“When people from other places come to Wuhan now, they would have a feeling that nothing ever happened here,” said Ai Xiaoming, sitting in the book-filled study of her home in the city at the heart of China’s coronavirus outbreak last January.
“It feels like they know nothing about the dead, or the families’ feelings,” said the 67-year-old writer and documentary film-maker. “The [Chinese] media rarely reports on these issues. There is no space for these people to tell their stories.”
Ai was one of three female writers censored for sharing diary entries on major Chinese social media platforms during the 76-day Covid-19 lockdown in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. They continue to struggle to make their voices heard, nearly a year later.
Ai and 65-year-old Fang Fang were often censored for their strident calls for freer speech and for local officials to be held accountable for keeping residents in the dark in the month before Wuhan was abruptly locked down on 23 January 2020.
Most of their diary entries, however, were simply aimed at sharing personal reflections and raising awareness about the plight of neighbours, volunteers and medical workers.
Another writer, 29-year-old Guo Jing, was repeatedly censored for sharing content aimed at raising awareness about cases of domestic violence, isolation and the heavy burden of family duties that fell upon women during the period in the Hubei provincial capital.
Ai, who previously chronicled HIV-infected villagers and corruption that led to schools collapsing in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, had her WeChat account – on the ubiquitous social media platform owned by tech giant Tencent –permanently shut down during the lockdown.
Wang Fang, who writes under the pen name Fang Fang, is the most well-known of the three. Her Wuhan Diary was published in English in June last year, though that has also led to problems for her at home after hardcore nationalists hounded her for publishing the account abroad.
Her diary posts were initially read and reshared by millions in China, but the entries began to be censored. “Political correctness is so prioritised that when we’re in a crisis, even weeping and mourning are deemed [to be] bringing shame on the country and delivering the sword to the outside world,” she told the Observer.
In her lockdown diary, the Wuhan resident relayed her constant battle with censors and commenters when posting pieces of her diary to WeChat and Weibo, the social media platform owned by Sina. And while she was constantly censored, other voices attacking her were allowed free rein.
Although Fang Fang’s WeChat and Weibo accounts had not been suspended, they were still occasionally blocked, she said.
The selective blocking of certain kinds of speech while allowing other “frenzied” speech to flourish is an obstacle toward further reform and opening in China, she believes. “The consequences of that will naturally be dangerous,” she said.
Fang Fang said that publishing houses in China had stopped releasing works that she was contracted for, including her latest novels, though previously published books can still be found in bookstores.
“For a professional writer, not being able to publish and release their work is a very cruel punishment,” she said.
That punishment, of course, pales in comparison to the four-year sentence doled out by a Shanghai court to 37-year-old lawyer turned citizen journalist Zhang Zhan on 28 December. Zhang was sentenced for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by reporting from a locked-down Wuhan and posting videos and snippets of information to YouTube, Twitter and other social media platforms.
In China, the government requires journalists to carry state-distributed press cards, and forbids most independent journalism. It is another layer of censorship that is not often challenged.
“Zhang Zhan showed with her actions that all those rules are ridiculous,” Ai said. “She doesn’t care about any of those. In that sense, she represents a kind of personality that doesn’t belong to this century, or the last century, but one from the future. She’s so courageous.”
For the feminist writer Guo Jing, who also faced difficulties posting reports during and after the outbreak, suffering censorship and penalties for speaking out had the cumulative effect of altering what people thought they could discuss both on and offline.
“I think that the terrifying thing about censorship is that it brings about self-censorship, and everyone is censoring each other,” Guo said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, somebody got their account frozen for posting this and that, maybe you shouldn’t post that kind of stuff’, they say.”
The other major aspect was the ever-changing definition of what was sensitive or not, and the unclear rules about what could be said. “We never know what the standard is,” she said.
As for the culpability of China’s social media platforms in the censorship, the writers agreed that they did play a major part, but ultimately it came down to authorities ordering takedowns or asking for certain topics to be policed.
“Social media platforms want traffic, so deleting hot topics wouldn’t be good for them either,” Guo said.
Asked by the Observer to comment on why the writers’ posts had been censored or continued to be censored, Tencent responded: “Tencent’s mission is to create platforms for users to connect and communicate openly. Tencent is guided by local laws related to internet content, and we comply with all regulations and laws in countries and markets where we operate.”
Sina did not respond to similar requests for comment. (Observer China)