In the photo, an elderly woman is pointing at the tray and explaining the dish to a young child. The toddler lifts his face and stares intently at the design. Aunties and grannies gather in the background. The flaming hues in their outfits match the bright decor on the walls. Looking at the image on my computer screen, I can feel the warmth and joy seeping through.
The photo was taken by Chinese state media in Wuhan on January 18, 2020. The caption notes that over 40,000 families came to the banquet, an annual tradition in the Baibuting district to celebrate Lunar New Year. Five days later, the city went under lockdown. Unbeknownst to the happy crowd at the banquet or most of the 11 million Wuhan residents, a novel coronavirus had been spreading for weeks. Wuhan, the metropolis by the Yangtze and the capital of Hubei province, became “ground zero” in a global pandemic.
Both sides of my family were from Hubei. Work and school brought them to neighboring Anhui, where I was born and raised. I moved to the United States in 2009. To be a Chinese person abroad in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak was to exist in two timelines at once. I watched the future unfold in the country of my birth, while politicians and the public in my adopted home remained oblivious to the looming disaster. As the Chinese government has brought the viral spread under control, at times with draconian measures, the United States appears trapped in a cycle of restrictions, easing, and rising infections.
We are officially in Year Three of the pandemic. I flinch at this thought. While the name of this place, “Wuhan,” has faded from the headlines, what lessons have we learned from the city and its people? Beneath a simplified account of cover-up and confinement, who are the ones carrying out the state’s policies? Who reaped the benefits, and who bore the cost?
These questions are probed in The Wuhan Lockdown, a new book by Guobin Yang. Across nine chapters in chronological order, starting with “Festivities, Interrupted” and concluding with “Mourning and Remembering,” the book documents and interrogates the state and the public’s responses to the pandemic. The stories expand from official narratives to personal experiences and cover both real-life activities and those in virtual space. A professor of communication and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, Yang grew up in China and has extended family there. The affinity, folded over distance, infuses the text with an emotional undercurrent. Compared with Yang’s earlier two books, on the Chinese internet and the Cultural Revolution respectively, his latest work is the most accessible but no less thoughtful. The new volume builds on Yang’s decades-long study of digital activism in China and how memories of politically contentious events evolve over time, making it a uniquely valuable contribution to the growing literature on COVID-19 as well as that on contemporary China.
As Yang writes in the preface, “mere attempts to theorize look rather pale” in light of the many sacrifices made by ordinary people, whose experiences “cannot be distilled into a few propositions.” By rejecting oversimplification and placing each story in its social and political contexts, often in comparison with past events, The Wuhan Lockdown is a narratively rich and intellectually rigorous account of an unprecedented chapter in the city’s history. The book offers many insights on pandemic response and Chinese governance. More importantly, it reaches beyond the immediacy of occasion to shed light on human nature: What’s the role of an individual in the crushing tides of time? What stories do we tell ourselves in order to survive?
In popular portrayals of China, the country is often presented as the subject — “China does this,” “China wants that” — as if it’s the main character in a master plot, imbued with ancient wisdom, destined for world domination. The fantasy of absolute control may be what leaders in Beijing desire, but even autocrats need to contend with reality. Power within the Chinese system is fragmented. In everyday governance, the central government dictates the themes and local officials construct their own narratives. The personal fortunes of the latter depend on how well the stories are told.
When social stability and economic growth are the top priorities for the state, political rituals hold particular significance. Nestled in bureaucratic inertia, a recurring form signals command and continuity. Disruption suggests trouble and invites scrutiny. The default response to any bad news is to minimize exposure. Hide and lie. The show must go on.
Yang refers to this phenomenon as “formalism,” or xingshi zhuyi in Chinese. “[O]ne of the most insidious problems in Chinese politics,” the obsession with form or appearance “often comes at the expense of substance or reality, sometimes with disastrous consequences,” Yang writes. The Baibuting banquet was a prime example. By 2020, the annual festivity had been going on for two decades. More than a community celebration, the banquet was a propaganda coup for district officials. With over 10,000 dishes shared among tens of thousands of families, the ceremony showcased material abundance and neighborly love, “core values” as defined by Beijing. It attracted dignitaries and was lauded in the national media. Canceling the event over concerns of a new respiratory disease, whose severity was yet unknown, was deemed a greater cost by those in charge than risking mass infection.
The spread of a virus does not conform to any political agenda. Exacerbated by initial missteps, the COVID-19 outbreak quickly became a crisis of governance in China, which, if not properly managed, could jeopardize regime legitimacy. The government responded by changing the narrative. As Yang describes in the book, “an appearance of war replaced the facade of harmony.” With stunning efficiency and a whole-of-society approach, Wuhan was placed under lockdown and the rest of the country soon followed.
From banners and barricades to loudspeakers and door-to-door inspections, the shapes and sounds of the “people’s war” against COVID-19 were reminiscent of past political struggles in China, in particular the Cultural Revolution. As Yang and several other scholars have noted, the optics and logic of war are familiar occurrences in Chinese governance. Be it against a political enemy, a natural disaster, poverty, illiteracy, or disease, the state deploys a similar rhetoric, describing the conditions as a battlefield and organized efforts as akin to combat.
The analogy always unsettles me. War is destruction, while pandemic response is about saving lives. War as metaphor is intellectually lazy but politically expedient. It glorifies the state and appeals to the public psyche. In war, the state assumes paramount authority. Violence is not only justified, but necessary. Death is never in vain but in service to a cause. For a government that prizes obedience, what better way to mobilize the masses than a call to battle? For people feeling powerless in the face of a virus, imagining themselves as soldiers in a war is a way to reclaim power and make sense of a senseless tragedy.
When war is the dominant narrative, the state-centric framework can morph individuals into statistics. Among the distinct strengths of this book is Yang’s insistence on exploring nuance and showing the “human faces” behind collective measures. Boundaries between state and non-state actors in China are often blurry, and even the most ruthless policies require people to execute.
Much attention has been given to blunt force tactics, like the storming of private homes to prohibit social gatherings or the nailing down of doors to enforce quarantines. These dramatic actions fit the image of an authoritarian state, but the mundane task of governing rarely explodes in spectacle. Yang points out that the lockdown was more often implemented through “community organizing and grassroots persuasion.” Party cadres and neighborhood volunteers patrolled the streets and guarded residential compounds. They also provided essential services like grocery delivery and welfare checkups, performing the dual duties of surveillance and care.
To tell the individual stories from an ocean away, Yang relied on press reports, official documents, and social media posts on the Chinese internet. The most important sources for Yang were the “lockdown diaries” written and shared online by ordinary people. From an archive of over 6,000 entries, Yang selected 46 diarists and cited them throughout the book. They span a wide ideological spectrum, from staunch nationalists to liberal intellectuals and many politically agnostic ones in between. They also represent a variety of professions, including teachers, students, activists, government officials, and health-care workers. One of them is a delivery driver. Two recovered from COVID-19. Through these diaries, the people of Wuhan registered their quotidian struggles. They voiced complaints and counted their blessings. They used virtual space to motivate themselves as well as their readers.
“One day when I look back from my old age, [my ‘Lockdown Diary’] will be the ‘Grand Historical Record’ (Shiji) of part of my life,” Mr. Amber, who worked in the telecommunications industry, wrote on the sixth day of confinement. The invocation of Shiji, the magnum opus of second-century BCE historian Sima Qian — China’s most famous chronicler and biographer of long past times — might appear self-aggrandizing, but it fits the occasion. The primary purpose of pandemic diaries was to engage in “self-mobilization,” as Yang puts it, and to bear witness to history.
Journaling in extraordinary times is nothing new. The English official Samuel Pepys kept a detailed account of London in the 1660s, including during an outbreak of the bubonic plague that swept the city. Seamen on polar expeditions frequently documented their journeys. Chinese commanders in World War II often required their soldiers to write diaries as a way to cultivate discipline. During the political fervor of the Mao years, private letters were routinely seized as evidence of “thought crimes”; penning them became a mark of moral courage.
Unlike their predecessors who wrote in seclusion, the diarists in the era of social media have repurposed the intimate form for the public gaze. Attention from strangers comes at a cost, but vulnerability is often the first step to community building. Living through a pandemic is a constant reminder of the porousness of the human body. While isolation and protective gear have closed the physical boundaries of one’s being, sharing details of a private life online is a means of opening, an acknowledgment of our interconnectedness and dependency on each other. Journaling in quarantine, Yang explains, was “a moral act of citizenship.”
Among the many chroniclers of COVID-19, none have received as much attention, or been the subject of as much controversy, as Fang Fang. The Wuhan native and acclaimed novelist wrote 60 diary entries in a span of two months on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging platform. Her poetic statement became one of the most famous refrains during the pandemic: “When an era sheds a speck of dust it might not seem like much, but when it falls upon the shoulders of an individual it feels like a mountain.” By April 2020, the “Fang Fang Diary” had amassed 380 million views on Weibo, according to The Guardian.
Fang Fang’s first post, dated January 25, 2020, began unassumingly: “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to send anything out through my Weibo account.” She had been suspended on the website after criticizing a group of young nationalists for their aggressive behavior, foreshadowing the berating her diary would later generate. For the next two months, Fang Fang wrote about daily life under quarantine — figuring out grocery deliveries in the neighborhood, receiving care packages from friends, paying extra attention to the weather — and commented on stories of the pandemic as seen on state or social media. After reading a report in the Chinese outlet Caixin on worrying conditions at retirement homes, she reflected that
the true test of a country’s level of civility has nothing to do with building the tallest skyscraper or driving the fastest car, nor does it matter how advanced your weapons system is or how powerful your military might be. […] There is only one true test, and that is how you treat the weakest and most vulnerable members of your society.”
Ai Xiaoming, a prominent academic and documentary filmmaker, who also wrote a series of incisive essays on the lockdown in her hometown of Wuhan, has observed that the literary quality of Fang Fang’s diary falls short of that of a celebrated author: just about anybody could have written it, and its striking popularity reflects the paucity of public discourse under censorship. There is much truth to Ai’s comment, yet when I would check the latest update in Fang Fang’s diary, as millions did in the first months of the pandemic, I was not looking for soaring prose or searing analysis. That would be too selfish a demand. What I saw in her simple words was the quiet dignity of living as a Chinese person, who must navigate a perilous world of pathogens and political oppression but strives to never lose their moral compass.
Fang Fang is not a dissident. As part of the cultural establishment, her words, including the occasional critique of government policies, are always measured. It is emblematic of the shrinking space for expression in China that her diary garnered waves of backlash from day one. Public denunciations intensified after news came that the series would be translated and published overseas. Michael Berry, the English-language translator of the diary and a literature professor at UCLA, was accused of being a CIA agent and received death threats. Even readers who had once appreciated Fang Fang’s words began calling her a “traitor.”
As Yang cautions in his book, this change in public opinion, or at least the appearance of it, cannot be attributed solely to censorship or propaganda. The Chinese state and Chinese people, despite the former’s authoritarian nature, are not opposites but overlapping forces. In the early days of the outbreak, people were rightfully outraged at the deception and failed response from the authorities. The government relaxed its restrictions on speech in response to public sentiment and as a way to gather information. Journalists produced in-depth reporting. Fear and fury flooded social media.
The moment was short-lived. It was only a matter of time before the state retightened its grip. Investigative reports were censored. Citizen journalists were jailed. Social media posts disappeared. Fang Fang’s Weibo account was shut down again in early February before it was reinstated two weeks later. As the pandemic subsided in China and raged elsewhere, many Chinese people’s view of their government also veered from frustration to gratitude. They felt proud of their country and protective of its image, especially when policies and rhetoric from the West were increasingly hostile toward China. Fang Fang’s lucid, real-time depiction of the plight in Wuhan, however honest and moderate in tone, was deemed “too negative” when the primary narrative of COVID-19 in China had shifted to one of triumph and optimism. The diary had sullied the motherland. Releasing it to a foreign audience was tantamount to aiding the enemy.
In his acclaimed first book, The Power of the Internet in China, Yang analyzed the beginning of digital activism in the country. Published in 2009, the volume predated the rise of social media and the more oppressive policies of the Xi Jinping era. Writing in the new book, Yang points out that earlier visions of the internet as a democratizing force and medium for free expression have faded. The Chinese party-state and its propaganda organs have caught up with the new technologies and, to a significant extent, co-opted the platforms. For the average Chinese citizen, the internet is “a daily utility,” not a site of protest.
But voices of dissent persist. Since the dawn of the Chinese internet, netizens have used clever tactics to discuss the forbidden. Similar methods, perfected over time and assisted by new tools, were deployed during the pandemic to preserve and pass on information. Social media users raced against censors with spontaneous “relays,” copying and sharing posts before the originals were removed. Words and images wore creative disguises to evade automated detection: texts were shared as screenshots, rotated, and scribbled over; Chinese characters were translated into emojis, telegram codes, and even fictional languages like Klingon from Star Trek. A digital memorial was set up on the blockchain for Dr. Li Wenliang, the young ophthalmologist in Wuhan who blew the whistle on COVID-19 and later died of the disease.
“Are virtual memorials ephemeral or enduring?” Yang asks in his closing chapter. Perhaps the answer is both — true for all memorials and for memory itself. Even monuments set in stone can be toppled, and any corporal existence has an expiration date. Whenever I browse the Chinese internet, each encounter with a daring message brings a thrill as well as a profound sadness: I am already grieving its eventual, inevitable vanishing. But as Yang’s work has shown, anything that has disappeared online leaves traces, imprinted in the deep memories of the web and sustained by viewers who remember and retell the stories.
What about those who lack access to digital technologies? One regret I have when reading The Wuhan Lockdown (and coverage of this pandemic in general) is that the stories suffer from an urban, middle-class bias. Most of the diarists Yang samples are well-educated professionals who experienced quarantine from the relative comfort of their homes. Their living conditions afforded them the ability to journal online. For the elderly, the poor, the disabled, the farmers who lost their harvest, the migrants without stable housing, the millions who live in the margins neglected by the state, how will their stories be told and who is listening?
“In seventy-six days, the structures of some families were completely changed,” wrote Wuhan resident Chu Ma on the last night of the lockdown. “What does not change is the rolling waters of the Yangzi [Yangtze] River and the bright moon that has shone over our ancestors and bathed in the spring wind.”
“All the stories are gone with the flowing river,” Chu Ma continued. “Only history will tell the story of Wuhan many years later.” For millennia, the Yangtze, which flows through the city, has occupied a special place in the Chinese imagination. The eastbound current, in eternal motion, becomes a metaphor for the passage of time. I grew up with legends of ancestors who planted rice and spun cotton by the river. The water carried the fruits of their labor to city markets. My mother told me stories of her father, who, as a student in Wuhan in the 1950s, helped repair the dam when the Yangtze rose to historic heights. The river that nourishes can also be merciless. To live by the water is to learn humility, to accept the fragility of being and reckon with the forces of nature.
“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was,” Toni Morrison wrote in The Site of Memory. Her immortal words remind us that what we call flooding is in fact remembering; and writers are like that, remembering where we were and how to return to our original place. By recording their experiences, the writers of the Wuhan lockdown have inked their share in the river of time. Present and future generations are indebted to their service.
Yangyang Cheng is a fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center, where her research focuses on science and technology in China and US-China relations. Trained as a particle physicist, she worked on the Large Hadron Collider for over a decade. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, MIT Technology Review, and many other publications.