Fang Fang: The ‘Conscience of Wuhan’ Amid Coronavirus Quarantine

The party’s ill-governance of the deadly virus has given birth to a new critical voice: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary.

Hemant Adlakha, Ph.D., Honorary Fellow, ICS and Professor of Chinese at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Fang Fang 方方 picture

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 blog post was first published on March 23 2020 in The Diplomat

India’s Strategic Choices to Engage China

Amb. Biren Nanda, former High Commissioner/Ambassador to Australia , Indonesia & ASEAN

What are the Key elements of the Chinese world view at this Juncture?

China perceives the current phase as demonstrating increasing multi-polarity and a decline in US power after the Global Financial crisis of 2007-08. This is seen as giving rise to a period of ‘great strategic opportunity’ to seek the realization of China’s key goals, including challenging the dominant position of US power in Asia, aggressively pursuing maritime and continental territorial claims, pursuing a rapid expansion of maritime power, seeking to dominate its periphery through the BRI and pushing a new Asian Security Architecture that seeks to diminish the role of outside powers. China’s assertiveness has resulted in a pushback from the United States and some regional powers.

How is India reacting to these developments?

First, from a strategic perspective India has moved closer to the United States. Second, India has pursued comprehensive engagement with China based on the belief that there is enough strategic space in Asia to support to support the phenomenal rise of China and the accelerating rise of India. The two countries can emerge without becoming adversaries if they are aware of each other’s’ red lines and make sure that these red lines are never crossed.

Third, India has actively sought to counter Chinese actions in our South Asian and India Ocean neighborhoods, particularly those that have adversely affected India’s national security. Fourth, India has developed closer strategic ties with other powers in the region including Japan, Vietnam and Australia. These growing relationships are based on a convergence of views on the prevailing threats and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific. Fifth, with its “Act East Policy” India is working vigorously to strengthen relations with ASEAN countries bilaterally, and through active participation in ASEAN dialogue forums.

What are the broad trends that characterize the present phase of India China Relations?

Within the emerging US-China bipolar system China is aggressively diminishing India’s Strategic space in its neighborhood and shaping India’s strategic choices in engaging with China. India’s strategic tilt towards the United States is a response to aggressive Chinese actions inimical to Indian interests and a source of growing concern for Beijing. The United States has characterized China as a ‘revisionist power.’  which seeks to challenge the United States’ dominant position in Asia. As long as there are continuing tensions in Sino-US relations, China will make positive overtures towards India, without any assurances that it will not revert to a confrontationist posture under different circumstances in the future. The two summits embodying “the Wuhan Spirit” and the “Chennai Connect” are an attempt to reinvent bilateral relations in order to bring stability to the relationship. They rest on the foundation of maintaining respect for each other’s’ core interests and aspirations.

Closer Strategic Communication between the two leaders has been an overarching objective. Understanding each other’s national visions, developmental priorities, aspirations and red lines that must be respected in order to maintain stability in the relationship has been the priority. The India China trade deficit has continued to grow despite years of discussions between the two sides. While the Chinese side views it as a ‘structural problem’ that cannot be resolved in the short term, we regard it as an issue of ‘market access’ requiring Beijing to address non tariff barriers.

On the RCEP India’s core concern is the same – the impact of the agreement on the bilateral trade deficit. The decision to elevate the trade dialogue to the ministerial level signals the resolve of both sides to find some common ground to address the issue. An important issue for China is the US targeting of major Chinese technology firms to prevent them from getting global business in the 5G roll out. China is keen that India resist US pressure. The Indian government is caught between competing demands. Telecom companies want Huawei to bid because it keeps prices down. But the Government must address the security risks of exposure to cyber threats in the future and the ‘potential US sanctions risk’ of being caught up in increasingly fractious US-China trade tensions.

While China seeks to move towards a Sino-centric Asian Order, India’s vision is that of a multipolar Asia. Within a Sino-centric order China would regard cooperation with India as a priority. India’s growing economy, its importance to China as a trading partner, its role in Asia centric governance institutions like the AIIB and the BRICS Bank and its accretion of strategic capital through its strategic partnerships make it an important Asian interlocutor from China’s point of view.  The Indian Ocean is witnessing a rapid rise of Chinese naval presence on the high seas and in bases and places along the littoral. India’s challenge is to counter the expansion of Chinese presence and influence without appearing too provocative. At Mamallapuram Xi continued to urge Prime Minister Modi to cooperate in China-India Plus projects and connectivity networks in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and the BRI. Beijing may regard India’s participation in BRI essential for its characterization and success as an Asian project but India remains cautious because of BRI’s strategic intent which to create a Sino-centric Asian order. China seeks to diminish the strategic space for India in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. India is concerned at China’s growing investments and influence in South Asian countries and the IOR. The strategic collusion between China and Pakistan exacerbates security challenges for India in the region. China is unlikely to be flexible on key issues affecting India’s National Security including the boundary dispute or its expanding footprint in South Asia and its growing strategic ownership of Pakistan. Nor will it cooperate on issues India regards as key milestones in India’s rise as a great power – as for example our quest for permanent membership of the UNSC or membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. While a combination of external circumstances and summit level diplomacy appear to have stabilized India-China relations, it remains to be seen how long India and China can sustain the process without substantial progress on the core issues that divide them.

China and the ongoing Iran-US Conflict

Bihu Chamadia, Research Intern, ICS

The US-Iran conflict has been a long drawn one but it wasn’t until recently that the Middle East witnessed the involvement of another powerful actor in the region. Of late, China’s role in the Middle East has become more proactive. China has been trying to fill the void created by the current US leadership. In the past, The US intervention in Middle East has been twofold – both in terms of military presence as well as civilian efforts. However, the present era in the Middle Eastern region has been characterized as ‘post-American era’. This majorly indicates that while the US’s military presence remains the same there has been a massive decrease in the civilian and diplomatic efforts in the Middle East by the US. China has been trying to fill the long stretches of soft power diplomacy left by the US’s decision to ‘go out’ from the region. While the US-Iran conflict has exacerbated tensions in an already conflict ridden region, China’s rise as a global actor and its Belt Road Initiative (BRI) has led to its greater involvement in the Middle East. As such, it can rightly be said that China’s policy in the Middle East has undergone a big shift – from the policy of non-intervention to that of ‘crisis diplomacy’.

China’s response to the ongoing US-Iran crisis can be described as both strategic and balanced. As a responsible global actor and an important stakeholder in the region, China has given a call for upholding international norms and has been critical of any country that has tried to undermine it. China has been critical of the US actions in Iran especially with regards the following:  the US pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran Nuclear deal, imposing sanctions on Iranian oil imports and the killing of Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qasem Soleimani. All the above actions have received condemnatory reactions from China but not without an act of balancing.

The US pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018 calling it “a horrible one-sided deal that should never, ever have been made”. China responded by expressing regret over the US’s decision. China mentioned that it “will take an objective, fair and responsible attitude, keep communication and cooperation with all parties concerned, and continue to work to maintain the deal.” China’s response to US’s pulling out of JCPOA can be viewed in a similar light as its response to US’s backing out of various multilateral agreement including the Paris Agreement. While US has been continuously pulling out of various multilateral international agreements China has been continuously giving calls to “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind”

In 2018, after pulling out of JCPOA, the US reinstated its sanctions on Iran on the following sectors:  energy, shipping and financial sectors. The sanction banned the US companies from not only trading with Iran, but also with foreign firms or countries that were dealing with Iran. China responded by criticizing the US for its “unilateral sanctions” and “bullying”.   It even defied the US sanctions and continued buying oil from Iran. Defying the US sanctions, China continues to buy Iranian oil. Nevertheless, China’s response has been more than a mere lip service.  It has been constantly advocating the significance of multilateralism as a way to manage political as well as economic matters.

With regards Qasem Soleimani, the killing of the General who headed the Elite Quds Force of IRGC in an airstrike carried out by the US forces has led to criticism of the US by various states. US had earlier designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including its Quds Force, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Responding with a call to maintain restraint by all parties involved in the incident, China singled out the US “for violating international norms”. The US killed Qasem Soleimani, a uniformed personnel of IRGC travelling in a flagged car in a sovereign third party state, which hosts US forces. Killing of Qasem Soleimani by the US forces has raised questions on the legality of the US’s actions. According to UN charter, unless the purpose for using force is an act of self-defense or to prevent an imminent attack on US interest or US forces, the US is prohibited from using force in or against any other nation without UN’s authorization. In case of self-defense, attack killing Qasem Soleimani will be lawful under Article 51 of the UN charter. The killing of Qasem Soleimani would have been lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter as an act of self-defense. Though, Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State has claimed that self-defense led to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, US has not been able to provide the evidence of the same in front of UNSC.

Domestic Impact of US-Iran conflict on China

 Escalation of conflicts in the Middle East could lead to rise in the prices of oil, thereby, severely affecting China’s economy. China’s economy is heavily dependent on oil imports.  China is the world’s largest importer of crude oil (US$ 239.2 billion in 2019). Among the top 15 largest exporters of crude oil to China 7 countries belong to the Middle East.  Moreover, Middle East is also an important part of China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI). Most vessels transporting goods, including oil, between China and Europe must pass through several choke points in the Middle East for e.g. up to one third of crude oil shipped over sea has to transit through the Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

The BRI and China’s economic growth both are major factors undergirding CCP’s legitimacy at home. Until China finds an alternative to its energy supplies, a stable Middle East would be more favorable to China than an unstable one.

Impact on the International Stage

The US along with some other western powers, had set up the current framework for international law and norms after WW II. While it worked in favor of the Western powers earlier. Today, as China adopts the ‘going out’ policy, it has been largely benefitting China.

On Killing of Qasem Soleimani, China responded by saying “The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq should be respected, and peace and stability in the Middle East and the Gulf should be maintained” further, it Chinese authorities also stated, “We urge all parties concerned, especially the United States, to maintain calm and restraint and to avoid the further escalation of tension.”

China’s role in the Middle East has been a strategic one, unlike the US it does not have any permanent enemy or an ‘all weather friend’ in the region. China’s role in the Middle East has been that of a regional leader where it has brought the conflicting parties to hold talks with an aim of peacefully resolving the crisis situations.  It also remains cautious about not being engaged in the conflict. China’s geographical distance also helps to maintain a distance from the region to a considerable extent, China also remains careful to merely criticize the US without taking any concrete action that can go against its own interest and derail the trade negotiation talks. However, if the US continues with its misadventure, China will also be able to legitimize its criticism over US meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.

The escalation in US-Iran conflict coincides with the US-China trade war. China has always been highlighting the political nature of the trade war. President Trump’s policies in the Middle East and especially vis-à-vis Iran  has paved the way for China’s intervention in the Middle East which has benefited China in at least two areas – , the assurance of continuous energy supply within a system that is beneficial for China and  the opportunity to ratify itself as a world leader. On one hand China defied the US’s sanctions and continued to import Iranian oil, which establishes China as a leader. Meanwhile it remains practical to look for other sources of energy, which secures its long term plan as Iranian oil export to China is decreasing.