Will the Coronavirus Change the Way China’s Millennials See Their Country?

On January 21st, Wu Meifen was at her office in the small city of Zhanjiang, in southern China, where she works as a publicist. It was a few days before the New Year festivities were to begin, and she was going to her parents’ home that evening, but had stopped to check her phone. She began reading reports that a novel coronavirus, which Chinese officials had initially downplayed, was turning into an epidemic so real that it threatened to upend the entire country. Although Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, is almost nine hundred miles from Zhanjiang, when Wu drove to her parents’ home, the streets were quiet, and many shops had shuttered.

A week later, when I contacted Wu, who is thirty years old, through a mutual friend in China, she was still consumed by stories posted by victims of the coronavirus, which was soon named covid-19. She had noticed that, as the virus sealed people off—even members of her extended family stopped visiting one another—the relative anonymity of the Internet and the urgency of the crisis seemed to be freeing people from their usual reticence. In a manner that Wu had never before witnessed, they were divulging intimate details of their devastated lives, airing grievances, pleading for help. “We Chinese are not in the habit of exposing our vulnerability,” she said. “It’s a measure of how desperate things had become.”

Most people were looking for medical resources. Testing kits were in short supply, and even those who were gravely ill had trouble finding a hospital bed. “I felt painfully useless,” Wu told me. “Like I was watching a person drown, but all I could do was stupidly ‘like’ their post.” She had majored in journalism in college and has a degree in documentary filmmaking; “human-interest stories appeal to me,” she said, “because they reveal so much about how we live day to day.” So, with a half-dozen friends, Wu opened a public channel on WeChat, the Chinese social-media and messaging platform, to document the effects of the coronavirus on both individuals and society. (Anyone can follow public accounts on WeChat, and they have become a popular method of sharing information, although it is known that even private channels are monitored by the state.) She found subjects on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and then messaged them to request interviews over the phone. A few of the friends behind the channel, including Wu, did the reporting, and others edited the stories they wrote. Every few days, they would put up a new piece. “So many friends my age wanted to help but couldn’t figure out how to be useful under lockdown,” Wu told me. Chinese millennials, who have come of age in the increasingly prosperous but increasingly repressive nation led by Xi Jinping, have not been known for boldness or public displays of social responsibility. But the current malaise has led Wu and many of her peers to reconsider both the structure of their society and their roles, as individuals, in it.

One of the first people Wu spoke with was a thirty-something Wuhan native named Weng Wen, who was working in Beijing when the coronavirus hit his home town. His sixty-one-year-old father became sick, but, by the time Weng learned that, Wuhan was already on lockdown. His father was quarantined, and Weng’s eighty-three-year-old paternal grandmother, who had been living with his father, was left to fend for herself. A few days later, she developed a fever and a cough. She had no means of getting herself to the nearest hospital, and city resources were too strained to send an ambulance. Panicked, Weng wrote to a local official, via WeChat, but the official subsequently blocked him. “My grandmother started working at a state factory at the age of twelve,” Weng told Wu. “She has never been afraid of death. But the government has a duty to care for her. It’s a matter of public health. The country should be held responsible.”

In the course of several weeks, Wu interviewed more than thirty people in Wuhan. One was a thirty-year-old wedding photographer who became sick shortly after his parents were infected; all three were eventually hospitalized, but at least they were getting medical attention. Others found the ordeal of seeking treatment so debilitating that they seemed on the verge of emotional collapse. “That’s how I learned that people in heartbreaking calamity do not want to hear the words ‘Fight on,’ ” she said. “They don’t have the energy to do battle. It’s not a war. They can only endure.” But, she added, “having the will to tell one’s story gives you a purpose.” One day, she spent three hours teaching Weng’s father, who was recovering from the virus, how to shoot and save short videos about his daily life in the hospital. She knew the effort was worth it when she heard the excitement in his voice over the phone, after he sent her his first video.

There’s a difference between social crises, such as the coronavirus, and political problems, she told me carefully. She uses a V.P.N. to get around China’s digital firewall, which bars users from accessing sites such as the Times, the BBC, Facebook, and Twitter. Still, she thinks that, under Xi, China is getting better. She didn’t take too much interest in governance, anyway, partly because the subject tends to invite trouble. (Everyone knows better than to discuss politics on WeChat.) But she does see a general erosion of trust. In early February, she chatted with a nineteen-year-old woman who felt that ailing members of her family had been so neglected by the health-care system that she vowed to immigrate to another country. Wu could hear in her voice the depth of her frustration and pain. “I tried to ask what, exactly, enraged her,” Wu told me. “All I wanted to do was help her to talk through it.” The young woman said that she would think about it. But, a few days later, when Wu called again, the young woman’s tone was wary. “She was fearful that I was trying to entrap her into bad-mouthing the government,” Wu said.

Xi’s regime has also eroded trust in the institutions of civil society. The largest charity in China is the Red Cross. The organization, which has no affiliation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, is predominantly state-funded and controlled by the government. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, it had a reputation for corruption and incompetence—in China, it’s often referred to as the Red Lice. (The words for “cross” and “lice” are homonyms.) Then, as health-care workers across Hubei Province, where Wuhan is situated, made online pleas for supplies and protective gear, it was discovered that supplies paid for by private donations were languishing, unsorted, in Red Cross warehouses. Yet raising money privately is difficult, which is frustrating for many young professionals. To start, it requires filing an application with the state civil-affairs department, in order to obtain the proper credentials—a laborious process that is impractical in a fast-moving crisis.

I recently communicated on the encrypted app Signal with a thirty-year-old documentary filmmaker in the southern city of Xiamen. “I don’t know anyone in Wuhan, and have never been there,” she said. “But how can I do nothing?” Working with a group of four other people her age across China, she began collecting donations to buy and ship supplies—face masks, biohazard suits, safety goggles, sterile gloves, and even rice—to Wuhan. They raised half a million yuan, about seventy thousand dollars. “We coördinated and worked out logistics exclusively on messaging apps,” she told me. She compared the process to smuggling drugs, because it was shadowy, demanded anonymity, and required a network of covert handlers at every stage.

She told me that, as a filmmaker, she had become resigned to working on nature documentaries, because the subjects that really interest her—investigating state scandals, say, or profiling outspoken intellectuals—wouldn’t pass muster with the government’s censors. But now she is questioning that decision. In film school, she had shot an interview with a ninety-six-year-old veteran of the Second Sino-Japanese War and asked him why he had chosen to risk his life. His answer was resolute: “Because that’s what young people do. If the younger generation do not act, who will change society?” Her ambitions are much more modest. “I am not trying to pursue justice or reinvent civil society,” she said. “My goal is just to get supplies to where they are needed and retain my anonymity, so I don’t land in jail.”

I heard something similar from a thirty-one-year-old office worker in Shanghai, named Leo, who felt that the Party’s insistence on maintaining the political status quo—which has become much easier to enforce with the sharp rise of surveillance technology—is wearing down the likelihood of a mass call for social change. Few people in China have heard of the constitutional law professor Xu Zhangrun, who has criticized Xi’s leadership, or Liu Xiaobo, the late democracy activist and Nobel Prize winner, Leo told me. The government erases the existence of such people by stigmatizing them and censoring online information about them. “Most people are just frustrated and become pragmatic,” he said.

I asked Leo if his generation is less interested in social reform, even in the face of crisis, because of the tremendous surge in prosperity in China over the past few decades. But he thought it came back to politics. This generation is both better informed and more closely watched than any previous generation in China. “There is narrow space and rare opportunity for us to participate in civil society,” he said. He does not think that the coronavirus outbreak will have any obvious influence on the situation, unless “the government changes its policies to remove the obstacles that deter young people from civic engagement.”

A writer in Wuhan named Fang Fang had been circling the same subject in a series of popular Web posts called “Diary of a City in Lockdown.” On February 9th, she wrote, “Dearest Internet censors, there are some things that you should let us Wuhan natives say publicly. Saying them will make our hearts feel better. We have been locked in for more than ten days. We have witnessed so much tragedy. If we cannot even be permitted to say a few words in exasperation, express grief, or reflect on what has happened, we will surely all go mad.” For a moment, the Internet had almost seemed as if it had. An unprecedented number of people—not just intellectuals and dissidents—posted online statements of anger and grief when Li Wenliang, a thirty-three-year-old doctor who was forced to admit that he had committed a crime after he tried to alert medical-school colleagues to the virus, died of the illness. Two hours after Li’s death, the hashtag #WeWantFreedomofSpeech was trending on Weibo. It was scrubbed from the site just as quickly. The social-media accounts of prominent intellectuals were suspended and their posts were removed from WeChat. The Party’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machine was rewriting history in real time.

The documentary filmmaker from Xiamen told me that the most dispiriting aspect of the crisis is that it made people fearful about doing the right thing. “People who are trying to deliver supplies to hospitals shouldn’t feel like they are criminals. Doctors who try to warn of a deadly virus shouldn’t be asked to write a self-criticism,” she said. She hesitated for a moment, before adding, “This is why I keep asking myself: Do I still live in a civilized society?” A few days later, she told me that the local police had asked her “to tea”—a euphemism for a questioning. Her private WeChat messages had been read, and she was told to stop communicating with a U.S.-based filmmaker with whom she had been in contact.

Yan Lianke, a Chinese cultural critic and novelist, told me that watching the outbreak unfold was like living through a dark Chinese fable. Others may have felt as if they were living through one of Yan’s novels, many of which satirize the state’s capacity to manufacture narratives to support its political agenda. In 2012, when Xi came into office, he built his political agenda around the idea of national rejuvenation, exhorting Chinese youth “to dream, work assiduously to fulfill their dreams, and contribute to the revitalization of the nation.” In 2019, an app named Study Xi, Strong Nation, was launched, presumably aimed at the younger, tech-savvy generation, to teach it Party policies and to monitor its Party loyalty. Last May, Xi, whose daughter is a millennial, encouraged young Chinese to integrate their “narrow conceptions of themselves into a broader conception of the nation.”

Decades ago, Yan himself was a star propaganda writer for the People’s Liberation Army. “The gratitude that people feel toward the state is a testament of the government’s masterly control,” he told me. On March 5th, the government announced its recognition of Li as one of the country’s “model medical cadres in the fight against the coronavirus.” Yan said, “By co-opting Dr. Li after the fact, the state pacifies the people and dodges responsibility for investigating his death,” he said.

Amnesia, too, can be a symptom of a disease, and one that poses a particular risk in China. “Our ability to remember what actually happened is what differentiates us from the dirt on the ground, which is trodden time and again, and imprinted with the will of others,” Yan said. But the capacity for a nation to collectively remember its past is contingent on its freedom to record its present. In a lecture titled “Don’t Let Us Be Survivors Without Memory,” Yan said that, if deprived of the diaries of people such as Fang Fang, which are now being scrubbed online, “What will we know of what really happened?” How we reckon with one crisis is a way to protect against the next. If people can’t lay claim to their present suffering, how can they defend themselves against a future reënactment of such tragedies?

Still, the public response to the coronavirus crisis seems to have unnerved the system. At the beginning of March, China’s cybersecurity administration enacted a new set of regulations on the governance of the “online information content ecosystem,” and they are as vague as they are severe, barring all material that is deemed “negative.” A week later, the Guardian reported that Xu Zhiyong, a prominent Chinese activist who posted an essay in which he called for Xi’s resignation over his handling of the outbreak, has been held at a secret detention center since February 15th, and could face up to fifteen years in prison, on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” Then, on Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it would revoke the credentials of American journalists working in the country for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. “What we reject is ideological bias against China, fake news made in the name of press freedom, and breaches of ethics in journalism,” a spokesperson for the ministry said. “We call on foreign media outlets and journalists to play a positive role in advancing the mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world.”

There is perhaps no greater opportunity for young Chinese to merge a conception of the self with the aims of the nation, as Xi has extolled them to, than during a time of crisis. But how does a society stripped of trust open itself up to such high-minded ambitions? The Internet has allowed people such as Wu Meifen and the documentary filmmaker from Xiamen to foster their own forms of civil society. But the Internet is also a trap. The kind of extreme measures that have allowed the authorities to manage the virus—the number of new infections seems to have dropped sharply in recent weeks—also define the Party’s strategy in controlling the national narrative. The question for this generation is whether the crisis will continue to push it to consider the relationship between social consciousness and political will.

Wu has now written more than a dozen stories. Many are harrowing and follow the same arc of deprivation and desperation. “Sometimes my editor tells me that they are too repetitive and we can’t publish them all,” Wu told me. Although she understands that, she said, it is important for her own sake to write them down. “I will preserve every single one of them,” she vowed. Then she sent me a passage from Yan’s lecture. “In the ceaseless tide of time, individual remembrances may seem like so much ephemeral foam and spindrift.” In her own words, she added, “But, without them, there will be no wave, no water, nothing that is recognizably us at all.”

Jiayang Fan