“Inside the Early Days of China’s Coronavirus Coverup: The dawn of a pandemic—as seen through the news and social media posts that vanished from China’s internet.”
WIRED, May 1, 2020
By Shawn Yuan
“To be sure, China did eventually take extraordinary and painful steps to quell its domestic outbreak. But it has also taken extreme measures to curate the information that has emerged from ground zero of the pandemic.”
Late on the night of February 2, as her insomnia kicked in, a Beijing woman whom I’ll call Yue took out her phone and religiously clicked open WeChat and Weibo. Over the past two fitful weeks, the two Chinese social media platforms had offered practically her only windows into the “purgatory,” as she called it, of Wuhan.
At this point, according to official estimates, the novel coronavirus had infected just over 14,000 people in the world—and nearly all of them were in the central Chinese city where Yue had attended university and lived for four years. A number of her friends there had already caught the mysterious virus.
An inveterate news junkie, Yue hadn’t been able to look away from the ghastly updates pouring out of Wuhan, which—interspersed with a dissonant bombardment of posts praising the Chinese government’s iron grip on the outbreak—kept hitting her in an unrelentingly personal way. Her mental health was fraying, and she was “disappointed in humanity,” as she later put it.
That night, just when Yue was about to log off and try to sleep, she saw the following sentence pop up on her WeChat Moments feed, the rough equivalent of Facebook’s News Feed: “I never thought in my lifetime I’d see dead bodies lying around without being collected and patients seeking medical help but having no place to get treatment.”
Yue thought that she had become desensitized, but this post made her fists clench: It was written by Xiao Hui, a journalist friend of hers who was reporting on the ground for Caixin, a prominent Chinese news outlet. Yue trusted her.
She read on. “On January 22, on my second day reporting in Wuhan, I knew this was China’s Chernobyl,” Xiao Hui wrote. “These days I rarely pick up phone calls from outside of Wuhan or chat with friends and family, because nothing can express what I have seen here.”
Unable to contain her anger, Yue took a screenshot of Xiao’s post and immediately posted it on her WeChat Moments. “Look what is happening in Wuhan!” she wrote. Then she finally drifted off.
The next morning, when she opened WeChat, a single message appeared: Her account had been suspended for having “spread malicious rumors” and she would not be able to unblock it. She knew at once that her late-night post had stepped on a censorship landmine.
What she couldn’t have realized, though, was that she had posted her screenshot at what seems to have been a turning point in China’s handling of the epidemic: Over the previous two weeks, the government had allowed what felt like an uncharacteristic degree of openness in the flow of information out of Wuhan. But now the state was embarking on a campaign of censorship and suppression that would be remarkable even by the standards of the Chinese Communist Party.
Over the past several weeks, as the number of new cases in China has tapered off and lockdowns have lifted, China has been positioning itself as a global leader in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It has vigorously promoted the narrative that its unprecedented quarantine measures bought time for the world—and that much of the world then botched and squandered that head start. Now, the story goes, China has again come to the rescue as it shares its expertise, experience, and equipment.
To be sure, China did eventually take extraordinary and painful steps to quell its domestic outbreak. But it has also taken extreme measures to curate the information that has emerged from ground zero of the pandemic.
Over the last month or so, China’s openness with the rest of the world—or lack thereof—in the early days of the pandemic has become the subject of intense geopolitical debate. “The reality is that we could’ve been better off if China had been more forthcoming,” Vice President Mike Pence told CNN in early April, when asked why the Trump administration had gotten off to such a late start in taking the virus seriously. The debate has become a strange and strained one, given that whatever China did or did not cover up, the US still squandered its chance to prepare for the inevitable even after Beijing’s warnings had become loud and clear.
Moreover, it wasn’t the rest of the world that Beijing was most intent on keeping in the dark. Nowhere has China been more aggressive in its war for control of the coronavirus narrative than it has been at home. A vivid and human picture of that information war emerges if you examine all the stories and posts that have been wiped off of the Chinese internet since the outbreak began—which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do for the past few months.
Seasoned journalists in China often say “Cover China as if you were covering Snapchat”—in other words, screenshot everything, under the assumption that any given story could be deleted soon. For the past two and half months, I’ve been trying to screenshot every news article, social media post, and blog post that seems relevant to the coronavirus. In total, I’ve collected nearly 100 censored online posts: 40 published by major news organizations, and close to 60 by ordinary social media users like Yue. In total, the number of Weibo posts censored and WeChat accounts suspended would be virtually uncountable. (Despite numerous attempts, Weibo and WeChat could not be reached for comment.)
Taken together, these deleted posts offer a submerged account of the early days of a global pandemic, and they indicate the contours of what Beijing didn’t want Chinese people to hear or see. Two main kinds of content were targeted for deletion by censors: Journalistic investigations of how the epidemic first started and was kept under wraps in late 2019 and live accounts of the mayhem and suffering inside Wuhan in the early days of the city’s lockdown, as its medical system buckled under the world’s first hammerstrike of patients.
About the Author:
Shawn Yuan is a Beijing-based freelance journalist and photographer. He travels between the Middle East and China to report on human rights and politics issues.