Chris Maden reviews Fang Fang’s Diary of the Coronavirus Outbreak.
Fang Fang, Wuhan Diary, translated by Michael Berry (HarperCollins, 2020), 328pp.
Wuhan Diary was written by Fang Fang as a series of blog posts during the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. One of China’s most prolific writers, Fang Fang has over one hundred publications to her name in a four-decade career. The diary was translated about one month in arrears by Michael Berry, the director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.
The outbreak started in December 2019, a month before the diary begins. The initial cases were connected to the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, and Dr Li Wenliang identified it as something new and dangerous, only to be arrested for spreading rumours and forced to recant.
The diary starts twenty days later, when the authorities impose the lockdown on January 25. By that time, the city has been living in fear for three weeks. Roused, the central government dispatches medical personnel, but the hospitals are already overloaded, partly with those actually infected and partly with the many who fear they may be infected. No one knows very much about the virus, whether it’s a nasty flu or SARS, but those infected are badly hit.
In terms of the advance and retreat of the disease, the diary lives in the moment through the many personal stories of the victims: those who recover and those who do not. Though the statistics are there, this is not a diary of dry numbers but of personal sacrifice, tragedy and triumph: “I even heard about a patient so sick that she couldn’t walk down the stairs at the hospital, so a policeman carried her down on his back. When they got downstairs the patient was already dead and the police officer broke down in tears.”
Things at first are dire – “Facemasks have replaced pork as the most precious commodity for the Chinese New Year!” – with much price gouging and shortages. However, neighbourhoods organise themselves, and online shopping also gets better and better. Once again, it is not the facts themselves but the human stories that chart the course of the outbreak: a peasant is refused entry to a village on a harsh winter’s night; a man is refused entry by his wife’s municipality, but his wife is herself refused entry on their attempted return, leaving them stuck in the middle; a child starves to death when his father is quarantined.
“There are no doctors willing to treat this disease [of bureaucratic incompetence],” Fang Fang rails. Her anger at the incompetence of local petty officialdom recurs throughout the diary. She speaks her mind: “how meaningless it is to go around shouting empty slogans about how awesome our country is,” and “it really doesn’t matter who they send here. It only matters if that person has the ability to control this outbreak, if that person is able to avoid making the mistakes that keep repeatedly being made, if that person can refrain from those meaningless displays, and if that person can avoid repeating that same old empty bullshit over and over again.”
And this ties in with the recurring themes of censorship. The diary starts out with Fang Fang wondering if she will even be permitted to upload the first post. She is, but the following sixty days are a game of cat and mouse with the censors: “I figured there was no way the government would censor news about something so important. How could they possibly stop the public from learning the truth about what was happening?” she wonders early on. A week later, however, she’s “come to grow numb about the whole [censorship] thing.”
Censorship is only part of the story, however. From early on, she demands an investigation into the early period when the opportunity to contain the outbreak was squandered. This escalates when Dr Li Wenliang, who first identified the disease, dies. His death becomes a focal point for people’s anger and by now the Wuhan Diary, read by millions of people every day, has itself become a forum for venting that anger. As a result, Fang Fang is vilified online by people whose attacks are too tightly orchestrated for it not to be organised. She takes on these “ultra-leftists” at several points in the diary, giving as good as she gets, calling them “boneheads,” but also seeing them in the societal context, “as a virus was spreading in Wuhan, another virus was infecting people’s language on-line … revealing the true shame of this era.” This abuse is not reserved for Fang Fang; her translator comes in for it, too (see one Washington Post article here.)
There is also the psychological impact. As the lockdown continues, stress levels rise and the internet becomes a place that people can vent – “good old-fashioned Wuhan cursing really put me in a good mood and helped get this day started off right.” But there will come an aftermath, when people need help with the psychological trauma of the experience, and she calls on the authorities to prepare for that.
If there is a hole in the diary, it is the systemic one. Fang Fang does not hold back when railing against incompetence, calling for officials to resign or advocating for an investigation into those early days. But even when she says, of the CCP’s demand for gratitude, “This thought process is really strange. The government is the people’s government … These government leaders spend all their time studying political doctrines: how could they end up getting this so backward?” the barb is aimed at the people, not the system. The closest she comes is that “[t]he presence of those ultra-leftists represents an existential threat to China and her people. If the entire Reform Era is destroyed at their hands, it would be the ultimate slap in the face to my entire generation.” Fang Fang chaired the local CPPCC – committees that represent the people to the government – for many years, and knows there are lines not to cross. But although she hints at the fact that internet censors are quick to censor her but slow to censor the ultra-leftists, the possibility that the ultra-leftists are supported, if not backed, at a high level in government is never explored.
As well as recording the progress and retreat of the disease, the diary evolved into a living organism, serving as a clearing house for tips on how to get by – online shopping, grocery deliveries and the like. Fang Fang does not pretend to have medical knowledge, but posts quotes from actual doctors on their developing understanding of the disease and the science – the growing knowledge of do’s and don’ts. She applauds the efforts of the 40,000 volunteers who come to Wuhan to help, and thanks people in China and the rest of the world who contribute supplies, money and labour. This aspect of the diary cannot come across in the book, but it is noted in the translator’s afterword. As such, the diary records a social movement as much as the coronavirus itself. But it is also a literary work of distinction: pithy, acerbic and sometimes funny; compassionate thoughtful and nuanced. It’s the kind of book that rewards a second reading; it will outlast the virus and its aftermath.
Chris Maden, when not mentoring start-up companies to earn his keep, is a novelist, chair of the Hong Kong Writers’ Circle, and a contributor to the Hong Kong Free Press.