Sat, Feb 15, 2020 - Page 9 News List

Virus storytellers challenge China’s official narrative

After posting videos from Wuhan, including of bodies left unattended in hospitals, Chen Qiushi was detained, with authorities saying that he has been put in a 14-day quarantine

By John Leicester and Dake Kang  /  AP, BEIJING

Illustration: Tania Chou

After nearly a week of roaming China’s epidemic-struck city, filming the dead and the sickened in overwhelmed hospitals, the strain of being hounded by the new virus and the country’s dissent-quelling police started to tell.

Chen Qiushi (陳秋實) looked haggard and disheveled in his online posts, an almost unrecognizable shadow of the energetic young man who had rolled into Wuhan on a self-assigned mission to tell its inhabitants’ stories, just as authorities locked the city down almost three weeks ago.

Until he disappeared last week, the 34-year-old lawyer-turned-video blogger was one of the most visible pioneers in a small, but dogged movement that is defying the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tightly policed monopoly on information.

Armed with smartphones and social media accounts, these citizen-journalists are telling their stories and those of others from Wuhan and other locked-down virus zones in Hubei Province. The scale of this non-sanctioned storytelling is unprecedented in any previous major outbreak or disaster in China. It presents a challenge to the CCP, which wants to control the narrative of China, as it always has since taking power in 1949.

“It’s very different from anything we have witnessed,” said Maria Repnikova, a communications professor at Georgia State University who researches Chinese media.

Never have so many Chinese, including victims and healthcare workers, used their phones to televise their experiences of a disaster, Repnikova said.

That is partly because the more than 50 million people locked down in cities under quarantine are “really anxious and bored, and their lives have pretty much stopped,” she said.

Official state media extol the CCP’s massive efforts to build new hospitals in a flash, send in thousands of medical workers and ramp up production of protective masks without detailing the underlying conditions that are driving these efforts.

Chen did just that in more than 100 posts from Wuhan over two weeks. He showed the sick crammed into hospital corridors and the struggles of residents to get treatment.

“Why am I here? I have stated that it’s my duty to be a citizen-journalist,” he said, filming himself with a selfie stick outside a train station. “What sort of a journalist are you if you don’t dare rush to the front line in a disaster?”

A video posted on Jan. 25 showed what Chen said was a body left under a blanket outside an emergency ward. Inside another hospital, he filmed a dead man propped up on a wheelchair, head hanging down and face deathly pale.

“What’s wrong with him?” he asked a woman holding the man up with an arm across the chest.

“He has already passed,” she said.

Chen’s posts and video blogs garnered millions of views — and police attention.

In an anguished video post near the end of his first week in Wuhan, he said police had called him, wanting to know where he was, and questioned his parents.

“I am scared,” he said. “I have the virus in front of me, and on my back I have the legal and administrative power of China.”

His voice trembling with emotion and tears welling in his eyes, he vowed to continue “as long as I am alive in this city.”

“Even death doesn’t scare me,” he said. “So you think I’m scared of the Communist Party?”

Last week, Chen’s posts dried up. His mother broke the silence with a video post in the small hours of Friday. She said that Chen was unreachable and appealed for help in finding him.

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