IN A CANDID online diary of life under quarantine, Fang Fang, a celebrated author living in Wuhan, recorded her worry that residents’ memories of the agony would fade too quickly. “We can’t let the sadness of the situation consume us,” she wrote on day 12 of the city’s lockdown. But, she added, “I just hope we can remember…those who suffered a wrongful death, remember these grief-stricken days and sorrowful nights, remember just what it was that interrupted our lives…”
Less than six months after Wuhan emerged from a gruelling 76-day lockdown, only the heartless would deny its people the chance to celebrate and relax. The central city, where covid-19 was first detected and 3,869 died with the coronavirus—four-fifths of the country’s total covid-related death toll—has recorded no cases since mid-May. That month a tiny flare-up led to a vast drive to screen Wuhan’s 11m residents within two weeks—an example of China’s mass-campaign approach to the epidemic that has proved effective, even if harsh.
The testing helped boost confidence. Revellers now throng shopping streets and spill out of karaoke joints. The carefree doff their masks in the open air. Swimmers take dips in the Yangzi river, which bisects Wuhan (in July residents were in terror of another disaster: widespread floods). Visitors pack the city’s famous Yellow Crane Tower. “They all think Wuhan is a city of heroes and want to come and see us,” beams Zhang Hanye, a tourism worker. A survey by an official think-tank in late April—soon after the lockdown was lifted—found that Wuhan was China’s most popular destination, up from eighth before the virus hit.
All this is propaganda manna for China’s government, which early in the pandemic was widely criticised even within China for silencing doctors in Wuhan who had warned of a new virus, and for bungling its initial response. When images spread last month of thousands of people at a music festival at a water park in Wuhan—cheek-by-jowl and maskless—Global Times, a state mouthpiece, crowed that it was “never too late to learn from Wuhan”.
This month the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, a state-linked body, hosted the bosses of 20 multinational firms on a highly choreographed, three-day tour of the city. The trip’s aim, in the words of Lin Songtian, the association’s president, was to “witness the full recovery of Wuhan”.
The itinerary included a makeshift hospital—now emptied of beds and equipment—a fancy supermarket (billed as a “wet-market 3.0”) and an elite primary school. Those interviewed gushed with praise for the Communist Party. Liu Tiezhu, a district official, showed off a mobile hospital that was converted from a wedding venue. He said covid-19 had made everyone realise that “the people cannot pull through without the party”.
Such cheer is shared by many ordinary citizens. A 50-year-old driver, who served in a fleet that ferried doctors, food and medicine during quarantine, described the decision-making of Xi Jinping, China’s leader, as “remarkable”. Young volunteers at a lakeside jog arranged for the visitors said they were “chill” about the risk of a second wave. As they pressed colourful “Wuhan, we can” tattoos onto the arms of passers-by, they repeated a new catchphrase: “Wuhan is the safest place now.” Philippe Klein, a French doctor who stayed in Wuhan during lockdown, says many people in the city want to “forget that we were at the origin of the disaster”. A young father sums up a commonly held feeling: “Why think of the unpleasant?”
The instinct to move on has been shrewdly exploited by the state’s relentless spin doctors. In the officially sanctioned narrative Li Wenliang, a doctor who was harassed by police for sounding the alarm about covid-19 before dying of it, is now a fallen patriot. The party’s belated and grudging embrace of him has defused much of the public anger that once surrounded his demise. Zhang Hai, a local whose father died of covid-19, has abandoned a crowdfunded project to build a memorial to Wuhan’s victims—calling it “too difficult” (police had questioned him).
Amid America’s fumbling of the pandemic, Chinese are readier to accept the party line. Fang Fang, the 65-year-old online diarist (her real name is Wang Fang), was soon vilified by state media for exposing only the “dark side”. Despite her millions of online followers, readers turned against her in startling numbers. One critic is a 28-year-old student counsellor at one of Wuhan’s universities, who says that Fang Fang’s “negative information” does not “do much good to the public psyche”.
The mood of Wuhan’s citizens was a topic that Fang Fang turned to repeatedly in her diary. She wrote of a “strange, unspeakable stress” in the city during lockdown. On day 40, in early March, she wrote that residents were “reaching their psychological breaking point”. Elsewhere she noted that everyone had been “traumatised” by the outbreak. “Looking back, none of us feel lucky, we just feel like survivors.”
She is right that the city was scarred. One destination for the bosses was Tongji hospital, which has set up a recovery unit for covid-19 survivors with mental-health conditions and other after-effects. The hospital’s director confirmed that some who had avoided covid-19 were also coming in with signs of depression. He would not give numbers. The visitors were shown only the entrance hall and were stopped from speaking to staff or patients.
At Changchun primary school the group was shown how pupils were being encouraged to draw as a way of coping with trauma. A display of their artwork evinces a strong preference for catharsis-by-patriotism. In one painting, a smiling Mr Xi looks down on Wuhan, with the line: “In the battle against the epidemic, Grandpa Xi is with us.” There are numerous portraits of Zhong Nanshan, a lung doctor picked by the party to deliver the news that the virus was spreading between people. There is also one of the whistleblower, Li Wenliang.
Amid the elation, there are signs of fear and suffering. Few people are willing to give their names to foreign journalists. It is hard to overlook still-darkened shops with for-sale signs. Daily metro trips are still only three-quarters what they were last September. An engineer in his mid-30s, living in one of the districts that was hardest hit, says he has stockpiled masks at his home. “You have to be prepared,” he says quietly. In public, this is a city raring to go. Privately, many in Wuhan may recall Fang Fang’s words of warning: “We still have many more tears left to cry.” ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Washing away the tears”