The Wuhan writer who angered China

A diary written by an award-winning Chinese author documenting her life in Wuhan in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak has now been translated into English.

Fang Fang first began publishing online accounts of her experience in the city in January, while it was still believed to be a local crisis.

The 65-year-old’s diary entries were widely read, providing millions in China with a rare glimpse into the city where the virus first emerged.

Earlier this year, Wuhan became the first place in the world to enter a state of complete lockdown that was then unheard of, but has now become widespread. The city was essentially cut off from not only China, but the rest of the world.

As the lockdown continued, Fang Fang’s popularity grew. Publishers then announced that they would collate her entries and publish them in several languages.

But Fang Fang’s growing international recognition has come with a shift in the way she is viewed in China – with many angered by her reporting, even branding her a traitor.

What was her diary about?

In late January, after China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan, Fang Fang – whose real name is Wang Fang – began documenting events in the city on Chinese social media site Weibo.

In her diary entries, she wrote about everything from the challenges of daily life to the physiological impact of forced isolation.

Publisher HarperCollins says she “gave voice to the fears, frustrations, anger, and hope of millions of her fellow citizens”.

It notes she “also speaks out against social injustice, abuse of power, and other problems which impeded the response to the epidemic and gets herself embroiled in online controversies because of it”.

In one column written by her published by the Sunday Times, she details an instance where she went to pick her daughter up from the airport.

“There were hardly any cars or pedestrians on the streets. Those few days were when panic and fright were at their height in the city. We both wore facemasks,” she said.

How did it come to international attention?

During a time where news was being heavily filtered and independent news outlets were scarce, Fang Fang quickly emerged as a reliable source of information, boosted no doubt by her background as a well-known writer.

“This country needs writers with a conscience like you. The public has lost trust with much of the official media, one user on Weibo had reportedly said, according to news site The Independent.

Her reputation, as well as her words, quickly spread and it wasn’t long before it found its way out of China.

Why did China turn on her?

Cyber-nationalism is common on Chinese social media. Thousands of angry netizens stand ready to rear their head whenever China is criticised, humiliated or subjected to some form of foreign insult. And Fang Fang is far from the first Chinese writer to face online backlash.

In this case, as the virus continued to spread across the world, people started to become more critical of China’s response to the outbreak. The heavy scrutiny and criticism meant many went on the defensive.

It was in this climate that it became known that Fang Fang’s works were due to be sold in the West.

According to specialist news site What’s on Weibo, this was when public opinion turned against it, after it “became known that an international edition of her diary was on pre-sale through Amazon”.

“In the eyes of many Chinese users, a translated version of Fang’s critical account of the Wuhan outbreak would only provide opponents of China with more ammunition,” says the report.

She was quickly seen not as a bearer of truth but instead a traitor to China, with some saying she was capitalising on her fame – and even possibly a tragedy.

“She’s seizing this time of national crisis and taking advantage [of it],” said one user on Weibo. “This is contemptible.”

The anger against her is not helped by the fact that the book was published by US publisher HarperCollins – at a time when the US and China are in the midst of a diplomatic spat.

Chinese state media have also made it very clear what their position is on Fang Fang.

“Her global rise propelled by foreign media outlets has sounded the alarm for many in China that the writer might have become just another handy tool for the West to sabotage Chinese people’s efforts,” said a piece by the Global Times.

“Her diary only exposes the dark side in Wuhan while ignoring the efforts that local people made and the support extended across the nation.”

How has her book been received?

It’s hard to say as the book was only made available last Friday.

The New York Times has praised its raw honesty, saying “she may live meekly during the lockdown, but she writes bold sentences”.

A review by NPR says the diary is a “document of the trivial, tragic and absurd during Wuhan’s 76 days of lockdown”, but laments that the translation into English is unable to “capture [a] multidimensionality” found in her Chinese diaries.

On Amazon however, the book has been met with a handful of negative reviews, one of which called the book “totally fake information”.

Another reviewer, however, praised the book, saying her diary “provided a window into what it was like to live in a city that the whole world was watching”.

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