Ian Johnson

Not authoritarian rule but solid support from China’s citizens allowed its government to beat the Covid-19 and effectively deal with the coronavirus crisis, argues Singapore-based journalist Ian Johnson, in the New York Review of Books. He uses the Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City by Fang Fang, to show the government did not silence critics but did win majority support by its people, helped by indeed heavily manipulated media in China.

Ian Johnson:

At first celebrated on social media when she began to publish online on January 25, Fang Fang ended up being denounced there as inadequately patriotic. That arc says much about how authorities manipulate public opinion. Many of her critics were probably government trolls, but the feeling I got in China was that after initial panic most people accepted the government’s efforts, especially as reports of the pandemic came in from abroad, where the bungling was many times worse. By March, Fang Fang’s critique of government censorship seemed passé.

That opinion turned on Fang Fang shows the artificial nature of China’s consensus. Not all public opinion is manipulated, but it’s often warped in a way that makes the culture wars of the United States appear mild. In open societies, conflicts come up like pus in a wound, whereas in China they fester below the surface. Over the past few weeks my social media feed has been filled with completely delusional views of how the pandemic has progressed in the West, with many (I would say most) Chinese believing that it has been an unadulterated debacle in rich countries, while the Chinese state has kept its people safe. Differing opinions are pilloried, and obtaining basic facts is hard. Not for the first time, I’ve felt that my Chinese friends are living in a parallel universe where certain basic assumptions about the world are turned on their head.

This is mirrored in so many facets of daily life that it is hard to list them all. Talk to most Chinese about minority areas in the country, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and they will have almost no understanding of international concepts such as self-determination. Bring up Hong Kong and most people will angrily denounce pro-democracy protesters there as dupes and traitors. The disconnect is sometimes so strong that it’s easy to lose heart. Many people in the West have done so, leading to a sense that engagement with China has been a failure, and that confrontation is now the only alternative.

But people like Fang Fang still exist and show that China isn’t a monolith. I would argue that collectively they present a real challenge to the government—not in the classic civil society sense of people who are likely to organize opposition; the party, as Mattingly argues, is too savvy to allow such opposition to form, and officials are much better at stifling dissent than they were a couple of decades ago. Instead, Fang Fang represents a significant group of people in China who see clearly the flawed nature of their state and who are willing to express these reservations in the most direct way they know.

Consider her analysis of how local officials hid the pandemic early on. While the party-led media blamed a few local officials for not responding quickly enough to the virus, Fang Fang saw Wuhan’s problems as systemic. Without competition that might result from elections or some sort of participatory political system, China’s system leads to disaster; empty talk about political correctness without seeking truth from facts also leads to disaster; prohibiting people from speaking the truth and the media from reporting the truth leads to disaster; and now we are tasting the fruits of these disasters, one by one.

This sort of analysis is not shared by most Chinese people. For them, the party’s message is still dominant and they largely believe that it did a good job, especially compared to the mess in supposedly advanced countries. But many others do understand the party’s highly flawed nature. Their views, their books, their underground documentary movies, and their artwork—all of this is producing an unofficial history of China, a counterhistory written at the grassroots.

As the century progresses, this alternative history will stay alive, like a virus biding its time. And when the conditions are right, when Chinese people wonder why China pursued a development-at-all-costs strategy that made it vulnerable to climate change in the first place, or why local officials bungle so many crises, their suppressed views will emerge.

Much more in the New York Review of Books.

The article was finished on October 8, 2020.

Ian Johnson is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your (online) meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

Are you looking for more experts on the coronavirus crisis at the China Speakers Bureau? Do check out this list. 

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