Many Younger Chinese Speak Out Against Handling Of Coronavirus

Mar 5, 2020
Originally published on March 5, 2020 11:12 am
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China is reporting some success in containing the coronavirus. The number of new cases has been dropping. But along the way, China took some extreme measures, and some Chinese are taking the dangerous step of criticizing their government's response. The voices you will hear in this story are real. We have distorted the sounds of those voices to protect the speakers' identities. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Tulong (ph) will remember January 24 forever. It was the day after her hometown of Wuhan had been sealed off to contain the outbreak. The rest of China was celebrating a Lunar New Year.

TULONG: (Through interpreter) We had no groceries, so we just drank a bottle of wine and watched television - the sounds of happy people who didn't care if thousands of people lived or died in Wuhan.

FENG: Tulong, in her late 20s, says that night, she felt something inside shift. Her work at a public relations firm in Beijing required her to read a lot of international media, and she frequently used software to jump China's Internet controls. But it wasn't until the initial cover-up of the coronavirus and the ensuing Wuhan quarantine that she became disenchanted with the ruling Communist Party. Being trapped in Wuhan, she says, opened up her eyes to the brutal utilitarianism of China's leaders.

TULONG: (Through interpreter) Chinese people think Wuhan should sacrifice itself to protect everyone else and that there's nothing wrong with that. We've censored ourselves for years, but if I don't speak up, then no one will speak up for me. And one day, I won't have the power to fight back.

FENG: We're not using her full name and modulating her voice because people have been detained for criticizing the government's handling of the coronavirus.

TULONG: (Through interpreter) Every day when I wake up, I need to pray for half an hour, telling myself I can persevere through this. I have a future.

FENG: China has worked hard to control the narrative on the coronavirus outbreak. It's shut down thousands of social media accounts and scrubbed the Internet of dissenting articles. The state propaganda machine is now busy churning out articles lionizing the, quote, "people's war" against the virus. But some citizens, particularly China's balinghou - or those born after 1980 - aren't buying it. Rin (ph), a doctoral student also from Wuhan but now studying in Japan, is one of these citizens.

RIN: (Through interpreter) At first, I was angry. Then, after I'd accepted circumstances, I felt hopeless. The case of Li Zehua really affected me.

FENG: Rin was schoolmates with Li Zehua, a rising star at China's state broadcaster until he quit to cover the coronavirus outbreak independently from Wuhan this February. Li was detained soon after, and his whereabouts are unknown.

RIN: (Through interpreter) Our university told us how to present ourselves, but it didn't teach us what not to say under this political system. And so Li's detention has resonated with me.

FENG: Rin now chats in encrypted messaging groups with thousands of other Chinese residents, sharing news articles and videos taped on the ground from Wuhan. Some videos came from a handful of so-called citizen bloggers in Wuhan, like Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, who are now also missing as of last month. Unlike the other two, Li was able to film his last minutes before he was detained.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LI ZEHUA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: As security officers waited outside his door to detain him last month, Li Zehua told them on tape, I hope more young people like me can stand up, and to the officers, I sympathize with you. The day will come when the same cruel order falls on your own heads.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.