October 3, 2022

“With respect to your illegal act of publishing untruthful information on the internet, this letter serves as a warning and a reprimand. Your behavior has seriously violated social order. Your behavior has gone beyond the limit permitted by law.” Letter issued to Li Wenliang by the Wuchang District Police Station, after Li told members of his WeChat network about the appearance of a novel coronavirus in late 2019. Li, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, died from COVID-19 early in February, 2020 .

“I broadcast yesterday and the day before yesterday. But some people just wouldn’t listen. They took this matter like wind blowing past the ears. So your families are all made of iron? All molded in steel? Your families have no fear? How can you be like this? You run around in the street and even organize mahjong parties. What are you up to? Message from a village leader in Henan province, China, delivered over loudspeaker, urging citizens to abide by the lockdown regulations.

Guobin Yang is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA, USA), where he specializes in digital culture. In his research for The Wuhan Lockdown, Yang mined thousands of online diaries and entries on social media sites. The book builds up a detailed picture of what the lockdown and its broader context meant to those confined, to the Chinese Communist Party, and to the relationship between the state and the citizenry.

When Wuhan began its lockdown on Jan 23, 2020, it was not clear how long it would last, or whether COVID-19 could be brought under control. Contemporary online diaries, explains Yang, “are the ideal documents for understanding the visceral feelings, thoughts, and activities of the diarists caught in their own daily struggles.”

At the time of writing, China was once again battling an outbreak of COVID-19 using rigorous lockdown policies enforced by both authorities and the community. Whether they will be successful remains to be seen. But the effects will be documented on blogging sites and video platforms, where communities are established, activism is enabled, and censors are outwitted. Yang has crafted a fascinating portrait of modern China, capturing subtleties and sensitivities that mainstream European and North American media are typically content to ignore. “Even the mighty Yangzi cannot easily wash away the great stories of Wuhan in the year 2020”, he writes. He has done a fine job of teasing out the meaning of some of these stories.

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