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Coronavirus journal Wuhan Diary continues to upset Chinese nationalists

WUHAN (China) — The publication of Wuhan Diary — a first-person account of Chinese writer Fang Fang’s life in the city at the epicentre of the initial coronavirus outbreak — continues to fan the flames of nationalism in the country.

Coronavirus journal Wuhan Diary continues to upset Chinese nationalists

A passenger wears a hazmat suit as a precaution against the Covid-19 coronavirus as he waits for a train at Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province on May 2, 2020.

WUHAN (China) — The publication of Wuhan Diary — a first-person account of Chinese writer Fang Fang’s life in the city at the epicentre of the initial coronavirus outbreak — continues to fan the flames of nationalism in the country.

Besides the online backlash to the work from some quarters of the internet, authorities have put pressure on intellectuals who supported the writer, launching investigations into at least two people for making “inappropriate comments”.

On April 26, Hubei University said it would investigate Dr Liang Yanping, a language and literature professor, for making “inappropriate speech” on social media, an indirect reference to her social media comments in support of Ms Fang.

Four days later, Hainan University made a similar announcement regarding one of its retired teachers, Dr Wang Xiaoni. The announcement did not specify an offence, but came after Ms Fang had reposted one of Dr Wang’s tweets about Dr Liang.

Dr Wang has since become a target of online trolls who accuse her of being unpatriotic, backing up their claims with references to some of her earlier published work.

The publication of Wuhan Diary has also caused upset in Chinese communities overseas.

A WeChat group for Chinese living in the United States closed in March after its members became so divided on the issue that they did not want to talk to each other anymore. Those who supported Ms Fang called her critics “brainwashed idiots”, while those in the opposite camp threw insults like “running dogs” and “traitors” at their opponents.

There has been no shortage of online debate on the issue in China, with the “Fang Fang” hashtag on Weibo — China’s Twitter-like service — receiving about 940 million views and 276,000 comments. Most of the more recent ones have been hostile to the writer.

And Ms Fang is not the only one being attacked. Mr Michael Berry, who translated the book into English — that version is set to be published next month — has also come under fire.

In its introduction for Wuhan Diary, online bookstore Amazon said Ms Fang had spoken out against social injustice, abuse of power and other problems that impeded China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, while praising the courage, resilience and perseverance of Wuhan’s 9 million residents.

Observers say the cyberbullying of Ms Fang and her supporters, along with the rising tide of nationalism in China could meet a backlash of its own.

“If China’s nationalism keeps growing to the extreme, becoming xenophobia, it will be bad for China’s future cooperation with the world,” said Dr Gu Su, a professor of philosophy and politics at Nanjing University.

This reflected the problems with China’s monolithic education system under which people had received one-sided information for so long that they could no longer accept information with which they might disagree, he said.

Mr Wang Haotian, a Chinese graduate of an American university and a former member of the WeChat group that disbanded in March, initially praised Ms Fang’s writing, likening it to that of a war correspondent working on the front line.

But he changed his stance after she criticised the government and likened her critics to China’s infamous Red Guards — a student-led paramilitary social movement mobilised and guided by Chairman Mao Zedong in the early days of the Cultural Revolution.

Mr Wang said he became disenchanted after he found what he claimed to be inaccuracies in her book, and that she planned to publish it overseas.

“Right now, I don’t support Fang Fang’s diaries or its publication, but I think it’s her freedom to write and publish it,” he said.

“But at the same time, people have the right to express their opinions about it and the government should not use its power to intervene.”

Mr Wang moved to the US in 2017. As a student in China he said he had been critical of the Chinese government and saw America as a place of freedom and democracy.

But he said he had gradually become aware of the flaws in the US system and his change of heart on the Fang issue was related in part to what he saw as the “lopsided portrayal of China” by the US media.

“I used to see China negatively because a lot of the books and reports I read were critical of China – for its authoritarian system and suppressing free speech. But after I came to the US, I felt almost all the commentaries on China were negative, so I felt there was something wrong,” he said.

“[I can understand how] people can have different opinions about China’s stance on issues like religious freedom, ethnic minorities, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But in the West, no media would have anything good to say about China and its policies.”

Mr Wang said he now questioned if that criticism was fair and objective.

Ms Zhu Yan, a 19-year-old Chinese woman in her first year at university in Minnesota, said she had had similar experiences, and had grown tired of arguing with her classmates on Chinese issues.

“What can I do if my professor insists that Hong Kong should be an [independent] country?” she said. “It’s fine if this is the opinion of one person. But there is no point in arguing if everyone in a group thinks that way.”

Ms Fang’s diaries had done more harm than good to China, she said.

“It is disrespectful to the country to publish the diary overseas,” she said. “We should always put the nation’s interest above our freedom of expression.”

Many people in China feel the same.

Mr Ye Tao, a 46-year-old fruit stallholder in Chengdu, the capital of southwest China’s Sichuan province, said he was furious when he heard that Wuhan Diary would be published overseas.

“I was extremely mad when I saw the introduction of the English version of her diaries online,” he said. “I disagree with every word of it. It’s a traitor’s declaration.”

He said it would give Western countries “justification” for accusing China of mishandling the epidemic.

Mr Ye was born two years before the end of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long upheaval that resulted in the deaths and persecution of tens of millions of people. Historians and sociologists have argued that as there has never been any deep or thorough reflection on the Mao-led movement within China, it has never gone away and people could repeat its mistakes.

“China has never totally disavowed the Cultural Revolution, so you can say it could come back, or it will happen again,” said Dr Guo Yuhua, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University.

“China has undertaken economic reform but there has been no transformation of ideology.”

Another critic of Ms Fang is Mr He Weiheng, a 19-year-old university student in Beijing, who said that people should be allowed to criticise the government but only at appropriate times.

“This is not the proper time to criticise the government when its credibility is at stake,” he said, adding that the publication of Wuhan Diary overseas would be used to sully China’s image.

He said he accessed news reports through WeChat and Baidu, and had never used a VPN to bypass China’s censorship of the internet.

Dr Chen Chun, an independent scholar in the south China city of Shenzhen, said Beijing had had some success in winning over the nation’s young people by promoting its economic achievements.

“Also, it is [politically] safe to be a nationalist,” he said. “If you become an activist interested in issues like promoting women’s rights or other socially vulnerable groups, you can be targeted.”

But he said Beijing should be wary of an overly nationalistic population.

“It reminds me of some moments in history when the government has wanted to use nationalism for political purposes, but later realised they could not control it.” SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

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