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‘Love Letter’ to Wuhan During Lockdown Faces New Outrage

FILE - Chinese writer Fang Fang speaks with journalists in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, Feb. 22, 2020.
FILE - Chinese writer Fang Fang speaks with journalists in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, Feb. 22, 2020.

Early in the Wuhan lockdown last year, Fang Fang began chronicling the fear, the deaths and the day-to-day events of her life in the city where the coronavirus began its global march.

Quarantined in January for what became 76 days, her blog posts excoriated officials for fumbles and demanded investigations. Dodging online censors, she described the sick wandering deserted streets, unable to find care at overwhelmed hospitals. She also described weeping in a small apartment where she lived alone with her aging dog.

For millions, the dispatches by one of China’s best-known authors offered a corrective to the “we got this” narrative of the government and official media. Enraged, nationalists attacked her, even though by early April, Fang had millions of fans on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. At the time, official state media described her posts as inspiring, “with vivid narratives, real emotions and a straightforward style.”

Outside China, HarperCollins in November published her collected posts in many languages. Michael Berry, an American professor who did the English translation, told VOA Mandarin that the diary is “a love letter” to Wuhan, where 3,869 had died of the virus as of Thursday, according to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission.

Now, on the first anniversary of Wuhan’s quarantine, there is a resurgence of the wrath her work drew early on from Chinese nationalists enraged at her criticism of the response to the coronavirus by local and national authorities.

Netizens, including some famous Chinese scholars and intellectuals, are again calling Fang a traitor as COVID-19, which first took hold in Wuhan, has killed more than 2 million people worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

A recent article in the official Global Times said Fang had “handed a tool to the West and sabotaged Chinese’s people’s effort in fighting COVID-19.”

Yet Fang told the BBC earlier this week that she would not be silenced.

"When facing a catastrophe, it's vital to voice your opinion and give your advice,” she wrote in an email.

Fang’s real name is Wang Fang. The 65-year-old has been writing since her early 20s, and in 2010 she won the prestigious Lu Xun Literacy Prize.

“Fang Fang’s nightly postings gave voice to the fears, frustrations, anger and hope of millions of her fellow citizens,” said HarperCollins in announcing her book Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City last year.

Sudden turn

Yet as Fang’s Wuhan diary was translated into multiple languages, official media “suddenly started portraying her as a villain; it all happened very fast,” said Berry, who teaches contemporary Chinese cultural studies at the University of California-Los Angeles.

With increasing international scrutiny of China’s initial response to COVID-19, the authorities were looking for a scapegoat, and Fang became their target, he said.

“She raised the issue of accountability, and that made the authorities uneasy,” Berry said. “They tried to distract Chinese people by criticizing Fang Fang. So the whole narrative changed.”

Hai Ting, 30, a banker who grew up in Wuhan and whose family has escaped infection to date, said she had read the diary. She told VOA that she didn't think Fang should allow translations.

“I understand publishing the Chinese version, but why translate it into English? Every country has its own problem. She didn’t have to provide opponents of China with more ammunition,” she said, a view widely shared by Chinese netizens.

Berry told VOA he believed that Fang was being framed by authorities and that many of her critics hadn't read her diary. For example, he said, Fang never mentioned the U.S. in her daily posts, but online discussions invariably involve how she’s out for personal gain by providing the U.S. with information to use against China.

Accusations of espionage

Berry said even he had been targeted online by Chinese netizens, some of whom accuse him of being a CIA spy.

"I’ve devoted my life to writing about China, teaching Chinese culture and translating Chinese literature,” he said. “Why would I try to harm the Chinese people?”

Instead, he said, he would like to see people in China and elsewhere read Fang’s posts in full.

“The diary was not trying to criticize China,” he said. “I have always said it is a love letter that Fang wrote to Wuhan. It is full of her caring for the city, for her friends and her neighbors.”

Lin Yang contributed to this report, which originated in VOA's Mandarin Service.