Wuhan: a tale of immune system failure and social strength

Image: @SDUIVF许超医生

For most Chinese people watching the unfolding of Wuhan’s coronavirus emergency, the situation escalated dramatically on Jan 20, almost 20 days after it was first made public (and downplayed).

In a stunning appearance at a press briefing organized by the National Health Commission (NHC), Zhong Nanshan, the 84-year old respiratory specialist and leading expert of the NHC’s high level advisory group, admitted to a room full of reporters that the coronavirus transmitted from human to human. He also revealed that medical workers had been infected. In a televised conversation with “News 1+1” anchor Bai Yansong later that day (a kind of Anderson Cooper moment), Zhong went further by suggesting that people should avoid leaving or going to Wuhan altogether. That morning, Zhong was invited by Premier Li Keqiang to give input to a cabinet meeting on the outbreak, following President Xi Jinping’s first official instruction since the emergency. But it was Zhong’s re-appearance on the national scene that changed the tone of the national conversation in a decisive way.

By now, the contour of the novel virus’s journey to the center of a global health crisis is relatively clear. At the beginning of Dec 2019 and probably earlier, the coronavirus likely broke through species barrier at a wet market in the middle of Wuhan, a Yangtze River city of 11 million, and infected its first victims. The infected suffered from an acute form of pneumonia and from there, it began to spread. What’s also clear, is that before Jan 20, the discourse around the epidemic was defined by the local authority’s slow and mumbled response. According to multiple timelines recreated by Chinese social media users, the first case of infection appeared as early as early December 8. But it was not until Dec 30 did the Wuhan health authorities acknowledge the existence of a “pneumonia of unknown reason” through an internally circulated notification that was later leaked. The notification installed a strict gag order on the condition. Furthermore, on Jan 1, 2020, the authorities “sanctioned” 8 citizens for spreading “rumors” about the disease. After media got hold of the notification, local authorities admitted that 27 cases had been diagnosed, most of which associated with business owners in Huanan Seafood Market. But the market, a suspected reservoir of the virus, was allowed to open for business till the new year, closed only after the situation went public.

Zhong Nanshan’s blunt admission waked the country up to a life-threatening situation that was uncannily reminiscent of 17 years before, when the disastrous 2003 outbreak of SARS killed more than 700 globally and traumatized the entire country. At that time, Zhong’s appearance on CCTV’s flagship news show “Face to Face” directly challenged the false assurance provided by Health Minister Zhang Wenkang. Zhang famously laughed at a foreign journalist for wearing a facial mask at his press conference in early April 2003, when the SARS epidemic in Beijing had, in fact, spun out of control. He was dismissed, together with Beijing’s mayor, less than two weeks later, a turning point of the battle against SARS.

The symbolism of Zhong’s re-emergence was reassuring. The doctor, together with Dr. Jiang Yanyong, who risked political persecution to alert international media about Beijing’s SARS outbreak, were the conscience of China’s medical community that gave people hope in 2003. He proved that 17 years later he still garnered formidable respectability among the Chinese public. A photo of the fatigued octogenarian napping on a train to Wuhan circulated wildly on Weibo as people paid tribute to the doctor. And Weibo users lamented the fact that 17 years later it still took the old man to convey the bad news to the nation.

Zhong Nanshan

Later events would prove that the sense of reassurance was both misguided and pre-mature. The China of 2020 is economically and technologically much more advanced than the China of 2003. And yet, the Wuhan outbreak exposed its frail and weakened “social immune system” that, for a new generation of Chinese, was a painful discovery and political education.

Sensed that the political signals were changing, Caixin, the business weekly that’s regarded the bastion of journalistic professionalism, was among the first to send reporters to Wuhan, while people were running from it in flocks, some for the disease, some for Chinese New Year, the country’s most important holiday every year when hundreds of millions went on trips home for family reunions. Caixin’s first dispatches from the Wuhan scene was from the Tongji Hospital and the Wuhan railway station, documenting the measures that were belatedly installed. Apparently, Zhong Nanshan’s advice of not leaving or going to Wuhan was not heeded as a great number of travelers were still roaming the halls of the busy terminal. The epidemic couldn’t have happened at a worse time.

Inside the city, reporters were picking up much more disturbing signs of trouble. A group of Sanlian Weekly reporters revisited the closed Huanan Seafood Market, and bumped into business owner Huang Chang who was collecting stuff from his shut shop. Huang was infected. And so was his wife. But both were allowed to move freely in the city as hospitals were either not sufficiently alerted or unprepared to receive patients from the seafood market. Sanlian’s report brought people’s attention to the battered hospitals of Wuhan, many of which were already showing signs of stress: longer lines at the emergency rooms, shortage of testing kits, wards filling up with patients that must be isolated…

For some, such on-the-ground muckraking represents a flashback to the not so distant past that is destined to be short-living. Li Haipeng, a veteran investigative journalist reminded his Weibo followers to “take a last look at the glorious sunset”, as these were China’s last remaining media outlets still defending public interest. Between 2003 and 2020, the one difference that is obvious to anyone watching, is the decline and degradation of China’s non-state media industry. At the turn of the century, China’s newly (partially) liberalized newspapers and magazines were pursuing news and scandals with a ferventness not unlike their Western counterparts. The SARS episode established media outlets such as Southern Metropolis News, the history making daily broadsheet and Beijing Youth Daily as a force to be reckoned with. Their brave breaching of gag orders sounded the first alarm bells in Guangzhou and Beijing, two epicenters of the SARS epidemic. The following years saw waves after waves of cleansing and disciplining of the sector. Watchdogs became a rare breed and investigative journalists became an endangered species. The decline of media is so obvious that even Hu Xijin, chief editor of Global Times and a shrewd defender of Party policies, conceded that constant curtailment of media’s power by “unrelated government departments” (referring to those not directly in charge of supervising media) had significantly undermined society’s ability to raise alarm about imminent danger.

17 years after SARS, the country had proactively dismantled a key part of its immune system against such danger. And the price was dear. On Jan 23, people in China woke up to the news of Wuhan being sealed off by government order. The great Yangtze River city had closed all the transportation terminals. No one could get out of the city anymore.

The drastic measure was met with confusion, panic and hysteria. At one point, even the mayor of Wuhan wasn’t clear to whom the travel ban applied. The tone of media reports quickly darkened from Zhong Nanshan’s measured alarm to Guan Yi’s despair. Guan, a top virologist at the University of Hong Kong, described himself as “scared” in a one-on-one interview with Caixin. The SARS and bird flu veteran conceded that in his brief visit to Wuhan before the seal-off, he witnessed a city completely unarmed. “It would be 10 times worse than SARS.”

As mood turned, the horrendous situations in Wuhan’s hospitals began to surface. Sanlian Weekly and Beijing News, another newspaper joining the on-the-ground press corp, both turned their attention to crowded wards and emergency rooms. The picture they depicted was horrifying: medical workers were being overwhelmed by a large number of incoming patients. The capacity of hospitals were reaching its limit, turning themselves into hazardous public spaces. Undiagnosed patients were being turned away, who lingered between home and hospital. In 2003, SARS claimed the lives of a huge number of medical workers as hospitals failed to quarantine patients immediately. But isolation needs space that Wuhan’s over-crowded hospitals did not have. Social media was quickly filled with images of long queues at health care facilities. A heartbreaking video of a frontline doctor making desperate phone all to his superior, crying and cursing, got widely posted, then censored, and posted again repeatedly.


Like their predecessors in 2003, Wuhan’s medical workers confronted an onslaught of a poorly understood virus like barehanded soldiers. The heroism was all the more poignant when their sacrifice was avoidable. There was no shortage of irony when the life-and-death situation in hospitals were put side by side with the festive mood of Wuhan’s administers. It turned out that on the eve of Jan 21, less than two days before the closure of the city, leaders of Wuhan and Hubei province were enjoying an exuberant Spring Festival show put up specifically for cadres. Social media also noticed that on Jan 19, just one day before Zhong Nanshan’s warnings on national TV, Wuhan government organized a massive celebratory Spring Festival banquet involving 40 thousand families, a blatant disregard of containment principles. More attentive observers began to connect the dots. Wuhan’s belated official release of infection data stopped just 5 days after the virus outbreak was made public on Dec 31. Between Jan 6 to Jan 16, the city’s public health authority reported not a single new case, leaving the impression that the epidemic was under control. The silence coincided perfectly with official conferences and celebration schedules: between Jan 6-11, provincial cadres were all gathering in Wuhan for the annual sessions of the local People’s Congress. Apparently, the political ritual could not be disturbed.

As indignation against the officialdom mounted, another kind of anger was collecting force. Guan Yi’s pessimistic message on Caixin met with rebukes from social media, with netizens calling him scaremongering and “showboating“. His choice of leaving Wuhan immediately was also sneered at as an act of defection. Some went further to suggest that Guan had a track record of exaggerating virus situations, citing his alarmist comments around bird flu outbreak in 2013. Caixin itself was not spared from such criticism, prompting the author of the interview to defend the article publicly, insisting that including such voices was healthy for the battle against the virus.

The backlash against Guan Yi and Caixin was not uncommon in the national outburst of opinions around the outbreak. If things have changed in the 17 years since 2003, one clear difference is the emergence of grassroots online defenders of the state against what they see as “subversive forces”. Experts, media, and individuals may all become targets of intimidation in the name of “rumor busting” (piyao). The unifying value of such online actors (some showing signs of state coordination, others spontaneous) appears to be the upholding of social order and stability in the face of extreme uncertainty and chaos. Any utterance that is considered to incendiary or misleading is treated with harsh, and in many cases personal, criticism. Media questioning of official statistics and amplification of non-officially condoned voices run the double risk of both government censorship and punishment by public opinion. What’s tragic is that right in the middle of the Wuhan emergency, this advanced online “immune system against dissent” were activated to attack individuals with real needs and grievances.

In the confusions of the seal-off, three Wuhan Weibo users posted descriptions of what their aunt had experienced. The suspected coronavirus patient was turned away by overcrowded hospitals. Her conditions worsened rapidly at home, was finally admitted into an Intensive Care Unit, and died two days later. She never had the chance to be formally diagnosed. When her nieces posted about her death, they understandably expressed dismay. One of them described gruesome scenes at hospitals, some of which she heard about from interactions with an ambulance driver. This became her sin. As influential Weibo accounts picked up the story, they were displeased and irritated by the distraught posts. Part of the account sounded implausible. And how come three seemingly unrelated Weibo users all of a sudden started to post about an “aunt”? Quickly, a narrative of “bad elements” trying to sow mistrust about government disease response began to develop around the three cousins. Discrepancies of their accounts were highlighted. Suspicious wordings were scrutinized. The most eye-catching theory was that they were internet agents hired by the Taiwanese regime to stir up discontent on the mainland, based on their occasional language usage. Piqued by such storylines, thousands of Weibo users descended on the cousins’ Weibo space to insult them. “Disgusting bitches!” they cursed. When Weibo belatedly verified the identity of the three women, a few accusers made public apologies. Weibo later suspended some leading accounts in this episode.

The cousins were not alone. All over Weibo, desperate help seekers from the epicenter of the contagious disaster were being chased and attacked by “truth guards” for spreading rumors and misinformation. The bullying was so widespread that a user came up with a satirical guideline advising Wuhaners asking for help on Weibo to self-humiliate and apologize preemptively to the truth guards for their forgiveness.

Observers believed that the attackers were suffering from a paranoia of extreme aversion to others disseminating information that upends their orderly worldview. Wuhan’s distressed internet users were not the only group enduring abusive paranoia. Offline, in the real world, people from Wuhan and Hubei province suddenly found themselves unwelcome in their own motherland. Incidents of travelers from Hubei being rejected by hotels and residences began to emerge. By Jan 26, 3 days after the official seal-off, the spectacle had grown into a national concern, prompting bloggers to openly call for a calm-down of the frenzy: “Wuhan people are not our enemies.” More concretely, a plea went out to stop leaking the personal information of people from Hubei. Apparently, vigilantes in the system who had access to information such as hotel check-in registries were passing it on so that others could avoid, report, or drive away those associated with Hubei province.

As ordinary people were being chased, isolated, bullied, silenced and pushed around, the other line of questioning, after those responsible for the fiasco, was struggling to keep its focus. In a bombardment of outbreak-related information, public anger acted like the small ball in a roulette game. At any given moment it may land on top of the Wuhan Municipal Government, Hubei Provincial Government, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States CDC, or the World Health Organization (WHO), depending on which media story or blog post was trending at that time. The outbreak and the Spring Festival holiday together created an unprecedented online time-space where hundreds of millions of Chinese, all off work, had nothing else to do but watching one of the country’s worst public health crises unfolding on their mobile phone screens. Every actor’s every action was scrutinized and commented upon by millions online. At one point, 10 million people were watching the live stream of the construction site of an emergency hospital, assigning nicknames to bulldozers and excavators.

In this environment, China’s ruling elites were all of a sudden thrown into a virtual colosseum where their politician skills were mercilessly tested. And they failed spectacularly. When municipal and provincial officials went on TV, they appeared detached, clumsy and outright stupid. In one of the much watched press conference, none of the three cadres, including the Hubei governor, could get their masks right. In a much condemned and ridiculed segment, the governor, responding to questions about the province’s mask production capacity, had to correct his answer twice after prompted by his secretary. The train wreck made observers wonder if Chinese bureaucrats, shielded off from media inquiry for too long, had completely lost the ability to even maintain the facade of competence. These were wholesale politicians never bothered to do retail.

Wuhan press con

Probably pressured by the public outcry to act more humanly, Zhou Xianwang, Wuhan’s mayor, later went on a one-on-one interview with CCTV’s Dong Qian off-script. To his credit, he answered a few questions with a level of candidness that’s rare in this shit show of government dysfunction. But the performance did not win him many scores. Rather, one of his answers hinted at a much deeper problem in the system. Responding to a key question about whether local authorities covered up the epidemic in the critical days before Jan 20, the mayor complained that as a municipal government, they need higher-level authorization to alert the public.

The admission on national TV started a nasty buck-passing game that would occupy public debate in a disorienting fashion for the next few days. Media seized upon the rare opening to dig into China’s epidemic control regime, revamped after SARS to prevent a repeat of the outbreak, hoping to pinpoint the source of any possible cover-up. But that line of inquiry was doomed not just because of the apparent “ceiling” of such investigation, but also because of the lack of basic ascertainable facts accessible by the public. Zhou’s interview injected a new level of confusion into the public debate. Caixin’s report depicted a picture of intertwined laws and regulations that were not clear whether it was the local governments or the national health authority who had the power to publish epidemic alerts. The Wuhan mayor’s argument seemed to have some legal ground: their obligation was to report infection cases upward, to the provincial, then National Health Commission.

Were health authorities responsible for suppressing life-saving early warning information, making the Wuhan government a victim, rather than perpetuator, of the cover-up? No one knew for sure. High level health officials dodged the question at a Jan 26 press conference. But people were piecing together fragmented information. Where facts were missing, narratives filled the gap. One of the unlikely sources of information were top medical journals. With impressive speed, Chinese researchers began to publish papers detailing the epidemiological and clinical characteristics of the novel coronavirus. Their published work filled some informational holes but left more questions unanswered. A key component of the emerging scientific literature on the virus that was eagerly consumed by the public were timelines. The studies published in journals such as Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine by top Chinese scientists, including senior officials at CDC, contained information of dates when infection cases were detected, onset of symptoms occurred and epidemiological actions were taken. The inclusion of many cases before Dec 31, when Wuhan authorities opened up the lid on the situation, gave the impression that CDC scientists were aware of the contagion before everybody else. Quickly, a narrative began to develop of CDC officials knowingly hide the information of human-to-human transmission. Worse, opinion leaders took aim at some of the scientists, including CDC Director Gao Fu, and asserted that they suppressed the information IN ORDER TO be the first ones publishing those data on top journals. Those accusations piled into a wave of indignation about cold-blooded academic profiteering, pressing CDC, and Director Gao Fu, to defend their work publicly, claiming that the analysis was done retrospectively. They got hold of December cases after they were released by local authorities in January.

Voices protecting CDC scientists argued that within the Chinese epidemic control system, CDC was the one institute, sitting under the NHC, that clearly didn’t have the authority to publish information about the disease. In a way, the scientists were circumventing disclosure restriction by sending out detailed information through Western academic journals. Critics of the Wuhan authorities also reminded people that even if their hands might have been bound by law when it comes to alerting the public, they nevertheless chose to actively silence those who took risk to send out early warnings. It turned out that the 8 Wuhan citizens censured in December for spreading “rumors” about the epidemic were doctors who alerted their colleagues and friends of the suspicious disease through WeChat. Wuhan government actively killed the canaries in its coal mine.

What’s ironic about the chastising of scientists for publishing papers is the fact that the scientific community is one of the brighter spots of the dark saga. If there is progress in the past 17 years, China’s increased research capabilities is definitely one. Chinese researchers completed the genomic sequencing of the virus in a matter of days and shared it with the rest of the world to allow for speedy development of diagnostic kits and techniques. It is worth noting that during the early stage of the SARS outbreak, Chinese scientists struggled and fought each other for months trying to identify the right pathogen.

Wuhan, in part, was saved from a much worse scenario thanks to that scientific competence. The sealed-off megacity was also kept afloat by an advanced network of internet-based service providers and mobile-organized support groups that were both non-existent 17 years ago. It was Alibaba’s online shopping platform, Didi’s mobile taxi hailing, SF’s courier services and Meituan’s food delivery system that kept the basic life-supporting functions of Wuhan operating when all its public services were either stopped or severely stretched. The contrast between those efficient and nimble providers of services and the bureaucratic apparatus couldn’t be clearer when an appalled public found out how their donation was handled

The Wuhan Red Cross Association, a government-affiliated body unrelated to the international Red Cross movement, won itself nationwide notoriety for its handling of millions of facial masks and other protection gears desperately needed by the battered hospitals on the frontline. The semi-government organization first attracted public attention when people noticed its 6% overhead charge on all donations, a not so high rate by international standard but eye-catching enough in an environment where trust of governmental philanthropies was generally low. When interested netizens dug deeper, they were aghast by what they saw: large amounts of much needed facial masks were channeled to dubious medical facilities while frontline hospitals got almost nothing; doctors had to wait in lines at warehouses to pick up supplies for their colleagues while cadres casually carried away whole boxes of high-end masks; association staff using medieval methods to keep inventory of donated supplies, causing a huge problem of backlogging… To rub salt in the wound, the authorities prohibited all other channels of sending donations to hospitals, making Wuhan Red Cross Association the only game in town. Only after a country-wide outcry did the authorities softened the stance by allowing third parties connecting directly with some hospitals. And after the association opened up its warehouses to a private logistics company, the messy inventory was cleared up in a matter of hours.

If anything, Wuhan bankrupted the meritocracy myth for many people who once believed that the country was largely run by no-nonsense, result-oriented technocrats. Wuhan Red Cross Association reminded them how incompatible the country’s bureaucratic apparatus was to a lively society that was intrinsically good at practical problem-solving. Not only did the state and its organs unhelpful in such problem-solving, they were actively thwarting it. For a generation that grew up after the SARS outbreak, that experience was eye-opening, especially when they found that their self-organized fan clubs for idols were more efficient in delivering aid to the frontline than government bodies. It was no surprise that some of them wondered openly (and naively) if more accountable government officials could be generated through televised competitions just like their idols.

As this blog is being written, there is still no sign of the outbreak being under control. Hundreds have lost their lives and diagnosed cases are over ten thousand, while not a single senior official has been held accountable for the epidemic. There is a permeating sense of loss, for the diseased, but also for an era marked by its warmth and possibilities. As Li Haipeng wrote of the spring of 2003: “Officials at that time did not have to hide their personalities and could demonstrate their human side… From the outside, you could see the bureaucracy thinking, planning, maybe infighting, but almost certainly taking actions. You could feel that they at least had one consensus: that the society’s cries deserve a response.”

How should the Chinese media approach Belt and Road reporting?

A conversation with Michael Anti, award-winning journalist, blogger and veteran media observer

Michael Anti

*This blog is republished from my new blog site Panda Paw Dragon Claw, which is focused on discussing China’s overseas footprint. If you happen to be also interested in Belt and Road stuff, make sure you follow that blog too!

Many Chinese netizens, including myself, recognize the pen name “Michael Anti” (real name Zhao Jing) as an internet legend. His blogs, back in the early 2000s, were must-reads of an emerging body of online writing that was distinctive in style and latitude from what people usually saw on media outlets back then. As a journalist, columnist and blogger, Anti represents the outward-looking, critical voice that introduces liberal ideals into the Chinese cyberspace. In 2005 he famously celebrated China’s Super Girl show (an American Idol style singing talent show) as a massive experiment of democracy, where tens of millions of Chinese viewers voted for their favorite singers through mobile phone SMS. His critique of the global and Chinese media/cyber landscape has established his reputation as one of the sharpest journalistic minds in China. He was the winner of the 2011 M100 Sanssouci Media Award, worked as a war correspondent for 21st Century Business Herald and a researcher for the New York Times Beijing bureau, and became a Harvard Niemann fellow in 2008.

Today, Anti is the editor-in-chief of Caixin Globus, a new media project incubated by Caixin Media, China’s leading business news provider, in 2016 that specializes in reporting news events and developments overseas. When I met Anti in his office two weeks ago, we started by talking about how poorly international news performs in Chinese media. “It’s almost always ranked at the bottom of viewership at news portals,” Anti told me. His answer to that challenge is to make Caixin Globus a “reader-centric” platform of international news. Unlike the standard model of setting up bureaus and dispatching correspondents, a costly arrangement that is out of reach for most non-state Chinese media, Globus has cultivated an impressive network of over 200 overseas contributors, many of them Chinese students of journalism or political science living in countries across the world. With this network, Globus has managed to deliver timely, often on-the-spot coverage of the Kim-Trump Summit, protests in Iran, and the general election in Germany, among other international topics. Anti’s vision is to give readers more say in Globus’s editorial decisions through a built-in mechanism that allows readers to flag what they are interested in. In his words, he would “give up the elitist position of deciding what readers should read” and deliver world news that is actually needed by its Chinese readership.

Globus has recently launched a new initiative to track the overseas ventures of Chinese enterprises. The rolling out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is also firmly on the radar of Anti’s global network. Our conversation naturally surrounds China’s overseas involvements and how the Chinese media should approach such developments far away from home.


“Our readers’ interest will ultimately fill the entire world map.”

Panda Paw Dragon Claw (P): What is the status of Belt and Road reporting in the Chinese media?

Anti(A): I think most of the media outlets, when they are faced with the Belt and Road topics, are in a state of hesitation. They don’t know who actually reads such stories. From an ordinary reader’s point of view, why would she or he want to read about BRI?

At the moment most BRI stories are about corporate pioneers, the enterprises that first step out of the Chinese market and go global. They are either about initial successes or failures, and the lessons generated out of those. The problem is that the Chinese media have neither the resources nor the local presence to find really good story leads. So they end up doing what I call “policy reporting”. Such coverage of general policy developments does not pique the curiosity of most readers, who only browse them for casual reading.

P: So how can such reporting improve?

A: In a sense it is premature to expect the media to go big in this area. Readers’ interest in the topic has to be cultivated gradually. Without growing reader interest, investing heavily into BRI reporting is futile. At Caixin we have recently erected a paywall. If a story does not earn us subscription, it will be considered a loss for the publication. As you know, BRI reporting is expensive. Even if we can reduce costs by commissioning from in-country contributors, it will still cost much higher than reporting from Beijing.

Many of our peer news organization do deem BRI as of strategic importance to cover. The question is how. At Globus we want to empower readers to tell us what to cover. Even though many of them are currently not asking questions about BRI per se, they are starting to take a personal interest in other countries’ visa or immigration policies. And the US-China trade war is now high on their reading list. Sometimes their curiosity brings our attention to totally unpredictable places. So I believe that, with time, our readers’ interest will ultimately fill the entire world map.

It then begs the question of how we spend resources to address that growing appetite. The conventional, elitist mode of “editors pick, readers read” is becoming more and more strained with the ever enlarging geography that news organizations need to cover. The BRI involves more than 60 countries! It’s too scattered. It’s unlike domestic reporting, where editors more or less know what main frames they should use for a given news event. In BRI reporting, some level of reader participation and guidance are definitely helpful. The result coming out of this interactive process will be a real reflection of the BRI that matters, not some imagined concept conjured up by editors.


“The Fourth Estate doesn’t apply here.”

P: Where do you get this idea of need-based reporting?

A: It actually comes from the earliest economic and business reporting, pioneered by the Economist almost 150 years ago, when news reporting was considered an informational service. Nowadays, Chinese media elites understand the role of media often through the lens of New York Times vs. Sullivan, or the Pentagon papers, where news media acts as the “Fourth Estate” (or fourth power) in a society, as a check to other formal powers. But if we go back to the media’s original role as an information service, we may find its value in rebuilding the consensual basis of public discourses, something that is lost in an increasingly polarized and tribal world. In the US, partisan polarization has hit unimaginable levels. China is not there yet but you can still sense that people too readily fall into camps in any given public debate. At such a moment, my concern is to construct the foundation of informed conversation. No matter which side you are on as a Chinese, can we have a shared point of departure as globalized citizens of a responsible world power? This is the kind of consensus-building I would like to invest all my time in right now.

P: Is there any place for the Fourth-Estate-style muckraking in BRI reporting?

A: I doubt it. To play the muckraking role, media would need to be able to influence public opinion on a given matter, thereby exerting pressure on policy making. But we are at such early stages right now that even basic knowledge still needs to be disseminated. It’s impossible to jump directly into a role that can move and shake policy.

P: But the need for Chinese media to play that role is already there, if you look at environmental and social controversies around China-backed projects globally.

A: This can be addressed without resorting to adversarial, critical reporting. We can put them under the framework of an informational service, by explaining local concerns and expectations as accepted norms. We can tell our readers, if you do not respect such norms, your projects or investments may fail. This way you achieve what may otherwise need adversarial reporting through more matter-of-fact analyses. We can take the environmental debates of a host country, summarize the mainstream thinking behind them, and present it as the prevailing norms that Chinese actors should bear in mind when they enter the country. I think the Chinese actors reading our reports will agree with this approach. Because at the end of the day, they seek the acceptance of local communities. There is no point arguing back from where they stand in China.


“China has arrived at the gate of being a globalized country. But its media isn’t ready yet.”

P: What kind of BRI stories should such a press tell?

C: So many stories can be told of China’s “going out”. First of all, readers care about why China is venturing out. It’s about motivation. Secondly, they are massively interested in learning how other countries view China. For Belt and Road reporting, understanding a recipient country’s “imagination” of China is crucial. If this element is not embedded into the reporting, I would consider it a failure as it assumes other countries see China exactly the same way as it sees itself. Understanding that each country is different is the prerequisite for producing really grounded BRI reporting. And in this aspect, Chinese media has not done a great job.

P: Can you elaborate?

A: Only a truly globalized nation will need globalized journalism. It first appeared as the British Empire set its foot around the world. The Economist is a typical early product of that phase of globalization: an encyclopedia of global political knowledge. Without the demand for such knowledge, a country’s media ’cannot be truly globalized. The Economist basically taught its readers how to approach local culture and norms. Only by respecting that can you do business with the local people.

I think China has arrived at the gate of being a globalized country. And it’s not even by choice. To focus predominantly on US-China bilateral relationship is no longer viable given today’s political environment. It forces China to turn to Europe, to get closer with South East Asia, and to promote BRI. There should be a globalized Chinese press in this era.

P: But it seems that the capabilities of the Chinese media do not match the new globalized nature of China’s diplomatic and economic relations?

A: Of course not! Fundamentally China’s media elites themselves lack globalized genes. There is a talent issue here. How many of China’s newspaper editors have practiced journalism in other countries? How many Chinese news organizations have international bureaus or local correspondents? The lack of international experience leads to lackluster international news reporting.

The bright side is that this is starting to change. The United States has actually helped us train many international journalistic talents through its J-schools. And at Globus we now have this expanding network of PhD students overseas who have lived in host countries for many years and are able to analyze situations on the ground. Ultimately, we will need correspondents based in those countries to fill the gap.

P: Beyond having experienced professionals, how can Chinese media deliver stories that accurately portray how other countries view Chinese involvements?

A: This falls under the question of reporting paradigms. In BRI reporting we probably need to go beyond the fact-centric approach of American journalism which is restraint in commentary and invites readers to reach their own conclusion by presenting just ascertainable facts. Considering that our readers often lack the very basic knowledge-base to interpret developments in a host country, I would encourage my reporters to be more adventurous with their methods. Sometimes you will need to be a bit more educational in your reporting to be effective, like what Lin Da does (note: Lin Da is the pen name of a Chinese writer couple living in the US famous for their educational prose collections introducing the history and politics of the US, Spain and other foreign countries to a Chinese readership). BRI reporting doesn’t have to stick with a standard news reporting paradigm. A reporter can be as enlightening and illuminating as possible, as long as he or she maintains objectivity.

In search of Tang Lanlan

Tang Lanlan

Almost ten years ago, in a remote part of northeast China bordering Russia in Heilongjiang province, something like an earthquake shook a small village of only 280 residents. On Oct 28, 2008, police raided the village and arrested 16 villagers. The charges were stunning and deeply disturbing. The arrested, most of them related to each other, were accused of sexually abusing, raping and gang raping a little girl called Tang Lanlan (pseudonym) for 8 years beginning when she was only 6. These people included her own father, grandfather, uncles and mother (for openly pimping her to other males in the village). Someone who read the court’s verdict on the case later told a reporter that the whole thing “read like porno fiction”.

By January 2018, a few of the convicts had served their jail sentences. The girl’s grandfather had died after being placed in custody. Now some of them, including her mother, are seeking redress for a crime they say they did not commit.

On Jan 30, the Shanghai-based online news outlet, the Paper, published a story titled “Finding Tang Lanlan“. The report followed Tang’s mother, Wan Xiuling, as she embarked on a journey to try to locate her daughter and “seek justice” for herself and her fellow family members. It highlighted the incongruities in the case, including two conflicting abortion records from the same hospital issued on the same day and the mutually contradictory testimonies of Tang and her “step-mother”, the owner of a private student dormitory and the girl’s de-facto custodian while she was at a junior high school far from home. The latter had helped her report the case to the local police but offered various versions of when she actually learned of Tang’s story. The Paper‘s report at the end focused on the supposed “mystery” of Tang’s disappearance. Official records showed that she had moved out of her parents’ household, to a different city.

But should Ms. Wan be able to find her daughter Tang Lanlan?

Many people reading the Paper‘s report were at once appalled and confused. By leaning heavily on Wan’s side of the story, the journalist did not address readers’ understandable puzzlement about why so many villagers were locked up by the police if, as Wan claimed, the whole thing was either a fabrication or a horrible misunderstanding. On what basis would the local police, the prosecution and the court trust the words of a poor 14-year-old girl if without any evidence? The report posed the question, but failed to point to alternative explanations for the shocking allegations.

Most observers of the Chinese media would admit that the report was flawed. It readily adopted the point of view of a convicted criminal without balancing it with other perspectives from the victim or the prosecution. Some critics pointed out that editors at the Paper might have been too excited about the sensationalism of the story to uphold basic journalistic standards. They bought too much into Wan’s narrative without considering the general “humanitarian environment of social media” today: netizens tend to sympathize with victims, especially in cases of sexual assaults.

More sympathetic voices probably would argue that in the current media environment of China, insisting on having the other side of the story, especially if the other side was the authorities, would be asking too much of a news organization. The investigation could easily get stonewalled, or worse, censored before it hit newsstands (or phone screens) if “the other side” felt questioned and threatened by potential media exposure. As if to prove the validity of this argument, a Southern Weekly report on the same case played out in this way (report was deleted). Unlike his peers at the Paper, the Southern Weekly reporter did a thorough job of interviewing Tang’s step-parents and sources inside local law enforcement. The article depicted a more rounded picture of the case, including new details such as torturing allegations against the police and what looked like Tang’s attempt to extort money from her aunt. But the piece was killed before the newspaper went to print, probably for shining an unfavorable spotlight on the local prosecution. The journalist had to post it on his own WeChat channel (which was censored again). Ironically, the flawed Paper piece, probably because of its “personal story” structure, got a green light.

Experienced observers were able to spot the mismatch between the form of the Paper‘s reporting and its substance. “The gravity and magnitude of the case warrants an in-depth investigative piece. Yet the paper opted for a format more befitting a hotline scoop about a regular family dispute.” And The poor reporting could be blamed on the drain of investigative talents that many Chinese media outlets experienced in recent years, due to a mixture of tough censorship and market forces, or it could be a conscious sacrifice of quality to be on the safe side.

If the debate had been restricted to the realm of journalistic professionalism, the case wouldn’t have sucked up so much oxygen on the Chinese Internet for an extended period of time before the Chinese New Year. As soon as the paper’s report was out, an accusation much more serious than “editorial quality control” was laid upon the publication and the journalist who wrote the report. In the story, Wang Le, the reporter, included a piece of hukou information (China’s residential registration) about Tang, with a few items partially crossed out to hide her exact identity. But certain critics were alarmed by the possibility that the girl might be tracked down with that partial information and be exposed to the risk of revenge by those newly released from jail. A storm quickly formed online that would devour Wang Le, the Paper, and the entire media circle.

The “privacy violation” argument had so much traction on line that many social media heavyweights quickly joined the chorus to condemn the Paper. Soon the accusation was blown to weird proportions. There were calls to manhunt the journalist (exposing HER personal information in the process), to punish the publication by making complaints to the authorities, or outright to lock up Wang Le.

The ferocity of the attack was distilled in the much-used slur “prosti-journalist“(as in “prostitute-journalist”, jizhe), playing with the similar pronunciations of the two professions in Chinese. All of a sudden, a large part of China’s online community was asking for the banning of the very media outlets whose existence was supposed to protect their interests.

As a genre, legal reporting is often considered one of the areas where the Chinese idea of “public opinion supervision”(yulun jiandu) is best manifested. It is also an area where the most experienced and capable journalistic talents are employed to document, scrutinize and question judicial proceedings and their consequences, creating a rare channel of interaction between the state and general society on matters of justice. Some of the historic reforms of China’s legal system in recent years, such as the abolishment of “shelter and repatriation”(a form of extrajudicial detainment), were also celebrated as landmarks in journalism. That dynamic was still playing out less than 3 years ago, when the retrial of the Nie Shubin case was received with dramatically different public sentiments. In that gruesome 1994 rape and murder case, the young Nie Shubin was quickly arrested, convicted and executed. 20 years later, the young man’s death sentence was questioned and revisited by the Supreme Court, after relentless pleading by Nie’s family and a journalistic marathon (lasting for more than a decade) by the country’s media. The forensic and procedural flaws of the original police investigation were the subject of great social media outrage. And yet in the Tang Lanlan case, netizens were surprisingly livid about journalists “daring” to ask questions about a “concluded case”.

Some saw this stiffening of attitude against critical media reports of sexual abuse cases as a kind of “over-compensation” for the chronic absence of justice for victims of similar aggressions. Netizens just wanted to believe that the convicted had been duly punished for their crime and felt offended when that belief was challenged. The intense emotional attachment can be attributed to a string of recent incidents that shaped public perception of the experience of rural victims of sexual abuse. Roughly a year ago, the jaw-dropping revelation about the Ma Panyan sisters in Chongqing rattled Chinese social media. When very young, the three girls were sold by their step father to villagers as “child-wives”, and were raped, abused and gave birth before reaching adulthood. The local authorities not only certified the “marriages”, but also dodged calls to hold the step-father and “husbands” accountable for human trafficking and rape after one of the sisters made their tragedy public on Weibo. Earlier, the Hebei government’s unwise move to publicly honor a rural school teacher for her “dedication” drew fierce net-wide criticism and ridicule. The school teacher had been abducted, raped and forced to marry a local villager. She chose to accept her fate and stayed. But the fact that her nightmarish life story was made into a beautifying movie (A Women Married to the Mountain) and later endorsed by the local government was a source of great disgust and became a permanent point of reference on the Internet.

Other cultural factors may have also played into the online perception about the case. China’s Northeast, the country’s rust belt, has seen its reputation plummet in recent years as its state-owned economy suffered. With the region’s economic decline, the public sphere is increasingly filled with tales of a morality collapse, of the people there losing their grip on the ethical codes that hold communities together. In early 2016, a Caijing journalist’s sensational account of the disturbing moral conditions of his hometown in the countryside of Northeast (e.g. married women seeking casual sex online) got him stripped of his journalistic credentials for fabricating facts and denigrating the region. This time, many netizens found the bizarre case entirely plausible in the Northeastern context and even used foreign movies such as Nicole Kidman’s Dogville to spark their imagination.

Women’s right advocates online, whose efforts helped make the Ma Panyan case more visible, were split over how to respond. Some readily joined with others to condemn and curse the media. Others were more nuanced in their criticism, maintaining that a “due process and a professional, just judicial system are preconditions of women’s rights protection”, cautioning that the critique should not undermine the Chinese media’s (dwindling) ability to run critical reports that hold the judiciary accountable. But both positions were challenged by the view that these feminists were merely reinforcing the social stigma attached to rape victims. Instead of contesting the idea that suffering sexual assault was a kind of shame on the part of the victim, they inherited the cultural bias and insisted that the victim be permanently buried as fugitives from society.

In a world where media organizations are under attack from all corners, “Fake News” allegations from the US President being a prominent example, it is not entirely surprising that Chinese publications like the Paper enjoy their share of disparagement. What’s remarkable is that in China, supposedly benevolent forces in society have now joined the censors in squeezing the already curtailed space for media operations. In the name of privacy for a rape victim, netizens unload their fury on the media, leaving long time observers to marvel at the new reality that Chinese journalism has to inhabit.

The new reality means that in addition to being censored and destroyed, reports can also be deconstructed faster than a legitimate line of journalistic pursuit can be established. The Paper‘s piece was not so much blocked and deleted as it was thoroughly disabled and deactivated by seemingly sophisticated critiques. The feminist argument undermined not just the Paper‘s legitimacy in going along the “wrongful judgment” route, but the entire line of questioning by the media as a whole. So when other newspapers, such as Beijing News, followed up and tried to bring more facts to the table (it managed to get multiple law enforcement officers to comment on the case on record), they were also immediately hamstrung by a very hostile online environment that saw such inquiries as a form of violence against the victim. Critiques from journalistic perspectives did not make things any better. Beyond criticisms of quality control, commentators knowledgeable about media practices drilled into how the report came about in the first place and the “hidden motives” in the media’s agenda-setting attempt, claiming it was a collusion between the convicts’ defense lawyer and the newspapers to upend well-deserved verdicts.

Defenders of the media were left scrambling to adapt and find their footing. Some of them, including very prominent ones such as Rose Luqiu, felt the need to concede to the journalist’s wrongdoing before they could offer a defense of the media’s broader role of challenging problematic legal cases. The environment was tough enough for the Chinese media. They should be allowed the space to err on the side of the greater good. But the readiness to throw fellow journalists under the bus raised eyebrows. Defenders were seen to kowtow to the tyranny of online trolling and to offer cliched, one-thing-fits-all support of the press without addressing the specific dilemmas it faced in this particular case.

The Paper withdrew the report from its website amid mounting criticism. Beijing News defiantly continued to publish new materials on the case, but its Weibo account was muted by the platform for a few days. And representatives of the Supreme Procuratorate reportedly met with two of the newly released and their lawyer. The High Court of Heilongjiang province, on the other hand, denied reports that it had initiated processes for a retrial. No one, at least for now, managed to get hold of Tang Lanlan. If the girl has been watching all this from somewhere, she might feel vindicated that so many total strangers have spoken up on her behalf. Or, she might be appalled by the magnitude of the online storm that left behind a massive field of weird debris upon which the rest of her life needs to be built.

Ground Zero


Everything feels like a déjà vu of the 2011 high-speed train wreck.

On Aug 16, four days after the devastating blast in the coastal city of Tianjin, local officials once again turned their daily press conference into a national spectacle, not for its brilliance, but for its jaw-dropping level of confusion. In front of live broadcasting cameras from all over the world, the city’s chief propaganda official could not answer the basic question of “who’s in charge of the emergence response?” In previous occasions, they had also dodged questions in utterly clumsy ways, such as abruptly walking out while journalists watched in disbelief.

The scene is reminiscent of the press conferences after two high-speed trains collided in Wenzhou four years ago. In the aftermath of the accident that killed 40 passengers, the nation was incensed by the arrogant and smart-ass comments from the spokesperson of the Railway Ministry. His notorious comment that “no matter whether you believe it, I believe”, instantaneously became a joke on the internet.

But the two events resemble each other on a deeper level. The chaotic governmental response in the initial few days of the disaster, which dealt another heavy blow to the government’s (remaining) credibility, betrays the fundamental lack of unity in the Chinese officialdom which often tries to project the image of a tightly clenched fist. And in both cases China’s societal forces make use of that precious vacuum to pierce into the territory with determination. The impact of such small breakthroughs, after years of retreat, is yet to be seen.

From the authority’s side, the difficulty with handling the Tianjin blast, as with the Wenzhou train wreck, lies with the structure under which the different administrative jurisdictions are organized. The accident happened in Tianjin, in a GEOGRAPHICAL sense. Administratively speaking, it happened within the bailiwick of the Tianjin Port Group, a state owned entity that falls under the “dual management” of both Tianjin and the Ministry of Transportation. And in that administrative enclave, the different regulatory responsibilities are divided like puzzle pieces among the Tianjin municipality, the Ministry and the Port Group. Fatefully, the permitting schemes relating to the storage of explosive chemicals and the fire department in charge of the port are run by the Port Group under an authorization from the Ministry, not by the municipality.

With the train accident, the Railway Ministry was ultimately responsible for what happened on the rail track, but since it also happened geographically in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, it made the local authority unavoidably involved. The tension between the Railway Ministry and the Wenzhou local government flared up in the initial stage of the rescue work, when the latter disagreed with the plan to remove the car from the track before confirming that nobody was still alive inside it. It put the Railway Ministry, and the entire official communication effort on embarrassing defense mode for five days, until Premier Wen Jiabao came to the rescue.

Official communication after the Tianjin blast was even more disastrous. An evaluation conducted by a think tank affiliated with the People’s Daily accused the six post-blast press conferences as “producing secondary communicational difficulties”, a sophisticated way of saying “they did more damage than good.” Instead of dispersing doubts, officials actually created more of it by acting completely clueless in front of the press. Censor did not help either: “Cutting the broadcasting is only counter-productive in this era of smart phones.”

While some were quick to ridicule the seemingly incompetent bureaucrats, others offered an alternative explanation: these officials, who invariably came from the municipal government, were meticulously following a clear bureaucratic logic. They did not want to second guess the intentions of their colleagues who were actually responsible for the incident. Neither did they want to cover somebody else’s back. Unlike their Wenzhou counterparts who made that tension explicit for everyone to see, the Tianjin authority took a much more passive approach. The theory goes that it is likely they really did not know what was stored inside that warehouse and had no authority to decide who should be in charge of the rescue work.

The apparent lack of mandate and coordination from the government side had a more far-reaching side-effect: its complete loss of the ability to set the agenda. Yes, the self-valorization is still there, but it was quickly muted by waves of to-the-point questions. The aftermath of the blast saw the return of the 24-hour news cycles that the Chinese society had not seen for a while. They were propelled by social media platforms such as Weibo, which fed new raw materials into public attention on a real time basis. Yet it was ultimately the more market oriented media outlets that had been driving the evolution of the discussion and the news agenda. After the initial shock by the magnitude of the explosion, it was the media that quickly drew the public’s attention toward the massive loss endured by the firemen who first responded to the accident. Southern Weekly’s decisive Aug 13 exclusive interview with a survived fireman, who told the newspaper on record that they were not informed of the hydro-reactive nature of the chemicals in the warehouse, set the tone for an intensive round of public questioning of the authority’s liability. The Paper rode on that tide and interviewed the fire department’s spokesperson at the central government level, who incidentally revealed the fact that those first-responding firemen did not fall under the official fire-fighting system, but were “hired hands” employed by the port itself. Caixin immediately followed on that lead by digging out the exact three teams that first showed up at the site and were instantaneously devoured by the explosions. Yet their sacrifice had not been accounted in the official death toll released to the public. The bitter irony of “unequal death” has since then become a commanding mood of the Chinese internet.

The Southern Weekly-Paper-Caixin news relay was impressive, but it was just one thread that the Chinese media were persistently following through. Simultaneously, other bold outlets, including a new Shanghai-based digital platform called Jiemian.com, were trying to uncover possible corruption behind the string of green lights that the warehouse owner (supposedly a private company) managed to obtain before setting up a deadly time bomb in the vicinity of a densely populated area. Clues led journalists to the management and shareholders of the company, including Zhi Feng, its General Manager, who happened to share a very rare surname with a former vice mayor of Tianjin. This line of investigation culminated at the end of the Aug 14 press conference where officials had to exit the venue under the bombardment of one single question: “Who is Zhi Feng?”

Four years ago, the train tragedy defined Sina Weibo as the no.1 social media outlet that had the potential to replace traditional market-orientation media as China’s agenda-setter. The Tianjin blast seems to have catalyzed the re-invention of the traditional media. The perfect storm of media inquiry this time excites a veteran observer into saluting his former colleagues: “In the past few days, most of the first-hand media coverage with added value all came from the familiar bloc of Beijing News, Southern Metropolis Daily, Southern Weekly, Caixin and iNewsweek. Despite the increasingly suffocating and difficult environment, you guys are still charging ahead. Stay safe!” It indeed looks like a renaissance for which those news organizations have been saving up. Almost overnight, they unveiled to the world the formidable arsenal they have accumulated: WeChat live broadcasting, 360 degree panorama photography, and HTML5 aggregation of information. All of a sudden, drones seemed to have become a standard piece of equipment in a journalist’s backpack. And the images that they produced within hours of the incident stunned the world. Many of those news organizations probably have become substantially stronger after this battle: viewership of their materials on digital channels exploded, which almost certainly translates into a larger follower-base online.

A widely read blog by a young journalist who ventured into the core area of the explosion epitomizes this “charging ahead” spirit, showing that the “renaissance” likely goes beyond an instrumental level. Without even carrying a bottle of water, he sneaked into ground zero that was sealed off by the police and stayed in the war-zone for a full day to capture first-hand images of the event. These were heartbreaking documentations of the broken Chinese dreams. The most surreal pictures were the debris that was blown out of the apartment buildings: cash, a Teddy bear and a bouquet. “Everyone’s life is like a pottery jar with lots of stuff in it. But it’s too fragile. Shake it, and it’s broken.”

The metaphor is not new, nor is the sentiment. What’s interesting is how naturally a journalist’s eye-witness account of a blast scene turns into a sort of elegy for the vulnerability of middle class life. It is a resonance reinforced by almost every memorable mega-events in recent years, from the 2011 train wreck to the 2012 Beijing flooding to the Shanghai stampede earlier this year. The plight and insecurity of the Chinese urban middle class are part of what have fueled the pointed questioning and fearless investigation of the Chinese media. Just like what a survivor wrote after escaping from his expensive Vanke apartment building hundreds of meters away from the epicenter: “This high-end neighborhood is only two-hours of driving away from the Tiananmen Square. It’s full of foreigners and multinational corporate executives. Yet only a few banging noises rendered it an empty war zone. Who can imagine that nearby this ‘little Europe’ something equivalent to a tactic nuclear weapon has been installed?”

The familiar motif prompted an influential Weibo commentator to pull out a four-year-old post written at the wake of the train accident on what he termed “corruption terrorism”:

“At the early stage of corruption terrorism, the middle class does not have to worry too much. You are not the ones who work at coal mines or production lines. But when it further exacerbates, most of the population can’t stay out of it, as you cannot avoid taking a train, driving a car or going across a bridge. Your apartment may have a quality problem, so is the food you buy from the supermarket. In its most advanced stage, even the privileged cannot escape from it.”

It seems that after four full years, the country has arrived at the exact same spot. Just as his predecessor did after the Wenzhou train collision, Premier Li Keqiang’s belated arrival at the blast site brought certain order to the post-disaster disorientation. And one of the first things he had to say publicly was the commitment to equal treatment of firemen who lost their lives in the mission, a direct response to an item high on the media agenda.

Some were pessimistic. To them, there is little sign that the iron curtain shielding the corrupt politician-business bond, which is probably the real culprit of the explosion in the first place, is letting loose even a little bit, despite “almost half of Beijing’s best journalists concentrating their efforts on Tianjin.” But for other observers, the mushroom cloud over Tianjin might have changed something permanently: “After Tianjin, the Chinese public’s NYMBY (“not in my backyard”) protests against industrial facilities will almost certainly become unstoppable.” Be it a legacy or a spell, this sounds like the most plausible post-Tianjin scenario that the country needs to face. We may still be circling around our Ground Zero, but something is definitely growing out of it. At the moment, we can’t tell if it’s going to be beautiful or ugly.