Three months ago, Wuhan resident Zhang Yi was sitting next to two local Hubei province reporters at a restaurant. He overheard them talking about the Provincial Party Committee secretary, who was upset about a news story. The official told the reporters negative stories would no longer be published.
A month later, a mysterious virus started spreading though Wuhan’s residents, causing pneumonia-like symptoms.
In early January, Chinese officials called this new virus “preventable and controllable.” They said they had seen “no evidence of person-to-person transmission.” Throughout the week of January 11, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission published the same number of confirmed cases: 41.
Those official statements failed to convince Zhang. In his mind, he kept hearing what he’d overheard the reporters talking about in the restaurant.
Zhang talked to VOA right after authorities locked down Wuhan on January 23. That’s when the official number of confirmed cases and deaths was 571 in 25 provinces and 17 in Hubei province where Wuhan is the capital. Media reports on Saturday said the toll had topped 800.
“When the epidemic first started, I knew the published statistics were not real,” he said.
Zhang could see just how much the lockdown had upset people he knew. “They are relatively furious now. I was warned [by police] … but right now I must speak out. I must speak even if they are going to lock me up. If I don’t do it now, I may never get another chance.”
On February 3, another Wuhan resident emailed VOA. He identified himself as Ming. Many people in China prefer to use pseudonyms online so they can speak without fear of being identified by authorities.
Ming had just spent five days by his father’s bedside in a hospital in Wuhan. That was their last time together.
According to Ming, his father was infected by the new coronavirus in mid-January after he checked in at Wuhan Union Hospital for a routine annual examination scheduled to take several days.
The hospital is one of two dozen designated for coronavirus treatment. After a day or two Wuhan Union, Ming’s father began showing coronavirus symptoms and tested positive.
Medical authorities transferred Ming’s father to the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital, where he died on January 29.
“It’s so miserable that my dad just lost his life like that. It’s so tragic,” said Ming in a video he posted on YouTube and shared with VOA.
Even though he wasn’t supposed to be in the virus ward, Ming was holding his father’s hand when he died. What happened next still worries Ming. Employees of the official crematorium whisked the body away.
Ming was told to come and pick up the ashes 15 days later. Ming told VOA he’s worried the ashes won’t be his father’s remains because the crematorium is overwhelmed by the quickly escalating death toll.
“There are many people like me in Wuhan. The virus killed many. I saw people die every day. Many families have fallen apart,” a devastated Ming said in the video. “My dad worked hard and contributed to the country for his whole life. Now he is dead, we didn’t see his body, we can’t hold a memorial service, nobody came for a farewell.”
Online comments expressed sympathy for Ming and anger at government officials for their response to the outbreak.
On February 4, Xu Zhangrun, a former law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, published a long article about the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The article, “Furious People No Longer Fear,” went viral online before censors removed it.
In the article, Xu said the coronavirus epidemic was causing a nationwide panic. He criticized the authorities’ confusion and the time they lost in responding, which caused ordinary people to suffer and China to become “an isolated island in the world.”
Xu said the Chinese people’s anger “has erupted like volcanos. Furious people are not scared.”
This was not Xu’s first harsh condemnation of China’s leadership. In July 2018, he criticized President Xi Jinping’s strongman rule in an article published on the website of the Unirule Institute of Economics, a liberal think tank in Beijing. Tsinghua University suspended Xu in March 2019 and the government closed Unirule in September.
As expected, censors pulled Xu’s article on the outbreak. Unexpectedly, screenshots of the article disappeared when shared. Even using WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app, the screenshots were not displayed on the receivers’ phones.
Outside China, beyond The Great Firewall, many readers hailed the article.
Others spoke of Xu’s courage. Some, however, wondered if Xu overestimated “the anger of Chinese people.” Or as one reader posted: “As long as it doesn’t hurt them directly, most Chinese people just repeat, ‘Wuhan, stay strong. China, stay strong,’ and go about their lives.”
Chu Wu contributed to this report, which originated in VOA’s Mandarin service.