Infectious anger–As the coronavirus spreads in China, so does fury at the government

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Originally published by World Magazine on February 27,2020

By June Cheng

With Wuhan, China, on lockdown, Pastor Mark Song has spent most of the last month pastoring his church and serving the city from his apartment. 

Every morning he livestreams prayer meetings for the 140 members of his church, prepares his Sunday sermons (also livestreamed), video chats with church members to see how they’re faring, writes online essays, and helps arrange aid to the sick.

With the local government completely overwhelmed by the coronavirus, Wuhan churches have stepped up to provide aid to the desperate. To neighbors and medical professionals they pass out face masks other churches around the country have donated. They find hospitals with beds available for those infected with the virus. Using the internet, they connect people in need with whatever resources they can find.

Song (whose name WORLD changed to protect his security) brought face masks and protective goggles to his apartment complex’s property managers, who must make sure residents stay quarantined. Their response: “Thank you, God.”

As citizens of Wuhan increasingly lose faith in the government, Christians have gained a positive reputation. Those whom Christians have helped are grateful, and some want to learn more about the faith. On the social media platform WeChat, Song’s church created a group focused on explaining the gospel to seekers. So far, the group has 70 members. When one of Song’s own parishioners contracted the virus, they helped arrange a hospital bed for the woman. Beyond that, all they could do was send encouraging messages and pray for her.

Shepherding his parishioners and helping others are the biggest challenges. “There is a big demand, but there’s not much we can do,” Song said.

It’s been two months since whistleblowers first alerted Wuhan to the novel coronavirus outbreak. According to China’s official numbers—which are likely low—more than 78,000 people have the virus, 2,700 have died, and more than 30,000 have recovered. Cities remain on lockdown, and citizens can’t leave their apartments. Community officers micromanage their movements. Health officials have reported more than 2,000 cases outside China. (The number of cases grows daily.) The outbreak occurred during the Chinese New Year holiday, the busiest travel season of the year.  

The virus is also spreading quickly outside China, most notably in South Korea, where the number of infected people jumped quickly in late February to more than 1,260 people. With cases increasing in Iran and Italy, experts fear the outbreak is growing into a pandemic.

But something besides the virus is spreading: anger and criticism toward the Chinese Communist Party. Many seethe at the government’s slow response and initial cover-up of the outbreak, as well as incompetency that led to additional deaths. Chinese citizens online are calling for freedom of speech, and academics are writing essays critical of the government. Meanwhile, Christians continue their work in Wuhan and elsewhere, mobilizing church networks to provide supplies and support for patients and their families. 

EVEN AS MORE INFORMATION EMERGES about the COVID-19 outbreak, basic facts such as its origin or the time of the first infection are still unclear. Chinese officials originally said the first patient started to show symptoms on Dec. 8, 2019. Early cases linked back to a seafood market in Wuhan. But a study by a group of Chinese researchers in the medical journal The Lancet found the first patient fell ill on Dec. 1, meaning the infection first occurred in November or earlier. The first patient, a man in his 70s, did not visit the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, and, of the first 41 cases, 13 had no link to the marketplace.

By the end of December, eight medical professionals—including Dr. Li Wenliang—had spoken out about the unknown pneumonia. But the government reprimanded them for spreading rumors and told them to go back to work. Song remembers reading about Li’s warning on social media but didn’t know then if it was a rumor or real threat. He figured the government would take the appropriate measures.

China informed the World Health Organization about the virus on Dec. 31, as local officials assured the public they had contained the disease and that it could not pass from human to human. During political meetings in early January, Wuhan leaders focused on future healthcare plans without mentioning the novel coronavirus.

President Xi Jinping first spoke publicly about the coronavirus on Jan. 20, the same day renowned epidemiologist Dr. Zhong Nanshan announced in a TV interview that the virus could be transmitted between humans. Yet the official Communist party magazine Qiushi wrote in February that Xi gave instruction on the virus response to top leaders on Jan. 7. That raises the questions: Why did the government not take action for another two weeks? Why did a Chinese New Year banquet for 40,000 families take place in Wuhan on Jan. 18?

Because of the top-down nature of the Chinese government, city and province leaders could only respond to the outbreak with permission from Xi. A few days after Xi’s Jan. 20 speech, officials shut Wuhan down, barring transportation into and out of the city. They halted public transportation, closed businesses, and quarantined families in their homes. The shutdown spread to the rest of Hubei province and other cities in China where more people caught the virus. With no work or school in Wuhan and everyone stuck indoors, citizens devoured news about the epidemic—both real and fake—and vented their anger and frustration on Chinese social media. 

Meanwhile, with public transportation cut and ambulance services overloaded, the sick walked for miles to get to a hospital. Some begged for help for their loved ones as overcrowded hospitals turned the sick away, leaving them to die at home.

WHEN LI, ONE OF THE WHISTLEBLOWER DOCTORS, died on Feb. 6, tributes and angry diatribes against the government poured out on social media. After Li told medical school classmates about the unknown virus, authorities reprimanded him and forced him to sign a statement saying he made false comments to “severely disturb the social order.” He went back to work and contracted the virus from a patient. On Chinese social media site Weibo, the hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech started trending with over 2 million views and more than 5,500 posts in five hours before censors deleted it.

“This is a real hit to [the Chinese Communist Party’s] legitimacy as you see an outburst from people who would otherwise be apolitical,” said Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for China at the U.S.-based watchdog group Freedom House. “The response to the doctor’s death was unprecedented in its sheer number and scale and how much WeChat feeds and groups were inundated about this.” 

While state media painted Li as a sacrificial hero on the front lines against the virus, some academics began writing petitions and essays calling for free speech and blaming the government for Li’s death. Beijing law professor Xu Zhangrun wrote in a quickly banned essay, “the coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance.” He said the Chinese people’s anger is “volcanic” and that “a people thus enraged may, in the end, also cast aside their fear.”

Xu called for citizens to demand free speech and elections. Censors quickly scrubbed the essay from the internet, and authorities placed him under house arrest for days. Then they cut off his access to the internet. “Regardless of how good they are at controlling the internet, they can’t keep all 1.4 billion mouths in China shut,” Xu wrote in his essay.

Those who documented the coronavirus outbreak continue to face government sanction.Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) documented that just during the week of Wuhan’s shutdown, authorities punished 254 people for “spreading rumors” about the coronavirus. 

In early February, two citizen journalists in Wuhan disappeared. Fang Bin, a Wuhan clothes seller, began recording scenes inside hospitals after the city shut down. In one viral clip, his camera phone pans to a van outside a Wuhan hospital as he counts eight body bags inside. Inside the hospital, a man struggles to catch his breath as his father, who had contracted the virus, lay dying.

After he posted the video on YouTube, police officers showed up at his door. He filmed as they asked to come in to take his temperature. Fang refused to open the door, saying his temperature was normal and they didn’t have a warrant. The men then broke into his apartment and brought him to a police station. They released him later that night after his friends shared videos of the confrontation online. 

A week later, Fang disappeared. In his last video, he filmed a piece of paper that read, “All citizens resist, hand power back to the people.”

His disappearance came a few days after that of another citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi. A former human rights lawyer, Chen rushed to Wuhan before the shutdown to interview patients and visit hospitals himself. After police approached his parents to look for him, Chen filmed himself speaking straight to the camera: “I am scared. In front of me is the virus, behind me is China’s legal and administrative power.”

A friend said authorities placed Chen in a mandatory quarantine even though there is no evidence he is sick. 

A Freedom House analysis of leaked government censorship directives found information about public health and safety were the two most censored categories of breaking news in 2016 and 2017. “We are seeing the disintegration of the post-Tiananmen social contract: ‘We give you economic growth and stability as long as you don’t ask for political rights,’” Cook said, referring to the quashed 1989 democracy movement.

OUTSIDE CHINA, INFECTIONS HAVE SPREAD to 40 countries, including 57 cases in the United States. The largest cluster of infections outside China was on the Diamond Princess cruise ship (docked in Japan), where 705 of the 3,711 people on board contracted the virus. Infectious disease specialist Kentaro Iwata said in a video the environment on the ship was “completely chaotic” without the leadership of medical experts.

Singapore, which has the sixth-highest number of cases with 91 by late February, saw clusters emerge in churches. Megachurch Grace Assembly of God has 23 cases with the senior pastor, Wilson Teo, also infected. The Life Church and Missions Singapore, a nondenominational church with about 200 regular attendees, had eight cases. 

A couple from Wuhan had visited the Life Church and Missions before Chinese New Year. Although they hadn’t exhibited symptoms at the time, they both carried the virus, which spread to the other church members. As of press time, all but one had been discharged from a hospital.

Vincent Choo, the senior pastor of the Life Church and Missions Singapore, said when he heard the first three members contracted coronavirus in early February, he decided to livestream his Sunday service and stop in-person services. Some Singaporeans hold prejudiced views of mainland Chinese spreading the disease, but Choo called the church to have compassion for Chinese visitors: “No one wants bad things to happen in our lives, but when they do happen, God uses it to give us the best things.”

Jeremy Chan, a member of the church, heard one of the members of his small group had become infected. The next day he had a runny nose and started to feel breathless, so he contacted the ministry of health. An ambulance took him to the hospital, according to his wife Jingwen Lam. “I was very scared but tried to keep calm,” Lam recalled. Tests came back negative.

After returning home, officials forced Chan to stay in the master bedroom at all times except for meals. Lam said she and her husband can’t get close to one another and have to sleep in separate rooms. 

Choo remarked about the church’s unique role during this crisis: “Only the church is fully equipped with the answers to face this situation. … The church is given eternal truth that goes beyond the suffering of the world.”

Was Dr. Li Wenliang a Christian?

Among the tributes marking Li Wenliang’s death, posts began to spread on Chinese social media suggesting Li was a Christian. Someone translated the posts into English, and they began to spread on some Christian websites. Some English articles included a poem—which some claimed Li wrote—that ended with 2 Timothy 4:7-8: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness.”

According to Wuhan pastors, Li had attended several Bible studies and joined a Christian WeChat group, but they saw no evidence that he professed faith in Christ or was baptized. A Taiwanese fact-checking site found Li had not written the poem. Chinese Christians also noticed that none of Li’s posts referred to Christianity, and no churches had sent out prayer requests for him when he was ill, according to China Christian Daily.

This story has been updated to show 78,000 people had contracted coronavirus at the time of publication.

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