Hemant Adlakha, Ph.D., Honorary Fellow, ICS and Professor of Chinese at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Fang Fang is definitely not the most famous living writer in China, but she is revered by hundreds and thousands of Chinese as the literary voice of COVID19-stricken China. Even before the outbreak, Fang had published widely in different genres and won several literary awards, including China’s most prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2010. Until recently, she served as vice president of the Hubei Writer’s Association. Having spent her early and late childhood during the tumultuous Great Leap Forward years and adolescent years in the cataclysmic decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), she worked as a porter for four years to support her family before entering Wuhan University to study literature in her early 20s in the 1970s. Fang Fang’s early works, mostly short stories, concentrated mainly on poor Wuhanese – from urban factory workers to the city’s middle-class intellectuals – part of China’s “new realism” literature. Born into a literati family in 1955, she inherited the legacy of the May Fourth socialist realism and her own experiences of a struggling life made her remain committed to social consciousness. According to well-known Chinese literary critic Han Shaogong, “the secret of Fang Fang’s success is that she can capture the complexities of an ever-changing life without losing its thread.”
Now, she is famous for another reason: her Wuhan Diary posted on social media. Also called the Quarantine Diary, the daily account of the locked down city’s millions of inhabitants’ untold sufferings during the ongoing health crisis has recast Fang Fang from a well-known literary figure into China’s most revered living literary voice of dissent. Her fans in China are already proclaiming her to be the conscience of Wuhan.
On the night of February 7, Dr. Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded for warning about the coronavirus on social media, lay dead in the quarantine ward of the Wuhan Central Hospital. The same day, the first page of the Wuhan Diary was put up on Fang Fang’s WeChat account, and disappeared within hours. But before being taken down by China’s cyber censors, her Wuhan Diary had gone viral with thousands of re-posts. Fang Fang already enjoyed 3.5 million followers on social media even before she began chronicling her life during Wuhan’s quarantine. Wuhan Diary first appeared on day 14 of Wuhan’s lockdown. The latest page of the diary (as of this writing), entitled “Let’s see if you scare me!” was put up on March 20, on Day 57. “Dear internet censors, you should let Wuhan people speak,” Fang wrote recently, as quoted by Kiki Zhao in the New York Times.“If you don’t allow us to express our anguish or complaints or reflections, do you want us to go really mad?”
Interestingly, throughout nearly two months of lockdown and three months since the central authorities confirmed and publicly announced the coronavirus outbreak, each entry in Fang’s Wuhan Diary has been consistently deleted by Beijing’s censors within an hour or so of it being posted on Fang’s social media page. Yet each post has gone viral before being struck down, being shared by millions of WeChatters within China and abroad. More committed fans of Fang Fang are happily and with great enthusiasm sharing the entire series. Some of Fang Fang’s censored posts are being archived by China Digital Times (CDT) in Chinese, and Fang Fang’s Caixin blog is one of the multitudes of sources being preserved on the nCoVMemory Github, a repository of personal narratives from the outbreak in China.
CDT has also translated her censored WeChat post entitled “As long as we survive” in which, as CDT puts it,“Fang Fang expresses the frustrations of lockdown, laments the many displaced and affected by the virus, lauds the brave journalists attempting to uncover truth amid propaganda, and demands accountability from those who allowed the situation to develop.” The post begins:
“It is cloudy again and a bit chilly, but not too cold. I walked out to look at the sky. A sky without sunshine is somewhat gloomy and dismal, I thought. The article I posted on WeChat yesterday was deleted again, and my Weibo account has also once again been blocked. I thought I couldn’t post on Weibo anymore, and then found out that they only censored yesterday’s post and that new posts can still be published. It made me instantly happy. Alas, I am like a frightened bird. I no longer know what I can say and what I can’t. When it comes to something as important as this fight against the epidemic, I’m cooperating fully with the government and obeying all their commands. I’m now just short of taking an oath with a fist over my heart – is this still not enough?”
It is no exaggeration to say the ongoing swelling debate over Wuhan Diary on both WeChat and Weibo – China’s main social media platforms – has led to a near vertical split among the country’s educated millions. Viewed in the context of how Charter 08, a manifesto for constitutional reforms issued by Liu Xiaobo and others, jangled the nerves of the Communist Party of China more than a decade ago, Wuhan Diary and the emerging discourse it has triggered have to be understood in the context of political criticism at home during the current health crisis, the critics in China are telling us. Of course, both supporters and opponents of Fang Fang can be found in large numbers.For example, one online group of Fang’s detractors spelled out 20 reasons why Wuhan Diary deserves to be rejected and condemned. Reason 20 for “Why we are opposed to Fang Fang” — as the group is called in English – reads: “Some people are really weird and crazy. The more they have to appear in front of the public, the more they show off. These people easily get excited and go berserk. They fiercely start attacking all those who disagree with them. When provoked, these people will not only bully others. They will even pull out a gun if necessary!” But each Wuhan Diary post has also inspired hundreds of her supporters and eliciting comments from them. One comment reads: “Dr. Li Wenliang and Wuhan Quarantine Diary are ‘flowers of thought’ and ‘flowers of Wuhan’ that bloomed in the blood and tears of Wuhanese people during the epidemic period. Blooming in spring in early February, she is destined to be ‘cold and crystal clear’ and eye-catching. I hope she is always blooming.”
The controversial and at times acrimonious debate over Wuhan Diary touches on a wide range of issues – political, social, cultural. But a fundamentally disturbing aspect of the debate invokes the specter of the Cultural Revolution. A few days ago, an “open letter” written by a 16-year-old boy challenging Fang Fang, not only sent shockwaves through China’s netizens but it shook everyone who had experienced the 10 chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution – including Fang Fang. The reason for the shock, according to Li Yongzhong, China’s leading anti-corruption scholar-expert, is that “our generation, including Fang Fang, always thinks that the Cultural Revolution has gone, at least our generation will never see the Cultural Revolution again.” But the open-letter by the high school student rekindled the memories of the nightmare that teenager Red Guards unleashed to commit violence, especially targeting intellectuals.
Thus readers of Fang Fang, and perhaps even some of her detractors who were wounded during the Cultural Revolution, profusely thanked her for her befitting reply to her teenage provocateur in March 18’s Wuhan Diary entry: “Son, all your doubts will be answered sooner or later. But remember, those will be your answers to yourself.” And hundreds and thousands of Wuhanese and people all over China continue to impatiently wait for her next Wuhan Diary page.
This article was earlier published in The Diplomat under the title ‘Fang Fang: The ‘Conscience of Wuhan’ Amid Coronavirus Quarantine’ on 23 March 2020.