The Malacca Dilemma: No panacea but multiple possibilities

Sanjana Krishnan, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 gave rise to a series of dramatic political changes that led the emergence of Deng Xiaoping as the next leader of the country. Deng led China through a path that has now made the country the industrial giant it is now. This was made possible through Deng’s policy of ‘Reform and Opening Up’ and the “Four Modernisations”. What fuelled this industrial expansion was a heavy dependence on energy giving birth to a new vulnerability to China, namely energy security. While China is still heavily dependent on mostly its own coal reserves and imports of coal for its energy requirements, the reliance on imported crude oil is also increasing.

In 2017, China became the largest importer of crude oil in the world, surpassing the United States and 70% of this was met through oil imports mainly from the West Asian region. In the coming twenty years, these oil imports of China are expected to grow by 10%. Therefore, energy security and oil supply in particular have profound importance for China considering that the huge and powerful economy of China might derail and dwindle if that oil supply diminishes leading to not just an industrial break down but also impact on the China’s overall credibility as a great power in the world which rests, to a great extent, on its economic prowess. The dependence of the Chinese economy on its oil imports is thus an established and critical fact.

The transport of oil through the maritime route from West Asia to China passes through many strategic choke points. One of the most important among these is the Malacca Strait through which 80% of the energy import to China takes place. More than 50,000 merchant ships ply this narrow strait which amounts to 40% of the world trade. China’s economic security is closely tied to maritime trade security as 60% of its trade value travels by sea. Much of the trade between Europe and China enters the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca. Similar is the case with the trade between China and Africa. Therefore, even for trade, the Malacca Strait holds significance for China.

Lying between the island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, this narrow stretch of water known as the Malacca Strait is the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and is one of the most important shipping channels in the world. However, this strait is not depended upon only by China but other major powers too which has been a concern for the Chinese leadership in the past, fearing that these powers might be trying to control the Strait. A control of the Strait of Malacca by anyone will also mean that they control the oil routes to China and thus the economy too indirectly. This created what is known as ‘The Malacca Dilemma’, a term coined in 2003 by Hu Jintao, the then president of China. When it comes to the Strait of Malacca the fear of other states controlling this strategic transit is greater than the ambition to control the Strait itself.

In 2003-04, here was a threat of piracy in the region which the littoral states, namely Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore were able to curb to a large extent. This however gave an opportunity to states like US and Japan to try to get more involved in the region in the name of security, which China heavily criticised. The littoral states invited capacity building  and rejected permanent stationing of any outside power. Singapore, which is in the southernmost tip of the Malacca Strait has excellent relations with the U.S. The relations between U.S. and Indonesia are cordial.

ASEAN being the collective voice of the region has a strong say in the functioning of the Strait. Following the threats by piracy and great power involvement, today the countries of the ASEAN have sought to create a Peace and Security Community (APSC) based on three key characteristics: a “rule based community of shared values and norms”; cohesive, peaceful, stable and resilient region with “shared responsibility for comprehensive security”; and a dynamic and outward looking region in an integrated and interdependent world. But the relations between China and many of the ASEAN states have been soured due to differences in territorial claims in the South China Sea. This has added urgency to China’s need to find an alternative to the Malacca Strait. Moreover, in the recent past, India has increased her naval presence in the Andaman Sea from its base in the Great Nicobar Islands largely due to its own perceived threat perceptions emerging from China’s ‘String of Pearls’ that have emerged as a result of the Chinese activities of the past. Given its projection capabilities in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy is able to keep a close watch on the PLA Navy in the region.

However, China has a few options in hand which are costly but worth trying. The Kra Isthmus Canal seen to the Asian Panama Canal as well as the Strategic Energy and Land Bridge have both seen a lack of much enthusiasm due the massive cost as well as the lack of trust between China and Thailand. Thailand is considerably powerful and will be hard to press. The Lombok and Makassar Strait are longer routes and would have additional shipping costs which can reach more than $200 billion per year making it a less viable option.

While nothing currently has the capacity to completely replace the Malacca Strait, two options available for China that can completely avoid passing through the Malacca Strait and many of the other strategic choke points is the Gwadar-Xinjiang pipeline and the Myanmar-Yunnan pipeline, although the latter can be affected by Indian presence. These options serve the additional purpose of opening up lesser developed regions of China like Xinjiang and Yunnan. The Gwadar-Xinjiang line will allow the Chinese energy imports to completely circumvent the Malacca Strait. However, the pipeline in Pakistan is faced with major logistic difficulties due to some of the harshest and the most rugged terrains in the world being present there, which can prove technically difficult as well as very expensive to navigate. The region is also ridden with terrorist activities which can potentially disrupt the supply or if the worst materialises, control these and be at an advantageous bargaining point. All these factors stand as difficulties that require investment in the form of infrastructure and security.

The Kyaukpyu Port which is being developed by the Chinese government in Myanmar is another alternative for China. The oil from the west can be docked here and transported to China via the Myanmar-Yunnan pipeline. However, now the pipeline only transports 420,000 barrels per day compared to the 6.5 million barrels per day that pass through the Strait, bound to China. The speeding up of the China sponsored infrastructural development, as a result of the increasing ties between the two countries, which was cemented during the January 2020 visit of Xi Jinping to Myanmar, has the potential to solve this problem to some extent. However, it cannot increase the capacity of this alternative as much as the Malacca Strait. Therefore, comparing the capacities of the various alternatives available to the Malacca Strait, it is evident that there is no single replacement for the latter.  China can rather rely on multiple routes for the transfer of energy sources and trade to sustain the humungous economic machine. It is to be noted that the multiple alternatives, with efficiencies which cannot rank up to the Malacca Strait pose a dilemma in solving the Malacca Dilemma. Thus, the best option that China has in hand is to lower the contestation in the Malacca Strait and to find a peaceful way to work with.

China-Solomon Islands: An overview of a brand new friendship

Tanishka, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

The Asian superpower China, second-largest aid provider to the Pacific Island countries established diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands in 2019. A country of just over half a million people, a low-income economy with more than three-fourth of its population living in small villages, is among the lesser developed countries of the South Pacific region. The Chinese offers of infrastructure projects, concessional loans along with aid-in-kind and Solomon Island’s rich timber, fish, and potential seabed resources facilitated the connection between the two countries. China’s other motive for establishing diplomatic relationships in the Pacific is limiting Taiwan’s international space. Solomon Islands switched allegiance from Taipei to Beijing, terminating its 36-year-old official relationship with Taiwan. Out of the fourteen Pacific Island states, China now has ten partners.

For the Solomon Islands, the decision to switch allegiance, came from the recommendations of a task-force deployed by Prime Minister Sogavare, which indicated the past action to establish ties with Taiwan, which was economically more active than China back then was bought by money power. The report pointed out that presently Taiwan has a limited economic capacity while China’s investments cover the entire globe; the switch thus, brings a large potential donor to Solomons. The report can be characterized as Idealistic towards the People’s Republic of China, it also asked an open-ended question —when was the last time the world saw China invade another country?

China assured funding for 2023 Pacific Games hosted by Solomon Islands in the form of grants and the main stadium would be a gift from Beijing. But, the infrastructure project will not provide local employment, as Chinese companies bring their own construction workers. In the future, maintenance of such infrastructure facilities will be a great challenge for the government of Solomon Islands, as it became for Vanuatu, which had no budget to maintain the Chinese-funded national convention centre.

There is an ongoing assessment by Solomons’  Finance Ministry regarding $US100 million loan offered through a Chinese broker[1]. Matters such as restrictions on the usage of loan money, determination of loan’s interest rate and the duration of loan which could be twenty years or more are not yet settled. Denton Rarawa, the previous governor of the Solomon Islands Central Bank showed displeasure over government proposals, warning this could land Solomon Islands in China’s debt trap. We may also note that the traditional donor, Australia imposes strict supervisions on aid programs and pays attention to economic and political reforms in the Pacific region, Chinese assistance, on the other hand insinuate a “no strings attached” strategy as a bait. Clearly, China seeks supremacy over other donor countries to advance its geostrategic interests.

The Solomon Islands has not yet accepted every Chinese offer on the table. During Prime Minister’s first official visit to China, he met with the leaders of Sam group, a state-connected enterprise, and invited them to the Solomon Islands.  But the Solomons rejected a deal that asked for the lease of Tulagi Island for 75 years. The Island is of strategic importance – it was the Solomons’ capital under British rule for forty-six years, then a Japanese base and an American base in World War II. In 1952, the capital shifted to Honiara. The government called the deal with Sam group illegal due to a lack of vital details and ordered its termination. 

This issue raised concerns over China’s intentions. Perhaps, it wanted to challenge the Western world by installing a military base there. Defence experts raised similar concerns a year ago, with Chinese-funded Vanuatu dockyard, which is too big for commercial use but a perfect location for visiting foreign navy ships –  such as a rapid Chinese move to become two-ocean navy. Located not too far from the Australian coastline, if these military bases come up, it can lead to military tensions in an ocean about which Australia did not have to worry since 1942. TheSolomon Islands showcases a desire to be on the right side of history and normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China. It is not the only Pacific Island country to establish diplomatic relations with China in 2019. Kiribati followed its trail. China’s intensified economic efforts could soon take away the four remaining Taiwan’s Pacific allies: Tuvalu, Nauru, Palau and the Marshall Islands. Taiwan has indicated that China has a desire to make the Pacific Ocean another South China Sea. These actions have been disapproved by the United States who itself switched recognition to China four decades ago. It also recently declined the Prime Minister Sogavare’s request for a meeting with the United States Vice President, and it has begun to reassess the aid it provides the Islands. Although China’s plan to install a military base remains a matter of speculation, its search for new markets and the untapped under-seabed resources remains the prime reason for its pursuits in the Solomon Islands and South Pacific region.


[1] The deal was reported by ABC News. The article mentioned a loan deal of $US100 billion instead of $US100 million. It is important to understand that the Solomon Islands is a small economy with a GDP of $US1.3 billion (ABC News. 2020. ‘Solomon Islands discussed $US100 billion loan from Chinese businessman, according to leaked letters’. February 21).

Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic: Assessing US-China Relations

Mohd. Adnan, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies.

Before the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, Sino-US relations were seemed to be heading towards achieving a bit of normalcy through agreeing the ‘phase one’ trade deal in mid-January 2020. The trade deal was achieved after a round of heated negotiations lasting over a year, when the US formally announced the imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports, in March 2018. This partial trade deal was considered to be a beginning of the US-China collaboration and normalisation of their strained bilateral relations. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 in the US has prompted many in the US administration, specifically US President, to question the Chinese intentions and its handling of Covid-19 pandemic. In response, China questioned United States’ handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. A war of words has taken place from the both sides over the origin and handling of Covid-19 outbreak since early March. Amid the accusations and blame game from both sides, the relations between these two countries significantly deteriorated in the last two months. Amid the unfolding of COVID-19, this blog post explores whether the United States’ belligerent approach towards China in last two months is mere a tactic to gain domestic support regarding the upcoming election or Sino-US relations are, indeed, moving towards a new height of confrontations.

In late January-early February 2020, amid the backdrop of crucial signing of ‘phase-one’ trade deal, it seemed US-China bilateral relations were heading towards normalcy. While China was struggling to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, US President, Donald Trump, on multiple occasions, had praised China’s professionalism and transparency in handling the Covid-19 outbreak. However, in early March, all these changed, when the cases of Covid-19 started to increase in the US. The Trump administration started to question China’s handling of pandemic. There is little doubt that the pandemic had its origins in China and initially, there was cover up by Party-state at the level of Wuhan. But the criticisms on China’s non-transparency, which did cost the world, shouldn’t be seen as a free pass to the US. Even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ on 30 January, many countries including the US did not give the virus outbreak serious attention, delaying formulation of effective measures to contain it.

COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted significant human and economic costs to the US -at the time of writing this, around a million people have been infected and above seventy thousand have succumbed to death. Further, US economy has taken a serious hit and the real extent of this damage will only surface once the situations started to normalise, with many equating it with the Great Depression before the World War II. Unemployment rate in US has hit record high more than 22 million people have applied for financial aid as of mid-April. According to the ‘advance’ estimate data provided by Bureau of Economic Analysis, United States’ real  gross domestic product has contracted 4.8 per cent in the first-quarter of 2020 and it is expected the things will get worse before improving in the second half of the year. The US President’s repeated statements to open economic production at the earliest, indicates the desperation of the administration in an election year.

The approval rating of President Donald Trump has declined since the outbreak of Covid-19. In an article published by CNBC on 25 April, it was noted, ‘in January, (US president) Trump planned to run for re-election on the strength of a booming economy and a pledge to keep fighting the “deep state” government bureaucracy. But that all ended as soon as the coronavirus pandemic gained a foothold in the United States’. To augment this argument, on April 17, in a leaked report obtained by Politico, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a 57-page written Memo to its electoral candidates advising how to counter the candidates of the Democratic Party. In the short version of this Memo, Republican candidates have been advised to follow China-centric issues; like how China caused this pandemic by ‘lying’ and ‘covering it up’ and ‘hoarding of medical equipment’. Further, it also advised to present, China as an ‘adversary’ and the Democratic candidates, as ‘soft on China’, while Republicans were ‘tough’, being capable of confronting China. Moreover, on 29 April, in an interview with Reuters news agency, Trump directly accused China of seeking his loss in his re-election bid. It seems that the delicate predicament that emerged due to the COVID-19 has prompted the Trump administration to shift the blame towards China in the run up to the Presidential election in November 2020.

Moving on, the recent blame game and deteriorating relations between the US and China is not only limited to domestic compulsions but they are, indeed, moving towards a new height of confrontations. Along with the United States’ belligerent postures, China, too, has adopted an aggressive and assertive approach, which has not been seen in recent years. In the process of blaming each other, a war of information has taken place between the US and China. While Beijing was busy to burnish its image and enhance legitimacy – tarnished by its initial mishandling of the outbreak – by sending medical teams and equipment around the world to assist the fight against COVID-19, Washington DC used every opportunity to ratchet up tensions, starting with multiple accusations on China’s non-transparency and suppression of crucial information. In mid-April, President Trump even questioned the authenticity of Chinese data on the infected cases and reported deaths.

In retaliation, China accused that the US was unable to handle the pandemic therefore it is trying to shift the blame. Theories such as ‘Corona virus was brought by the US military in Wuhan’ and ‘Chinese model of governance is better than the democracy’ were also propagated. On 28 April, amid the accusations of ‘covering up’ and not being ‘transparent’, China’s Executive Vice Foreign Minister, Le Yucheng, in an interview with NBC questioned United States’ handling of the  outbreak and denied the accusations that China has ‘covered up’ and ‘under-reported’ the Covid-19 cases and deaths. He further added, ‘unfortunately, some political figures are politicizing this Covid-19. They are using this virus to stigmatize China. This is not something we are willing to see’. In this war of information to enhance one’s legitimacy and degrade the other, questions have also been raised over the role and authenticity of WHO; the US administration has even halted their funding to the WHO, accusing them of complicity in Beijing’s initial cover-up.

The US is targeting China’s State Owned Enterprises (SOE) – earlier in April, several US executive agencies urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to revoke the license of operation of China Telecom in US territory, citing risks for national security. In this regard, the FCC sent a ‘show cause’ notice to three state-controlled Chinese telecommunications operators including China Telecom. The US is also planning to impose severe restrictions on its own companies from exporting certain technological products, especially the semiconductor production equipment, to companies related with Chinese military.

Amid the devastating effect of COVID-19, world’s reliance on China for essential supply has come into spotlight. The call to bring back home or relocate major US companies’ production units away from China in the height of trade confrontation has intensified. Earlier in April, Larry Kudlow, US National Economic Council Director, advocated the same by ‘paying moving costs’. Further, several US Senators have also been voicing the same in order to reduce dependency for essential supplies.

Issues such as South China Sea dispute, Hong Kong protests, Taiwan, and human rights have been flaring-up between these two states. The pandemic has not constrained China in being assertive in South China Sea – it placed the administrative jurisdictions of Spratly and Parcel Islands under the Sansha administrative unit – a city in the island of Hainan. Apart from that, China has also collided with other claimant countries in the disputed South China Sea. In early April, a Vietnamese fishing boat was drowned by a Chinese maritime vessel. Various other incidents have occurred where Chinese coastguard vessels have been seen posturing aggressively in the whole region including South China Sea. In response to this, the US has increased its maritime patrolling in the disputed area; US warships have sailed through the disputed areas on two separate occasions evoking harsh criticism from China.

The Taiwan issue has remained contentious in US-China relations. While, over the years, Beijing, has been trying to curb Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic relations. The US, on 26 March, enacted a law called as ‘The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative, which  requires the US, to assist Taiwan in acquiring memberships in international organisations where statehood is not a precondition and also proposes to take unspecified action against countries which ‘undermine the prosperity and security of Taiwan’. This move by the US, expectedly, drew severe criticism from China accusing the US of ‘interfering’ in its internal matters by ‘violating’ the principle of ‘One China’ Policy.

While it appears, to a large extent, that the recent anti-China rhetoric by the US administration is politically motivated by domestic electoral compulsions, there are factors that go beyond that. These recent developments only indicate the further deterioration of relations between both the countries. It may be surmised that the trade deal will not necessarily reduce the tensions. Until the US continues to perceive China as a challenger to its hegemony, it is unlikely that relations between them will be of mutual collaboration and cooperation.

Western Balkans: China’s Gateway to Europe

China’s Gateway to Europe

Priyanka Madia, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

Western Balkans is one of the significant regions in southeastern Europe, which has been waiting to be a part of the European Union (EU) for a long time. Comprising six countries, namely, Albania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, together they constitute the south-western arc of Europe. They are among the lesser developed of the European countries but are aspirants for membership of the EU. For China, the region is significant as a gateway to Europe because of their geographical positions and the lower developmental levels, which makes them particularly susceptible to Chinese offers of investment, credits, and trade. This makes the Western Balkans an essential component of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The focus of BRI has been towards developing connectivity corridors across Eurasia. The land corridor or the Belt, in the shape of highways, railroads,  pipelines, and digital networks, intend connecting China’s manufacturing and logistics bases like Chongqing(Sichuan) to Duisburg (Germany). Also, Hungary has emerged as a key logistics base for Chinese companies. At the European end of the Belt, China has invested heavily in acquiring significant ports such as Piraeus in Greece, which are also a terminus for the Road or the maritime routes from China.

The Greek economic crisis gave a golden opportunity to China to establish itself at the port of Piraeus. COSCO, the Chinese state-owned company, has been operating the Greek container port since 2008. In 2017, it acquired 67% of its shares. In view of the strained financial conditions of the Western Balkan countries, which are being exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19, China is in a position to establish its dominance in these countries quite easily, with little support forthcoming from the EU or the U.S. While these countries are not yet members of the EU, they are less constrained in accepting Chinese FDI or credits. This is the reason why the EU is especially apprehensive of the China-CEE or 17+1 Forum, which Greece has joined recently. Several EU members participate in the Forum along with non-member countries, including those from the Western Balkans. The Forum has become a significant instrument to advance Chinese influence in Europe to the detriment of the EU.

Chinese penetration in Western Balkans is being achieved through an array of instruments such as FDI, government-to-government credits, outright grants, favorable trade deals, etc. Despite remaining outside of the EU, the region attracted 147 greenfield FDI projects in 2018, the highest number of investments for six years. Serbia accounted for the lion’s share (70%) of Western Balkan’s greenfield projects in 2018, Bosnia-Herzegovina accounted for 11.6%, despite attracting four fewer greenfield projects than in 2017, according to fDi Markets. On the other hand, Montenegro performed well in 2018, attracting a record 11 greenfield FDI projects. According to the latest annual FDI Markets statistics, Albania and North Macedonia received $184.4 million and $809.9 million of inbound greenfield funds, respectively, as the number of inbound greenfield projects grew by 200% and 80% compared to the same duration a year before.

Soft-power diplomacy such as the setting up of Confucius Institutes, scholarships, and people-to-people exchanges also play an imperative role in terms of penetrating Western Balkans. Under Confucius Institutes, there are higher educational institutes set up in southeast Europe. These institutions host Chinese cultural programs, provide Chinese language, culture, and also host Chinese political, social, and economy-related seminars. Confucius Institutes are operated by the Han Ban, a part of China’s Ministry of Education. Over 10,000 students are currently studying the Chinese language in respective countries of the western Balkan region. Cultural centers set up by the Chinese government are also a vital step to maintain cultural diplomacy.

Another critical component of China’s soft power diplomacy is tourism. Visa liberalization and simplification has attracted a lot of tourist from China and undoubtedly lead to the flourishing of tourism industries in Western Balkans countries. China is also gaining additional credit through its assistance to these countries in their fight against the COVID-19.

The Western Balkans are a congenial target for China’s Eurasian diplomacy and offer them a south-western entry point to Europe. Chinese have been able to identify and understand the regions which are not catching up well with their economy and having infrastructural issues; perhaps China has addressed those regions with a structural solution. Studying China’s involvement in Western Balkans gives an outlook that China is filling the gap which the European Union (EU) has not been able to address. The position of the EU here is being undermined by aggressive Chinese diplomacy, mainly through the BRI.

A geo-economic and political logic drives China’s increased engagement in the Western Balkans. Her main motive could be to use the Western Balkans as a commercial platform for Western Europe, as Beijing is eager to search for markets. While the EU remains preoccupied with its fight against the pandemic and is beset by continuing threat of fragmentation, the COVID-19 pandemic may offer even more opportunities for consolidation of Chinese influence in Western Balkans.

Fang Fang: Literary Voice of Dissent Amid China’s Coronavirus Disaster

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 article was earlier published in The Diplomat under the title ‘Fang Fang: The ‘Conscience of Wuhan’ Amid Coronavirus Quarantine’ on 23 March 2020.