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Interview: ‘All they’ve learned is how better to control people’

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In April 2020, independent Chinese author Murong Xuecun traveled to Wuhan under lockdown, quietly interviewing people from the front line of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. In his newly published work, “Deadly Quiet City,” his conversations with a number of people from an exhausted doctor in a small hospital to an unlicensed motorcycle taxi-driver, to a citizen journalist, are recorded for the world to read. He spoke to Jane Tang of RFA’s Mandarin Service about the experience, and about the ongoing lockdown in Shanghai:

RFA: During the lockdown in Shanghai, we have seen a lot of grass-roots creativity, including music, videos, and texts, emerge from the experience. How does this output compare with what you saw during Wuhan’s lockdown?

Murong Xuecun: First, this content deals more with the lives of the middle class: exhibitions, fashion shows … most of the people and things mentioned are part of the middle-class community. It makes me even more worried about the lives of people lower down the social ladder in Shanghai; how are the migrant workers managing? What about the elderly who live alone? That’s not so visible.

Second, there were a few citizen journalists working out of Wuhan, as well as a lot of people shooting and gathering footage, and several documentaries were released afterwards. But I don’t think that’s been possible in Shanghai, because very few people in the city have been allowed to go out, apart from white people, the police and volunteers. But back when I arrived in Wuhan, and when [now-jailed citizen journalist] Zhang Zhan got there on Feb. 1, there was still some freedom of movement. We were able to move around freely, conduct interviews and shoot footage. This time in Shanghai, pretty much everybody has been confined to their home.

Third, a lot of content is presented in a mocking way. This sarcasm is actually something of a last resort. In fact, many of this content, these videos and posts are asking the same question: how did Shanghai get to this state today, which is so different from Wuhan at the beginning [of the pandemic]. At that time, there was more grief and anger in Wuhan, and there was a layer of confusion and shock in Shanghai. How did Shanghai get here?

RFA: So you think that Shanghai has stricter restrictions on shooting and creative work this time around? Have you seen any non-fiction works along the lines of Wuhan Diary by Fang Fang?

Murong Xuecun: There are a lot of parodies. These don’t take long to do. To actually write something like Wuhan Diary requires a long period of observation, material gathering and then writing. The current situation doesn’t allow for a process like that, and anyway, I think it would be deleted by the next day.

There are actually more writers in Shanghai, but so far I haven’t seen any works like Fang Fang’s diary. This tells us that Shanghai’s lockdown restrictions, controls, and suppression  [of public speech] are much stricter than Wuhan’s were. Let me give you an example. When Wuhan needed to transport patients and their close contacts [to isolation facilities], it relied on volunteers. In Shanghai, the police are doing it.

When Wuhan was locked down on Jan. 23, 2020, we still didn’t have the QR code. But by the time Shanghai locked down, we were living in a world governed by them. Everyone is now controlled by big data, and everyone’s whereabouts are available at a glance. Also, the shortage of supplies in Shanghai is far worse than it was in Wuhan back then. I witnessed all kinds of misery back then in Wuhan, but the levels of misery and cruelty in Shanghai have been far greater than in the Wuhan lockdown of 2020.

RFA: The material for your book Deadly Quiet City came from first-hand interviews in Wuhan. How did you get into the city? Many citizen journalists ran into trouble trying to get in. How did your interviews and writing go?

Murong Xuecun: I arrived on April 6, 2020, they lifted the lockdown on the 8th, and I left on May 7. I had been there a month when the secret police called me and said they knew my whereabouts. I had already interviewed a lot of people by then, and I was afraid that that work would be lost, so I left … soon after they called me.

RFA: So did you go back to Beijing to write the book?

Murong Xuecun: I didn’t dare to go back to Beijing, because I was one of those old ‘tea drinkers’ who was often under surveillance by the secret police, or called to ‘drink tea’ or summoned for interrogation. So I holed up in Mount Emei and finished writing the book there. It was very exciting, that time. I would send each chapter to a friend of mine overseas as soon as I finished it, so he could back it up for me, then I’d delete it from my hard drive.

RFA: Were the locals willing to talk to you during your visit to Wuhan?

Murong Xuecun: They fell into two types: regular citizens were very willing to be interviewed; and community officials, doctors and nurses, who were extremely reluctant. For example, I called one residential community official several times, and he just told me straight that they weren’t allowed to give interviews. It was the same with the doctors. One doctor from Tongji Hospital hesitated for several days, then finally told me, sorry, friend, but it’s really not a good time, so we left it. I could feel that he felt a strong need to tell me about his experiences and everything he knew, but he could also have been under a lot of [political] pressure [to keep quiet].

I said: “Well, I can understand where you’re coming from, and hopefully one day you can tell me about your experiences.”

“He sighed softly and said: “It’s a shame. I hope too.”

These conversations told me that all of these officials, doctors and nurses were under a very strict ban and weren’t allowed to talk to anyone.

RFA: What impact did you observe from 70 days of lockdown in Wuhan?

Murong Xuecun: I found that many people had one thing in common. Whenever they needed to talk about the coronavirus or COVID-19, they would avoid naming it directly, and just refer to it as “this disease,” or “this thing” instead. I hardly heard them say the word coronavirus. I think it could be some aspect of post-traumatic stress.

RFA: A kind of psychological trauma after being collectively locked at home for more than two months?

Murong Xuecun: Yes. I joined several group chats of local people in Wuhan. When the lockdown was first lifted, I noticed a lady in the group said she kept crying every now and then, and she was not given to crying. Others in the group said the same thing, that they cried way more easily now, and would suddenly start weeping from the pain at random times and in random places.

As I was walking around Wuhan on April 7, I was watching as some young people were allowed to go out. Everyone wore masks. I watching those young people walking by and it suddenly hit me that almost nobody had a smile on their face. Everyone’s expression was glum. It made a huge impression on me at the time.

RFA: What was the hardest thing about lockdown for the residents of Wuhan?

Murong Xuecun: The shortage of food and supplies was the worst thing, and in particular, a shortage of medicines. I interviewed a doctor, the only one willing to speak, anonymously. His hospital ran out of every single medicine during the most stressful period in February. There were only 40 masks left in the hospital, and there was a serious shortage of thermometers. Zhang Zhan was in Wuhan too, and was locked down in an older persons’ residential community. She found that the residents there were very poor, and that some of the elderly didn’t know how to use smartphones, so they could only wait for community volunteers to distribute supplies. The shortages were really serious in the later stages.

The other thing was the psychological pressure, locking people up for weeks on end. Wuhan had it slightly easier. Even when the lockdown was at its strictest, people were still allowed to walk around their residential compounds. But in Shanghai, the majority weren’t allowed to leave their homes. That was like solitary confinement for a lot of people, which is torture. So the mental health issues caused by the Shanghai lockdown have been far more serious.

RFA: Two years after the closure of Wuhan, do you think Shanghai has learned anything?

Murong Xuecun: I don’t think so. Things have just gotten worse. The communist government never imagined how complex and difficult it would be to feed a mega-city like Shanghai. A lot of people must have starved to death at home. On an ordinary day in Shanghai, there would normally be millions of people engaged in catering and the supply of food. There was no way they were going to manage to accomplish this by locking all of these people up and relying on a few hundred thousand disease control volunteers, police or community workers to distribute food.

I don’t think the government has learned much at all from Wuhan two years ago or Shanghai today, or possibly won’t even from Beijing in future.

All they’ve learned is how better to wield social control, to control people, and they’ve gotten crueler and crueler.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.