Franka Lu is a Chinese journalist and entrepreneur. She works in China and Germany. In this ZEIT-ONLINE series she reports critically about life, culture and everyday life in China. In order to protect her professional and private environment, she writes under a pseudonym.
At the apparent peak of its power, the most powerful authoritarian regime in the world is shaken by a virus. This country, the People's Republic of China under Xi Jinping, is on the way to becoming the world leader in the development of quantum computers and artificial intelligence, it has excellent telecommunications technology, the fastest trains in the world, highly trained officials and a well-respected virus research team. But the new corona virus cares little about all of this.
Its spread mercilessly exposes the system's weak points. China's bureaucratic health system was obviously unprepared for such a case. Overloaded hospitals rejected patients, initially poorly protected doctors and nurses contracted the corona virus themselves. And the question has long been, whereby the Chinese central government has actually been more efficient in the past few weeks: in controlling the outbreak - or rather in controlling the population and the flow of information?
In times of social media, especially in China, where WeChat and Weibo are the big platforms instead of Facebook and Twitter, it is now becoming clear: Information that is shared by users in a social media way can be censored and thus deleted check only to a limited extent. These users come especially from the younger generation, born in the eighties or after, whose members have never experienced such chaos. These youngsters grew up in the happiest economic decades in Chinese history and benefited from the growing wealth that their parents in particular have earned, thanks in large parts to globalization, from which China has benefited as unprecedentedly as a production location. So far, these young Chinese have largely trusted the communist authorities. Their inadequate response to the threat posed by the new corona virus is now shaking this belief.
The gap that allows poor government action
In times of crisis, younger people mobilize an unprecedented energy for self-help - and they also often organize it via social media. They get respirators and bring them to hospitals; they provide cars to medical personnel; they help the elderly and the sick who are stuck at home and try to support refugees from Hubei. Civil society is making great efforts to fill the void left by the authorities' inadequate actions and their overwhelming demands in the face of the virus outbreak.
At the same time, the existence of social media platforms enables something completely different: precisely thanks to them, attempts can be made to reconstruct the events since the emergence of the new corona virus in China that have largely not been reported in the state media; a report by Human Rights Watch released on January 30 supports this research. These show how inadequate or even obscure the authorities at local and central government level had been until at least mid-January.
The story of the spread of this virus began almost a month and a half ago, like many catastrophes in China - as a rumor. When mid-late December in Wuhan, a city of 14 million, increasingly received patients with identical symptoms in a hospital, the doctors reported the cases to the local center for disease prevention, a semi-official body. According to social media posts, their officials appeared "very impatient" in the hospital there on December 27 and listened to the concerns of the doctors with great reluctance.
Three days later, on December 30, 2019, this preventive agency internally communicated that all hospitals should be prepared for an "unknown lung disease", and it was "strictly forbidden for doctors" to disclose information to the public. The authority itself did not inform the public. Doctors who did not work directly in the departments for fever and lung diseases were left in the dark about the possible seriousness of the situation - they were therefore unprotected when dealing with possible corona patients. Many of them later experienced firsthand how serious the situation was.
In the afternoon and evening of that day, several doctors from various hospitals posted diagnoses of their patients in their chat groups and on WeChat, expressing concern about the inactivity of the prevention agency. They warned colleagues about the dangers posed by the local fish and wildlife market, which was soon suspected of being the site of an outbreak. Doctors also said that the symptoms of the spreading lung disease were reminiscent of Sars, the highly contagious, life-threatening infectious disease that had spread from southern China in late 2002 and early 2003. This information and the internal communication with the authorities came to the public, screenshots from the chats spread virally. On Weibo, users started using the hashtag WuhanSARS. Your posts were quickly deleted from the censorship.