The Right to Remember: Struggles of Chinese Netizens during the COVID-19 Lockdown
Article by Jenny Zheng
Since the government of China controls the society in every aspect, it has put great effort in rewriting history through propaganda and censorship while facing the crisis during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Known as the person who blew the whistle, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, sent a message in Wechat group to warn his fellows of the coronavirus outbreak at the end of December 2019 and then punished by the local police for spreading rumours (BBC, 2020). On February 7, Li Wenliang died from the coronavirus and the death of him triggered huge anger on Chinese social media. Netizens mourned the whistleblower, and called for free speech in hashtags and pictures on Weibo and Wechat. According to a leaked document, the censorship mechanism reacted to the public opinion of that day in a furious way (沃民高科沃德網情研究院, 2020).
In April 2020, Chinese netizens debated on Fang Fang, a famous writer who was going to publish her diaries during the lockdown of Wuhan in western countries. Many young people believe that the content in her diaries is a humiliation of China if published in foreign languages. Actually, the diaries was a medium for people outside Wuhan to know about what Wuhan was enduring in the lockdown. However, in April there even exists Dazibao (大字報) online, which is a form of big poster that criticized specific individuals as the enemy of people publicly during the cultural revolution. Such accusations of FangFang’s diaries on the Internet indicated a struggle over the recording and interpretation of what happened in Wuhan. The struggle also happened in February and March while journalists’ reports from Wuhan during the lockdown were first published online and disseminated quickly by netizens on social media platforms. To preserve these articles from censorship and deletion, people began to adopt the old habit of purchasing magazines produced by traditional media: Sanlian Lifeweek (三聯生活周刊), Caixin (財新), China Business Network (第一財經), Renwu (人物) and etc.
On the basis of these observations, the paper intends to reveal the battles between the authority and ordinary Chinese netizens on the history concerning COVID-19 through looking back to the period of lockdown in Wuhan (January 23 to April 8, 2020). Hopefully, the article will elucidate how people strive for the right to remember, to record and to create in a strictly censored environment.
Keywords: COVID-19 lockdown, Wuhan, censorship, traditional media, memory, social media
On May 21, 2020, Xu Zhangru（許章潤）, professor of Tsinghua University published the long article titled “China, a Lone Ship of State on the Vast Ocean of Global Civilization” （世界文明大洋上的中國孤舟）(Barmé, 2020), calling for the restoration of historical truth, identifying the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic, and releasing citizen journalists. The article also demands the establishment of “Li Wenliang Day” as China’s “Freedom of Speech Day”, in which way that all the Chinese people could remember the fundamental constitutional significance of freedom of speech and freedom of expression (許章潤, 2020).
Three months before, Xu criticized the Chinese Communist regime for aiming “at insinuating the Communist Party into every aspect of civil government” and utilizing “big data totalitarianism” and “WeChat terror” to govern the country and control the people in his article “When Fury Overcomes Fear”（愤怒的人民已不再恐惧）(Barmé, 2020b). As a consequence, Xu Zhangrun’s name was filtered by WeChat and on July 15, Tsinghua University made the “Decision on Dismissal of Xu Zhangrun” (《關於給許章潤開除處分的決定》) (RFA, 2020).
The punishment and censorship targeting at Xu Zhangrun is a microcosm of social and cultural governance in the Web 2.0 era of China. Since Xi Jinping took power in 2013, China’s surveillance mechanism has evolved from reactive repression against public resistance or collective actions to preventive repression through online censorship (Creemers, 2017; Greitens, 2019). In practice, censorship is usually implemented through agents-the government puts pressure on companies that provide Internet services and forces them to filter and control the content in cyberspace (Navarria, 2019). The scope of information censorship includes both regular review and response to emergencies. In the Xi Jinping era, the authorities attempt to realize the demobilization of collective resistance in aid of digital technologies (Greitens, 2019). They shred the public grievances and dissatisfaction that may be assembled in information, control the power of historical interpretation, and eliminate political resistance (Chu, 2014).
The innovative usage of social media
As director of the emergency at Wuhan Central hospital, Ai Fen told Renwu that“I am not a whistleblower, I am the one who provided the whistle.” On 30 December, 2019, Ai Fen took a photo of the lab results which contained the “SARS coronavirus” and sent it to a former medical school classmate (Kuo, 2020). That night, the photo spread to the doctors’ community in Wuhan, and those who forwarded the report included the eight doctors who were admonished by the local police. The photo was also shared by Li Wenliang in Wechat group to warn his fellows of the coronavirus outbreak. Known as the whistleblower of COVID-19, Li Wenliang is one of the eight doctors punished by the local police for spreading rumors (BBC, 2020).
The article “The One Who Provided the Whistle” was first published on the social media accounts of Renwu and deleted in a short time. In order to circulate the words of Ai Fen to more netizens, Chinese social media users created new versions of the article constantly in English, German, Vietnamese and other different languages. What’s more, pinyin (the romanisation system for Mandarin) (RFA, 2020), emoji, morse code and Braille characters were all adopted to disseminate the information. In the performance art and carnival on social media, more than 100 versions of the article came out in two day (聯合新聞網, 2020). Even though the censorship mechanism reacted to the original article quickly, the action of deletion encountered an unexpected resistance that netizens “resurrect” articles again and again to compete with the powerful censorship system (雲昇, 2020)
Since Bakhtin’s theory of carnival addresses the notion of change and renewal, the remixing of various types of discourse triggers a carnival-like experience, a public performance that marks the “temporary suspension of the hierarchical social order” (which marks the temporary invalidation of censorship in this case) (Guo, 2018, p.9; Bakhtin, 1984). The anonymity and openness of the Internet have created a platform for the carnival of netizens (Zhao & Yu，2017). Chinese social media users employ their creativity to construct a new virtual public space with relay-based recreation of online discourse. Using social media in an innovative sense, and Chinese netizens have acted in a disporal and decentralized way to confront the surveillance mechanisms. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether the carnival leads to a censorship vacuum or the censors deliberately let the people express their dissatisfaction for stability maintenance.
The reviving power of traditional media
In addition to the Renwu, other traditional paper media also published a series of reports on the February and March issue of their magazines. For instance, China Business Network (第一財經) compared the official responses with the timeline of the development of the epidemic and recorded individual narratives from Wuhan in its special issue of COVID-19. Caixin reported in detail about how officials concealed early evidence that the coronavirus is surprisingly similar to SARS, which caused a deadly global pandemic in 2002 and 2003 in the article “When Did the Alarm Sound?” (赫海威, 2020).
To preserve these articles from censorship and deletion, people began to adopt the old habit of purchasing magazines produced by traditional media: Sanlian Lifeweek (三聯生活周刊), Caixin (財新), China Business Network (第一財經), Renwu (人物) and etc. Thousands of netizens pre-ordered the March issue of Renwu online and found that the content of the cover had not been determined. From March 10 to April 14, the cover was finally changed after the publication process was delayed. Moreover, three of the originally scheduled five doctor interviews were deleted, including the “The One Who Provided the Whistle”.
Since 2013 Southern Weekly incident, investigative reporters and journalism in China have been continuously suppressed. With the transformation of traditional media into new media, it seems that Chinese media industries get access to more online channels to publish and disseminate news and information. However, they are actually facing more complicated content censorship while the government has been reseizing the dominance of news dissemination controlled by the Communist Party in the era of mass media since 2012. As many journalists stayed in Wuhan after the lockdown of the city, they brought a very short-lived recovery of traditional paper media.
The struggle over collective memory
Since the words in virtual space can be easily erased, Chinese netizens apply relatively reliable storage channels to preserve narrative memories (such as Google Drive and Github), and purchase paper publications to keep the details of history. The recordings saved on the digital platform are online versions of “narrative memory” (Tracy, Sandel & Ilie, 2015).
According to Xu Ben (2008), narrative memory of witnesses opposes the standpoint which does not treat people as human beings, and it affirms the meaning of each individual’s life. The testimony of the victims is a way to make decisions for their own lives and it requires the public to have the trust and recognition of a human partner (Ibid., p.255). Victims narrate the disaster not only to prevent the disaster from happening to themselves again, but also to save others from undergoing the same catastrophe (Ibid., p.284). Only those who are responsible for evil and suffering will exterminate the testimony, block the survivors’ space of speech, and force the witnesses to die in silence (Ibid., p.256).
Referring to the cultural psychological definition of collective memory, it emphasized on the tools that social actors utilize to remember (Wertsch, 2002; Chaudhary et al., 2017, p.51). Both social media user’s recreation and circulation of the deleted articles and the journalists’ reports are the tools of Chinese ordinary people to keep record of the past and criticize official narratives of the state (Chaudhary et al., 2017, p.61). While such practice of remembering can be a challenge to the official discourse, the fierce struggles among memories concerning COVID-19 and the lockdown of Wuhan have not been a surprise. For example, the writer Fang Fang suffered large-scale criticism for publishing her diaries during the lockdown of Wuhan in western countries. Many netizens believe that the content in her diaries is a humiliation of China if published in foreign languages. Actually, the diaries was a medium for people outside Wuhan to know about what Wuhan was enduring in the lockdown. However, In April 2020, there even existed Dazibao (大字報) online, which is a form of big poster that criticized specific individuals as the enemy of people publicly during the cultural revolution. Such accusations of Fang Fang’s diaries on the Internet indicated a struggle over the recording and interpretation of what happened in Wuhan.
Although the public opinion of Chinese citizens on the Internet has expressed strong dissatisfaction and doubts against the authorities, the joy of successful epidemic prevention seems to have diluted everything as the memory of the lockdown is being reshaped by the official discourse. Furthermore, since the environment of China’s Internet has deteriorated in just a few years and there is an expanding market for hatred expressions, words and actions that are inconsistent with the official discourse can cause attacks online.
As the space for public discussion, social media platforms of China embody both inherent deficiencies and structural restrictions. Name Weibo as an example, it has shifted from “a network of instant information sharing to a social network based on interests” (Shei 2019, p.385). Zhao Dingxin (2018) have pointed out that the basic feature of the public debates on Weibo is that “people are at cross purposes” (p. 330):
On the one hand, interactions based on Weibo lack the constraints of etiquette in the real society. On the other hand, it is particularly prone to fake public opinions and authorities under the manipulation of Internet companies, capital, and the state. In a certain sense, in the public space of Weibo, people’s performances are similar to the “the crowd” described by Gustave Le Bon (Ibid., p. 329).
As a key part of the official cultural governance work under Xi Jinping’s leadership, social media platforms such as Weibo with hundreds of millions of users are expected to be a digester of fragmented information, rather than a culture vessel for high-quality public discussion. The ubiquitous censorship influences and transforms the expressions of ordinary users. As the discordant notes are obliterated or attacked, the practice of struggle against the hegemonic discourse for the right to memory remains a recessive action of a very limited number of citizens and intellectuals.
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