Born and raised in the 1990s, Wuhan resident Tu Long once believed that as long as he didn’t make any politically sensitive remarks or do anything out of line, as long as he was the “obedient citizen” the government wanted him to be, his path would lead upward.
Like the “self-serving elite,” as those who exploit China’s communist system to achieve their own goals are known, he would succeed.
The coronavirus outbreak changed Tu Long. No longer does he want to belong to the “silent majority” of the prosperous. “
I know this government acts like an asshole,” he said. “But I told myself not to care about it. You know, ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ ”
Tu Long agreed to be interviewed by the Voice of America, but he worries about his safety. Tu Long, which means dragon killer in Chinese, is a pseudonym.
A boiling frog
Tu Long, 26, is different from other Generation Y Chinese who grew up behind the Great Firewall.
At age 11, he learned to “climb the wall,” or circumvent the internet censorship imposed by Beijing upon its citizens. He watched the "Frontline" 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre documentary, "The Gate of Heavenly Peace."
He went to Wikipedia to read the history of modern China that is banned by the government. He learned about an unfiltered China by reading reports from foreign media.
At age 15, he told his parents, “Mao Zedong is a butcher.” “
The Zhao family gets rich, we are just their fuels,” he said to his close friends.
The “Zhao family” refers to Lu Xun’s novel, “The True Story of Ah Q” published a century ago. It’s used sarcastically by Chinese citizens to refer to dignitaries in China, such as the top bureaucrat, the rich, the cadres and their cossetted offspring.
Tu Long’s parents warned him not to make such remarks outside the family. His friends urged him: study hard, make money, leave China as soon as you get a chance.
Tu Long had wanted to leave China ever since he was in elementary school. In middle school, in a bold move, he refused to join the Communist Youth League, because he didn’t want to “get aligned with their politics.”
But he came from an average family and his parents could not afford to send him abroad. At age 16, he realized that in order to survive in China, he had to make compromises. He needed to protect himself rather than throw eggs against rocks. “
OK, I don't do those things you’re sensitive about,” he said, referring to the government’s social controls. "I’ll just follow your rules, alright?"
Tu Long's dream was to become a journalist. He studied hard and was admitted to the top journalism school in China, where he soon realized his dream could not be achieved in China. “
My school aimed to cultivate those who help control public opinions,” he recalled. “More than once, I heard my teachers bragging about how they managed to control public opinions.”
After graduation, Tu Long found a well-paying job in the public relations department of a Beijing-based, Chinese-owned internet company. Income taxes were high and he could not afford to buy his own apartment in Beijing, but like a frog in ever-hotter water, as time went on, he felt that things weren’t that unbearable. He told himself, work a little harder, you will become one of the middle class.
He remained cautious, staying away from politics, only occasionally venting his dissatisfaction in a secretive way.
On the WeChat social media app, for example, he would write: “A yellow bear is driving in reverse direction.” In the complex meme-driven language of China’s censored internet, a yellow bear refers to Winnie the Pooh, aka China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.
It’s a metaphor for criticizing Xi for dragging the nation back to its Maoist past. Sometimes Tu Long would use Mao Zedong's or Deng Xiaoping’s words ironically to criticize China’s 21st-century reality. “
We would deliberately say something while meaning the opposite,” he said. “We were called the yin-yang masters,” referring to the Taoist belief that the two complementary forces are present in all of life. Yin is passive and negative, of the earth and darkness while yang is active, positive, bright and of the sky.
No longer silent
The outbreak of the coronavirus changed everything. Tu Long said that if it weren't for the fact that he knows how to “climb the wall” or that his overseas friends were telling him the truth, maybe he would have been cremated already.
Wuhan, the first of more than 200 Chinese cities that eventually restricted movement to some degree, was locked down January 23 by the government in an effort to contain the coronavirus. Tu Long used the time to think about what was happening, what he was seeing and how he was reacting.
"When they expelled the ‘low-end population’ [migrant workers] in Beijing, I said to myself, I worked very hard. I’m not part of the ‘low-end population,’ I would not be expelled. “
When they built the concentration camps in Xinjiang [for the minority-Muslim Uighurs], I thought, I’m not an ethnic minority, I don't have any religious beliefs, I would not be in trouble. “
I sympathize with the suffering of Hong Kong people, but I thought I would not go on the street to protest [for democracy], so it has nothing to do with me,” he said. “
This time it hit my hometown. Many people around me had already gotten sick, some had died, so I couldn’t stand it any longer," he said.
Citizen journalist Li Zehua made an impression on Tu Long.
Li also belongs to China’s Generation Y. He graduated from the Communication University of China and landed a job at state-run China Central Television where he hosted a lifestyle program featuring farm products and cooking. He later quit to make his own videos.
On February 6, Li arrived in Wuhan to report on the epidemic. As a citizen journalist, he visited local communities, funeral homes, train stations and an array of other places. Twenty days later, he was chased by guobao, or the state security police. His whereabouts remain unknown. After Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, Li is the third citizen journalist to go missing while covering the Wuhan outbreak of COVID-19.
Before his arrest, Li declared, “I don't want to be dumb, I don't want to shut my eyes. Why did I resign from CCTV? Because I hope more young people like me can stand up.”
Those words inspired Tu Long who now says he refuses to remain silent any longer.
"This [outbreak] was covered up for more than a month," he said, referring to the government’s actions.
"Until today, not only did no [official] come out to apologize to the Wuhan people, they told us we should hate the United States, we should hate Japan, we should hate South Korea, we should hate Taiwan, and we should hate The Wall Street Journal. No one came out to take the responsibility. Our 'great' mayor Zhou Xianwang was even publicly praised by the central government a few days ago…so many people still haven’t been cured, but we’ve already made a funeral into a wedding party. It is absurd,” he said, using a saying critical of the perceived ability of the Chinese Communist Party to turn a disaster into an event for thankful celebration of its wise leadership.
In addition to those in power, many ordinary Chinese disappointed Tu Long with their behaviors and remarks.
For instance, one of his classmates tried to seek help online after his mother contracted the coronavirus and couldn’t find a hospital bed. Immediately the classmate was attacked by a group of “little pinky,” or fanatical Chinese nationalists, asking him to delete the message and labeling him a person “being controlled by foreign powers” for suggesting the nation could not care for all its people.
These are the people who often tell Tu Long he is “being brainwashed by foreign media."
"To be honest, what struck me the most is not the epidemic itself, but this test of humanity,” he said.
Tu Long said he has always told his friends overseas that they need to distinguish between the CCP, or Chinese Communist Party, and China and the Chinese people. Recently, however, he has been thinking, “No, actually those can’t be separated.” “
The majority of Chinese, myself included, are not innocent. We condone [the CCP leadership] to do evil, some even assisted them to do evil,” he said.
He added, “China is filled with an unusual optimistic atmosphere these days. I read [state media] reports saying the whole world owes China an apology. They even said without this coronavirus, we had no idea how great China is.
"Wuhan is still sacrificing, still suffering, but these people jumped out to say, ‘Aiya, look how bad those foreigners are handling it. China handled it so much better!’ It’s horrible,” he said.
Preparing to flee
Tu Long has quit his job in Beijing. After the epidemic is over, he hopes to leave China. He said it’s not simply to study abroad or to emigrate, but rather, “I’m fleeing the country.”
A friend once said to him: If you want to live in China, you have to do either of these two things, and if you can do both, that’s the best: Number one, disregard your rationality. Number two, disregard your conscience.
Tu Long felt he could do neither.
"As a survivor of the Wuhan epidemic, for the rest of my life, I have the obligation to speak for the dead.”