political issues and to pressure local officials to right wrongs, prompting the widely known slogan, “changing China through collective spectating.” Despite the risks, tech-savvy young people made songs, cartoons and animations to condemn censorship and one-party rule, and photoshopped the country’s top leaders to make fun of them.
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