Tactile Resilience: Battling Coronavirus in China Under Censorship

I. A Special Chinese New Year

Jan 24, the night before Chinese New Year. CCTV(China Central Television) was broadcasting the New Year’s gala, celebrating a day of joy, reunion, and hopes. Meanwhile, a completely different “show” was going on with the hashtag #Wuhan SOS(武汉紧急求援) on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media.

User Doctor Do: “I am from Wuhan Xiehe Hospital. Because of the extreme shortage of medical supplies, my coworkers haven’t been eating, drinking, or going to toilets for 8 hours — they can’t do anything that requires them to take off their medical gowns, because they have no more. Some of them are even using diapers… We are accepting donations from all of you. Please help us get through this together. ”

User Hang: “My mom just passed away. My dad is in a very severe condition…he can’t move, and is having difficulty breathing. I have gone to 5 hospitals, yet none of them could take him because of the shortage of hospital beds…I don’t wanna just watch my dad slowly dying at home. I beg whoever is seeing the post help us. I don’t know what else I can do.”

As I scrolled down on my phone, countless posts alike showed up. I felt like I was drowning in the deafening screaming for life, powerless for there is nothing I can do. All I could do was to click “repost”. I looked away from the phone, people on TV were singing and dancing. It was almost like two realities existing at the same time.

II. Use of Digital Tools in Shaping the Narrative

Like most people in my generation, Weibo has become the major platform for me to learn about news and public opinions in China. Weibo is usually referred to as the Chinese Twitter, but it is actually a much more complex and hybrid platform. It is more like a combination of Facebook and Twitter running in Chinese public sphere.

Being the largest social media platform for individuals, corporations, and government agencies to publish and broadcast information in the public sphere, Weibo has taken a critical role in circulating information and shaping the collective narrative during the novel Coronavirus outbreak.

Government agencies use Weibo to issue “official announcements.” On Jan 1, Wuhan police’s official Weibo account posted “The rumors about SARS-like pneumonia are untrue. We have reprimanded 8 people who spread rumors.” Millions of people took their words; they went on with their lives without taking any precautions.

As it turns out, those rumors were not rumors, but information that government officials were attempting to hide from us. Why the officials seal the information and which government agency takes responsibility for the action is beyond the scope of the article. But what matters is that people grew angry and disappointed at the appeasing disinformation that put them in danger. As the responsible government has lost its accountability, people started to rely more on individual sources on social media in the hope to get trust-worthy, first-hand information about the outbreak. Many users of Weibo go to doctors’ accounts for the latest updates about the virus; Dr. Do, who posted the “SOS” tweet for Wuhan Xiehe hospital, gained over 4million followers since the nCOV outbreak — and he is just one of many. As many Chinese people remain skeptical about the official statistical number, reports from the government accounts, and how severe the infection really is in Wuhan, what they can see and trust are the countless individuals asking for help on Weibo, as well as videos of overcrowded hospitals and crying doctors.

III. A Decentralized Crisis Management System

People on social platforms responded quickly to those “SOS Tweets” and started to help each other. The Weibo post of two doctors crying over medical resources shortages and unbearable workloads were censored a day after it was first posted. But by that time, at least $2,741,042 worth(19,200,000 CNY) of donations were already on their way to Wuhan. To improve the efficiency of sourcing and purchasing medical supplies, people self-organized crowd-funding platforms for purchasing donation items. A group of people started a Weibo account called nCov Caring three hours after Wuhan lockdown, committed to gathering scattered SOS posts online, and sourcing medical supplies and hospital beds for untreated patients. Within 1 day, the group expanded into a team of over 3000 people from backgrounds in medical, management, publicity, public relations, IT, design, counseling, etc. Meanwhile in Wuhan, as transportation shutdown left medical workers no ways to commute, car owners created a group of more than 4000 drivers through Wechat to arrange free pickup services for medical workers.

A Centralized system

A decentralized system of sharing information and coordinating resources started took shape through digital platforms. It is worth mentioning that all of these decentralized, collaborative actions happened within 24 hours after the city lockdown. In comparison, it took the government almost 3 days to start to arrange free shuttles for medical workers, and 2 weeks, for People’s Daily, known as the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, to set up a direct information collection platform for untreated patients. While the central government is making strong efforts and having a decisive role in containing the infection, it struggles to quickly respond to a spectrum of threats and equally distribute resources to people in need in such a severe crisis. Under such circumstances, A decentralized crisis management system has taken a critical role in filling in the gap by responding to emerging problems with high efficiency.

IV. Resilience against a controlled network

It didn’t take long for people to realize it was not just the coronavirus they were fighting against, but also the negative effects of centralized approach to the crisis. For example, on Jan 27, Wuhan officials announced that all donations items shipped to Wuhan hospitals should be directed to Wuhan Red Cross and get allocated from there. As front-line doctors posted on social media about how they were running lower and lower on supplies, people found out the items they donated were all stocked up in Wuhan Red Cross’ storage. As people protested strongly on social media against the inefficiency and bureaucracy of Wuhan Red Cross, on Feb 1, Wuhan government finally loosened up the policy and allowed donors to ship directly to hospitals. In this case, people’s ability to efficiently allocate resources in the decentralized system was constrained and impaired by a central agency.

Another example is the disappearance of individual voices on social media. Censorship has been used to ensure a centralized, positive narrative in which we all have confidence and hope in conquering the crisis. Contents that don’t align with such narrative are likely to get deleted. Post of a girl telling the story of her mom committing suicide after losing hope of getting treatment disappeared on Weibo; video of woman sitting on a balcony, ringing a bell and screaming for help disappeared; post from a mom telling the story of her son starving to death while his parents are being quarantined, disappeared… Chinese citizens are no strangers to online censorship, but the disappearance of such posts angers people more than ever, as individuals behind these posts are not activists and have no interests in politics; they are merely telling stories of their personal sufferings, and shouting for survival. Are we not allowed to feel hopeless?

All these sentiments built up to the burst of national-wide grief when Li Wenliang, one of the first eight doctors who got reprimanded for warning people about the novel Coronavirus, died from the very virus he warned people of. I have never seen such a magnitude of collective emotional outburst on Chinese social media in my life. People were furious because they saw themselves in him; they realized any ordinary person can be criminalized and silenced in the society; their pent-up frustration towards the internet censorship erupted.

To keep up with the speed of the outpouring of emotions across platforms, censorship agencies sped up on deleting posts and articles, in addition to closing Weibo and Wechat accounts. But users have adopted a habit of taking screenshots of “sensitive” contents when they see one, repost them — yet only to be deleted again. Some people started projects to archive deleted contents on Github, Telegram, and Notion. Among many, an open source project archiving Media Coverage, Non-fiction Writings, and Individual Narratives on novel coronavirus have been trending on Github and have got 6.6k stars. As long as the internet is not dead, the cat-mouse race will never end.

V. Reflections

Digital platforms like Weibo and Wechat are able to foster an effective and decentralized system for managing the coronavirus crisis. Yet the power and flexibility of such a system is limited and is restrained under censorship and a centralized political structure. The impact of this decentralized system over battling coronavirus is yet to be evaluated, but one thing reveals itself clearly to me is that the use of decentralized communication systems during this outbreak enables us to see individual sufferings, increases our empathy and feeling of responsibility to each other, and diversifies our narratives. Because of it, an individual’s dim SOS signal gets amplified and heard. As thousands of signals resonate with each other, filling our ears, and eventually silenced, we know that there is much more we need to fight for.

Coronavirus has been stirring up every single family in China. As I am sitting safely in my New York apartment writing this paragraph, my cousin’s family is still “locked” in Hubei, running out of food; my mom’s Wechat just got permanently banned for reasons we would never know; Several of my friends are facing unemployment because companies they work for are going into bankruptcy… I opened up Apples News, seeing Trump administration’s handling of Coronavirus has already become a new center of political battle ground, while US just confirmed its first deaths from Covid-19 in Washington. The virus continues to spread, stirring up more and more families all over the world, showing us how vulnerable we all are regardless of race, gender, culture, country and political boundaries.

So here I am, writing this article. This is a story about how people in China have been battling both coronavirus and censorship over the past month, but I do think a lot of human conditions reflected here are universal: injecting politics in a human crisis, unequal access to healthcare, human suffering and resilience, and impact of a globally connected digital network that allows me to tell the story here. As one individual, I am as small as dust. But the least I can do is to document, speak and tell stories, hoping the fighting and suffering of Wuhan people can be seen, remembered, and always reflected upon.