This post is part of a series from Asia Unbound. The post is authored by Peidong Sun, associate professor of history at Fudan University.
On December 18, 2019, Fudan University changed its charter to exclude its commitment to "freedom of thought" and demoted "academic independence" to a spot below patriotism. As this was happening, I was busy grading my students’ papers as the fall semester approached its end.
Exactly one month later, the South China Morning Post reported a suspected case of the novel coronavirus in Shanghai. The event went unreported in mainland Chinese media, even as tourists from Wuhan with confirmed cases of the condition were hospitalized in Japan and Thailand. Meanwhile, notices from the Hong Kong Public Health Department about preventing pneumonia and respiratory tract infections circulated in many WeChat groups, reactivating horrible memories of the 2003 SARS outbreak. After Shanghai’s first coronavirus case and human-to-human transmission were both confirmed on January 20, I told myself to prepare for the worst scenario.
Events in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, did not mirror my cautious approach. For example, the local government organized a Lunar New Year potluck banquet for more than 40,000 families. I was shocked and furious when I saw the news.
On January 21, 2020, I confronted a former classmate, now a professor and vice dean at Wuhan University, in a WeChat group with members from our graduate program. I said that local scholars should speak out and ask the local leadership to be proactive. Their irresponsibility and ignorance had the potential to harm the whole world given how deadly and contagious the virus was already proving to be. Despite the mounting evidence, my former classmate questioned whether the reports of the virus were real. Even now, I cannot blame him for his sense of security because he believed the city was in good hands.
Another classmate in the same WeChat group, who is a civil servant in Guangdong, told us that when four people in the province died of the coronavirus, she was informed of the news in an internal meeting that same day. She also said that she was using masks provided by her office because local pharmacies had run out of them. Another friend, who works for the government in Beijing, advised me early in the outbreak to be vigilant. When I mentioned my concerns about mask quality in mainland China, he said that only the masks he received from his office were good quality. The ones his family bought online were inadequate for self-protection. It seemed that higher-ranking public servants tended to have better access to information and personal protective equipment than the general population.
Public awareness of COVID-19 in Shanghai dramatically changed in late January. News of the first confirmed case of community transmission in the Yangpu district, where I used to live, surfaced in a WeChat group I was in. Apparently, a woman from Wuhan who was visiting her daughter in Shanghai had fled a local hospital after she was hospitalized with COVID-19 on January 21. Information on her whereabouts and her daughter’s several Shanghai apartments was posted in many local WeChat groups. In the end, the Shanghai police quickly found her and returned her to the hospital. Nevertheless, this first case in our district confirmed that the virus was at our doorsteps. After that, we kept our children indoors for their own protection.
Rumors about the case spread on Chinese social media. Some people wondered how this woman’s daughter could own five apartments in downtown Shanghai, three of which are in neighborhoods where housing prices often top RMB 10 million ($1.4 million). Other people gave a name for the woman and claimed she was a high-ranking CCP cadre from Wuhan who had abandoned the epidemic to spend the holidays with her family. Further speculation asserted that the woman bought her daughter’s properties in Shanghai using funds she had obtained through corruption. On January 22, the city of Wuhan issued a notice stating that Liu Qingxiang, vice director of the Wuhan CDC and the subject of many of these rumors, had not left Wuhan and had been working on the front lines of the outbreak.
Despite this misinformation, Chinese society has been able to trust certain media outlets and medical experts. Trustworthy media groups include Caixin, Southern Weekly, Xin Jing Bao (Beijing News), and Xinmin Wanbao (The New People's Evening Post). Two journalists from Caixin interviewed Professor Guan Yi, director of the State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Hong Kong. Having visited Wuhan to do fieldwork at the beginning of the outbreak, he warned the public about the virus’ severity and contagiousness. Such reporting shows that those with clear minds immediately knew how bad the virus could be.
Dr. Zhang Wenhong, a professor and head of the Center for Infectious Disease at Fudan University’s Huashan Hospital, became a household name during the pandemic. Dr. Zhang gained notoriety for calling on fellow CCP members to send medical teams to the front lines as early as January 30, stating, "I don't care if they don't want to go there or not. They must go without arguing." Often noting his frankness and strong personality, people find Dr. Zhang a reliable source of information in contrast to some government figures.
Unlike Dr. Zhang’s clinical recommendations, Wuhan writer Fang Fang has gained international fame for her daily diary accounts of her home city’s epidemic. Millions of people have read the entries she began posting on January 25. Countless Chinese people share the fears, frustrations, and hopes she expresses. Despite the comfort her accounts have offered to millions, it is not surprising that Fang Fang has also been brutally attacked on Chinese social media. In China, it oftentimes is less important to solve problems than it is to “solve” those who expose them
Social media also has revealed suspicion and hatred toward COVID-19 patients and their families. In one extreme case, a young woman in Wuhan turned to Weibo for help finding a hospital bed for her father, who was in critical condition and had been sent to a hospital not designated for COVID-19 patients. With her mother already running a fever at home, she begged emergency room doctors to treat her father.
Some Weibo users found her claims unbelievable and questioned whether her father was really in danger. On the night of the Lunar New Year, the daughter made four desperate posts on Weibo in two and a half hours. Her last post contained three Chinese characters, “Guo shi le” (passed away), announcing her father’s death just after midnight. While most people comforted her, others advised her to be calm, think of the whole country, and understand that she could not save father given Wuhan’s limited resources.
Offline life has not been easy either. However, frontline workers have won the Chinese people’s hearts and minds. I will never forget Dr. Li Wenliang, an early COVID-19 whistleblower, who was brave enough to tell the media his story of government intimidation and mistreatment for pushing to educate the public about the virus. Dr. Li fulfilled the obligations and responsibilities of being an independent citizen, not a tamed servant who complies with the wishes of those in power. I will never forget his colleagues either—health workers across China who risked their own lives to save others during these challenging times. I will never forget those essential workers, couriers, cleaning staff, cashiers, construction workers, teachers, professors, and countless others whose brave work has allowed our everyday lives to move forward. They all are national heroes.
Of course, I will always remember those who lost their lives and the loved ones they left behind. Their names have been engraved in many people’s minds, even if there is no physical monument for them in mainland China. Their tears, desperation, and suffering weigh heavily on our collective memories.
For my part, I tried to use my position as a scholar to influence policy. While I am very sure that new policies have nothing to do with my efforts, I was committed to promoting knowledge of the virus across society.
I first urged the Shanghai municipality to change its method of distributing masks in local pharmacies. I argued that lining up to buy masks without adequate social distancing on cold and rainy days would undo the government’s initial efforts to address COVID-19. Instead, I proposed that the CCP’s grassroots cadres distribute masks to local residents’ homes and that mask buyers pay online for these deliveries. I reposted my suggestion in many Fudan University WeChat groups and asked the history department’s party secretary to convey my opinion to her supervisors. In the end, the eventual mask distribution measures promoted online ordering, but required buyers to pick up their masks at pharmacies.
On January 21, I also urged Chinese airlines, trains, and intercity bus companies to allow passengers to cancel their tickets and receive refunds without fees. The Civil Aviation Administration of China and the National Railway Administration of China issued their refund policies on January 23. On January 22, I suggested Disneyland Shanghai consider closing given that the park had become a new hot spot for the COVID-19 outbreak. I was happy to see they agreed to close on January 25.
I also made more than seventy posts related to COVID-19 on my personal Weibo account before leaving China in February. As a user with almost 50,000 active followers, most of my posts were deleted when they gained popularity. When Dr. Li Wenliang died of COVID-19, I posted publicly saying “I, Peidong Sun, associate professor of history at Fudan University, urge the Wuhan government to build a statue for Dr. Li Wenliang to express your gratitude for his sacrifice and your guilt to his family. The statue must be named ‘RUMOR.’ It must stand in the plaza of the city hall.” By the time it was deleted, the post had 517,000 views, 4,976 likes, 279 comments, and 29,000 reposts. The party secretary for Fudan’s history department asked me to delete the post. I refused to do so, replying to her in one of the departmental WeChat groups that I would not delete this post after deleting so many others at her request in the past. Unsurprisingly, she immediately kicked me out of the group. I soon after was removed from all the Fudan University WeChat groups.
As this was happening, I was preparing to leave China to start a visiting professorship at Sciences Po. There was nothing more nerve wracking than booking a plane ticket out of China in the initial weeks of the outbreak. I will never forget constantly checking the news for flight updates from late January through early February, scared to death that I would not be able to leave due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Fortunately, I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on February 6.
However, the airport had no temperature screenings, no masks, nothing at all. After escaping the coronavirus in Shanghai, I knew for sure that I would witness the outbreak of COVID-19 in Paris.