We have lived through two tumultuous years as the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the planet.
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison took the lead, for domestic political purposes, in calling for an investigation into the origins of the virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Finally, in January 2021, China agreed to let an international team of experts led by the World Health Organization into Wuhan to investigate.
The findings were inconclusive because the Chinese authorities were not very cooperative and refused to approve a follow-up inquiry.
People who are curious to know why China is so resistant to an outside investigation should read Deadly Quiet City: Stories from Wuhan, Covid Ground Zero.
Its author, Murong Xuecun, is a popular Chinese novelist known for his critical stance toward the Chinese government.
His book collects the true stories of eight people in Wuhan who endured the early months of the pandemic, from November 2019 to April 2020.
It covers the period when the first signs of the virus were detected through to when the ruling Communist Party of China declared the victorious conquest of Covid in Wuhan.
Murong was not in Wuhan for most of that period. Risking his own safety, he sneaked into the city in April, interviewed eight people about their experiences, and then fled to another province, where he booked into a hotel and wrote up his interviews.
Fear and anger
He then left China and is now in London, escaping the fate of being denounced, silenced, or even imprisoned. This happened to several other “citizen journalists” who had gone to Wuhan and reported on social media about what had transpired.
Murong’s revelations are different from the other writers’ postings.
The eight narratives in Deadly Quiet City are told in the first person by Murong, who skilfully captures their thoughts and feelings – their fears, their encounters with death, their anger, and their losses.
Each story provides background information, placing the featured individuals in context, then follows their reaction to the catastrophe of those few months from November to April.
Murong meticulously marked the dates and even times of critical moments. He covers the period when doctors and scientists first noticed the virus, and the date when Li Wenliang first alerted his circle of colleagues that a deadly new disease had stricken his hospital patients.
The timeline continues as he is warned by local officials to stay silent. Then, there is the day he died from the virus along with the dates of important official announcements.
They include the WHO confirming that Covid-19 was a human-to-human transmittable virus, and the lockdown in Wuhan.
We learn what each of the eight individuals was doing during these periods.
An old illegal motorcyclist taxi driver, at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, was grateful that the pandemic had helped him make a bit more money because there were no other means of public transport.
He ferried infected people back and forth between homes and hospitals and waited in queues as his clients desperately tried to get admitted.
Another of the eight, a writer and member of the middle class, whose online essays tended to be critical of the government, managed to fly out of Wuhan to Guangzhou at four in the morning on the night the lockdown was announced.
On hearing of Li’s death, he immediately started an online campaign, “Never Forget Li Wenliang,” to crowdfund a statue of the doctor. Within a couple of days, the state security bureau put him under house arrest.
Some of the eight or their relatives contracted Covid. They recounted their encounters with heartless bureaucrats in graphic detail.
Crying and begging
Some of them had lined up for hours trying to see a doctor or made dozens of phone calls to friends and relatives, who might have contacts within the system, to find a hospital bed. Most had seen the chaos in hospitals – crying, begging, patients collapsing or dying while waiting.
A hospital cleaner had propped up her sick husband on a bicycle to search for a clinic that would take him. Those who successfully got into a hospital were slapped with medical bills totaling a year or two of their annual wage.
They all confronted dismissive, callous bureaucrats trying hard to shift responsibility. If they dared to complain on social media, they were pursued by the police.
The stories also record humanitarian responses. The motorcyclist taxi driver had waived charges for sick people poorer than him. The pleas on social media for help to pay medical bills brought in needed money.
Another of the eight, Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist who traveled to Wuhan when she heard the news of the pandemic, raised enough to allow her to stay there to post her daily reports on social media.
In May, she went missing. It was later revealed that she had been sentenced to four years and imprisoned. Since then, she has been adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, and the latest news is that she is on a hunger strike.
There are many things we can learn about China from these eight stories.
Covid has amplified the problems of an authoritarian system and the endemic bureaucratic inefficiency. What stands out is the contemptuous treatment of “the masses,” the shedding of responsibility, and the readiness to trade favors by succumbing to corruption.
The virus has also exposed China’s broken medical system. This is not news to anyone who pays attention to what is happening in the country, but it is educational to see how the malfunctions play out in such detail.
Politics override science.
Li and his colleagues were interrogated and punished for telling the truth, and forced to make official “confessions.”
Then, when Li’s warnings proved correct and went viral on social media, he was exonerated posthumously by the authorities, who declared him a national hero in order to placate the Wuhan residents’ anger.
As becomes clear in the book, doctors and nurses in small hospitals earn paltry monthly salaries – less than poor migrant factory workers. They also need to toe the Party line.
For example, hospitals, all under Party management, were instructed to falsify their statistics in order to shrink the infection and death rates, so as to satisfy the national authorities’ policy of keeping those rates low.
Since deaths outside hospitals were deliberately not recorded, isolation wards were emptied of dying patients by sending them home, infecting their own families. A doctor lamented there was nothing he could do to prevent this.
When the virus was partially under control, even though people were still lining up to get into hospitals, the Wuhan authorities celebrated the Party’s conquest of the virus with great fanfare.
Hostile anti-China forces
A woman who would not be coaxed into accepting monetary compensation for the death of her daughter made a scene on the streets. She marched with her daughter’s portrait, crying for justice.
She then received a phone call from the police, telling her not to “publish sensitive remarks online” because this “would have a negative influence on the country … you must be vigilant against hostile anti-China forces. Don’t let them use you.”
She finally acquiesced, after being put under surveillance for several months.
These are sad stories documenting Kafkaesque experiences of ordinary Chinese people.
Sadder still is that the others – except for Zhang Zhan, who refused to stop calling out the lies – either lament their bad fate or accepted the Party’s propaganda. Domestic social stability and national security trump all other concerns.
Deadly Quiet City: Stories from Wuhan, Covid Ground Zero by Murong Xuecun (Hardie Grant Books)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.