Orfalea Center Thematic Research Cluster

Global Futures: Uncertainty, Displacement, Security

Interview with Michael Berry on Wuhan Diary

Michael Berry is a professor of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA and is the director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. Berry’s areas of research include modern and contemporary Chinese literature, Chinese cinema, popular culture in modern China, and literary translation. His publications include A History of Pain: Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film, as well as Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers, and Jia Zhang-ke’s Hometown Trilogy. Berry recently completed a full-length book manuscript tentatively entitled “Translation and the Virus,” which explores the intersection between COVID-19, Sino-US relations, and disinformation campaigns through the lens of Wuhan Diary by Fang Fang. In February of 2020, at the very start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Berry began to translate Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City by Wuhan-based writer Fang Fang. The book was one of the earliest accounts of the unfolding global crisis; while targeted by nationalist trolls, the diary was widely reviewed by international media outlets and honored with numerous awards.

Interviewee: Michael Berry

Interviewer: Mary Michael

Date of Interview: February 2, 2021

Mary Michael (MM): Have there been any important changes between now and a year ago, when the Wuhan diary started?

Michael Berry (MB): Of course, the COVID-19 virus went global. The diary also went viral in terms of the way it was not only picked up by millions of readers in China, but then later also picked up by a very robust group of trolls and targeted for a protracted campaign. It almost feels like the ground the beneath our feet has been shifting as not only the diary was written and later translated, but the world has changed so much over the course of this year and so much of the meaning of the diary has transformed over that time.

MM: Are those different meanings coming from the original readers or from some of the counter diaries that came out?

MB:  Well, when I say that the meaning has shifted, of course there are these counter diaries, and the discourse has shifted. But also the things she wrote early on in the actual diary—I feel the meaning and resonance of those statements have changed. For instance, she repeatedly called for accountability in the diary because, during the first 20 or 30 days, there had been missteps in China in terms of how they handled the outbreak and how they silenced various whistleblowers like the martyr Li Wenliang. There had been calls saying that COVID-19 was not contagious between individuals. She calls those things out and calls for accountability. Of course, you can’t change history and what happened during those first 20 days or so. But what has changed is that those calls for accountability, I feel, are even more powerful and more resonant here in the United States, in the United Kingdom, in Brazil, and so many countries which didn’t fumble their handling of what happened for 20 days but rather screwed up for a whole year. And those mistakes have resulted in not the whole city being inconvenienced by a lockdown for 76 days (as was the case for Wuhan), but in a catastrophic loss of human life and so much suffering. And in the case of Wuhan, even though Fang Fang was screaming for accountability, there actually were government officials dismissed from office and removed from their government positions because they mishandled the virus.

I could ask you, do you know of any United States politicians or people in power that have resigned or been fired or have apologized for their mishandling of COVID-19? I don’t know of any. So for me, one of the biggest takeaways a year later is how, we’re in a so-called transparent democracy where people have freedom of expression. And in China, where Fang Fang is writing under a comparatively more repressive regime and screaming out for accountability, where are our cries for accountability here in the United States and who is our Fang Fang? Who is our hero that’s going to call our publicly elected officials to task for the utterly abhorrent failure of handling COVID-19 and the catastrophic loss of life? Right now we’re doing this impeachment trial or heading into an impeachment trial for Donald Trump based on the events of January 6th, but what about the events of 2020 in terms of the incredible mishandling of COVID-19 and the egregious lies, the lack of a unified federal policy? We can go on and on: the lack of testing, the lack of tracing, the faulty test kits, the mishandling of the vaccine rollout. It’s just been one fumble after another. So for me, a year on, I think the greatest takeaway is that it’s not just Wuhan that needs accountability but it’s also the world. And especially here in the United States, I hope that people who look at the diary a year later really take those words to heart and call their publicly elected officials to task and hold them accountable for what happened here.

MM: It might be that people are more moved to call for accountability with hypervisibilized events, like what happened on January 6th? Maybe something like a diary is better suited to capture lived experiences like that—living through a pandemic?

MB: Perhaps. In China, just like in the U.S., there’s so many media platforms. You have CCTV, you have Xinhua news, you have all kinds of independent bloggers. I mean, it’s just a cacophony of voices yet somehow Fang Fang, through that diary, was able to cut through all the noise and really become this lightening rod that tens of millions of readers came to every night for solace, for inspiration, to cry together—whatever they did in that private moment when they were reading her words. But it became a really important outlet for so many people. Perhaps here in the United States the media is so diffused, and I don’t know if you can point to a single voice that’s able to cut through the noise and be the voice for the people, the voice of conscience. Somehow, Fang Fang did that for that short period of time.

MM:The initial wave of lash back against Fang Fang was full of accusations that she wasn’t telling the truth about the events, and that she wasn’t speaking for the people—is that correct?

MB: Well, the attacks come in a variety of forms. They essentially boiled down to conspiracy theories because almost all of them are based on fabrications. There’s different categories of the lies that were peddled about her. One of them was that she was the one lying, she was the one fabricating information, she was peddling hearsay and just making things up. One of the reasons that discourse really gained so much tractions is that, throughout the diary, she rarely reveals who her sources are. She often will describe who she’s talking to as “my friend”, “my neighbor”, “my doctor friend”, “my classmate”. And she always uses these very vague descriptions of the people she’s communicating with and getting information from. Now, there’s a very clear reason why she does that, and that’s because she has been the target of troll attacks for many years. And the way that trolls function is that they don’t just go after the individual, but they also essentially do a witch hunt where they track down people associated with them or who speak out for them. And so, that led to a situation where she was trying to be protective of her sources. However, in the eyes of the trolls, they latched onto that and used that as so-called evidence that she was making things up and that there’s no proof of what she’s saying and that it’s just hearsay.

So that was just one of the many functions of the attacks. Another was the fact that she decided to publish the diary internationally – there is now 20 different foreign language editions of Wuhan Diary either in print or in press that are coming out. And when the first news of the American and German editions hit the pre-sales pages of Amazon, that was the initial spark that fueled the attacks to be taken to another level. There was a sense that China shouldn’t air its dirty laundry in public or to the international community. But I think there was also an unfortunate timing issue with—just as that information went public (this is in early April 2020), Donald Trump starting upping his rhetoric against China and started using racist terminology like “China virus” and “kung flu”. And that type of inflammatory language started to get picked up around the world. There had already been a lot of tension between China and the U.S., but that pushed it up another notch. And because the book was being published in the United States, the detractors of the book decided that this was part of that discourse. That was when the critics of Wuhan Diary made the jump that this was a book manufactured to harm China, and they actually described it as a “knife” that Fang Fang had secretly handed over to the U.S., that the U.S. would then use to attack China.

So that was probably one of the more damaging and powerful discourses that came up around this time that really reframed the way the book was received within China. Of course, the international media picked up on the attacks, and there’s all kinds of articles about Fang Fang’s attacks and persecution and all this. But the place where it really played out was within China. This was an internal device to demonize Fang Fang, to change the bait in a way—to make someone who had called out for accountability and had been looked at as a hero by many people, and to make her the enemy. And it worked because very quickly, no one started mentioning the issue of accountability, that was forgotten. It was left off of the table and all people did was start attacking Fang Fang as being this traitor to China.

MM: Just to get a sense of the timeline — this journal was celebrated in China before it went international, correct?

MB: It was. It was read by tens of millions of readers. It’s always hard to grasp when you have tens of millions of readers what their reaction is, but it seems that the vast majority was extremely supportive and she had a very loyal following. People were staying up late for her next installment to be uploaded each evening. She really had changed the debate. There were a lot of public intellectuals who came out in support of her. One writer named Yan Lianke actually published an essay where he said, “had there not been Fang Fang, what would we have known, what would we have seen?” and it was a very powerful essay. But there were a lot of these kinds of articles that were coming out. And then there were trolls but, they were the minority.

Then in April 2020, the discourse starts to radically shift and that’s done by a multipronged strategy whereby the original blog is not only attacked but also censored and it’s not accessible anymore to a lot of people. The voices of her supporters were censored and attacked. There was a professor named Liang Yanping that was under investigation for speaking out in Fang Fang’s defense and she was actually was stripped of her membership in the Chinese Communist Party. She was also banned from teaching for supporting Fang Fang. And Fang Fang is not allowed to publish any of her books. They put a soft ban on all of her new and old publications.

And then these trolls just run wild and they also commandeer popular culture. They produce rap videos like “diss” videos about her, and they produce political art attacking Fang Fang. You also have academic works that are mobilized to attack her. There are at least two full length academic monographs that were published within a month (this is in April 2020, just before the translation is even published) –these are Chinese-language academic monographs that are basically attack books just ripping the diary apart, and they’re heavily ideological.

And so you have it really taking place on this multiplicity of fronts. You also have death threats and trolls gone wild just writing salacious and horrific messages to Fang Fang, me, and other people who know her. And so you have that kind of attack where you have on the one hand the low brow bullies who are threatening you, then you have these intellectuals who are publishing official-style books, and you have pop culture. Then it’s released all at once upon all of these different levels and mediums, and then it continues. It’s been consistent for almost a full year now, and it’s probably one of the most protracted attacks like this that we’ve seen in China in decades. I don’t know of any other writer that’s been under attack for a full year straight like this — it’s really unprecedented. It did change the discourse, and also the persecution of people who stand up for Fang Fang change the discourse. Her supporters are silenced and intimidated, so the only voices you really see are the voices that have been attacking her over the past many months now.

MM: Was Fang Fang calling for accountability before April, or was she making those calls when she went international with the diary?

MB: The calls for accountability are there fairly early in the diary, but the diary does transform over its 60 days and the call for accountability gets stronger. There are these very brave passages where she really called officials to task for certain areas where they dropped the ball early on. She also gives them due credit when they do a good job. I feel that she’s very fair, she’s not bashing the Chinese government, she’s just calling it like it is. When they do a good job she gives them credit. When they screw up, she says that someone has to take responsibility for these mistakes. But in the end, the way discourse in China transformed was such that there was no room for pointing out errors or missteps. It really became a cheerleading squad where we should all get behind the government in this dark time, we should support them, we should support the heroic effort that they did, which in the end did indeed turn out to be very effective. I mean, China controlled the virus much better than the United States did. There’s no denying that. But Fang Fang never let go of these calls for accountability. She’s saying we can’t forget what happened early on, we still have to hold those people accountable.

And for many Chinese people, they felt it came down to a question between an individual’s right to freedom of speech and expression, and to what extent do we sacrifice some of that freedom for the interest of our country. The people attacking her all felt that if you’re a truly patriotic Chinese person, you shut up about those calls for accountability and you get behind the country and support your leaders. If that means not publishing your diary internationally, so be it. If that means censoring yourself, so be it. That’s what any patriotic Chinese person should do. The controversy surrounding the book almost became a referendum on civil society in China. Do we want a country that’s going to allow liberal minded individuals to publish critical texts internationally, or do we want a country where there’s one story, one party line, and there’s one version of history that we all get behind to support the government. You have both of those factions in China today. However, the latter faction has a much louder voice and larger stick. The former faction tends to lower their head and wants to stay out of trouble because they know that speaking out will have tremendous consequences.

MM: Before the diary got international attention, were her critics mostly bashing her based on how factual her reporting was? Or was it an early sign of this “get behind the nation” cheerleading efforts that you mentioned?

MB: The people who initially started the attacks on Wuhan Diary have actually been attacking Fang Fang since 2017. So in 2016, Fang Fang published a novel called Soft Burial. Soft Burial won a major was awarded a major literary prize in China, the Lu Yao Literary Prize. However, it’s a historical novel that’s set against the land reform movement in China. The land reform movement took place in the late 40s through the early 50s and that’s right after the Communist victory where land was taken away from rich landowners and redistributed to peasants. It’s always been seen as a cornerstone age in the Chinese Communist Party’s history and it’s part of their very legitimacy — how can you have a communist society if you have an exploitative class on top? So the first thing they did was enact this land reform policy. And even today in Chinese historiography it’s looked at as a great success as an incredibly important cornerstone for the CCP’s history and legacy. That’s a little bit of a backstory.

In Fang Fang’s novel, the main protagonist is a victim of that policy. She’s someone whose family were landowner, and she suffered terribly because of her association with this family during the land reform movement. The novel traces the trauma over several decades and several generations. It looks at how the suffering that she endured was like a ghost, just following over her for her entire life. What Fang Fang is essentially trying to do is make this history more three dimensional, more humanistic. It’s not black and white like the party says. It’s not that there’s heroes and villains, bad guys and good guys. You could be part of a landowning family and still suffer, there’s no contradiction there. She was just trying to show a different side of the history that’s typically portrayed.

However, a group of people started to viciously attack the novel and claim that she was intentionally trying to distort history, to turn history upside down, to take a revisionist account of the land reform movement as a whole, and in doing so undermine the authority of the Chinese Communist Party. And these attacks got so loud that it resulted in the book being banned in 2017.

Fast forward to 2020, she starts writing Wuhan Diary and the same group of trolls that had come after her in 2017 resurfaced and they started going after her again because she’s been in their sights for years now. They are going to go after her for anything she does that they deem offensive. That’s where it started, and then it grew. Because of the way these trolls function, just like the alt-right or any other international group of online trolls, they feed on hits. It is like a virus. More eyeballs, more clicks, more downloads — that’s what they love. They’re like a parasite. So as this diary starts getting 2 million views, 3 million views, 10 million views, 50 million views, that also becomes a political and even a monetary incentive for a lot of the trolls to up the ante and go after her even more. But as for the real attacks, I think you really have to contextualize it by going back to 2017, because those are the same people that had been denouncing and attacking Fang Fang for all of these years.

MM: Were there other writers like Fang Fang attempting to do the same thing that she did by trying to take account of the early days of the virus?

MB: There’s so many diaries that have come out. I even look at it as a mini genre – the Wuhan diary. For instance, Ai Xiaoming, who is a professor, filmmaker, and feminist scholar — she published a diary. Guo Jing, another social activist and feminist, published a diary in Taiwan. There are quite a few of these diaries, but none of them had the reach and impact that Fang Fang’s diary had. So, there’s dozens of them out there now, but none of them really resonated to the extent that Fang Fang’s did, that’s what really set it apart. It was the voice that cut through all the other noise out there, but there are a lot of other perspectives that are out there.

MM: Does Fang Fang reference any of those other accounts?

MB: I’m not sure if she directly quotes from Guo Jing or Ai Xiaoming. I’m sure she knows some of these individuals. What she does in her diary is she encourages other residents of Wuhan to also document what they’re seeing and thinking and experiencing. And she’s a real strong proponent not for her diary to be the end-all monolithic, hegemonic voice that’s going to tell the story. She feels that everyone should be telling their story, everyone should be documenting what they’re seeing. And it’s only then at some later date when we put together all these narratives that we start to get a more complete and complex picture of what actually happened in Wuhan in 2020. So, she repeatedly calls for that. She even says that maybe we should publish a collection of these diaries, we should create a website. At one point, she calls for the establishment of a website to commemorate those who have been lost and she calls it the Wailing Web in reference to the Wailing Wall, but in a virtual space where in the wake of Li Wenliang’s death people can go online and have a place to mourn and to reflect.

MM: Why did Fang Fang’s account get more attention? Why did it pierce through? Is it because of the writing style? Or maybe because she already had the attention of the trolls who were inadvertently giving her a platform to speak on?

MB:I’m sure the trolls also contributed to it becoming a phenomenon, because then it also starts becoming headline news that she’s being attacked and there’s reports about it and the media fuels it. That’s certainly one dimension, but I think, even before that, the diary is a very powerful account. I read two installments and I wrote to her and said, “Let’s translate this.” I had been working on Soft Burial, her novel, and I read two chapters of the diary and said, “Why don’t we put Soft Burial aside and translate this instead” because it’s just of the moment and it’s so powerful. At that time I had been reading articles on BBC and CCTV and CNN and what everyone was saying about the COVID-19 outbreak, but none of it had a human dimension. None of it had this emotional window that her account gave us, and I think that’s what drew people in, you could feel her anger, her fear, her uncertainty.

Right now we all know what COVID-19 is, we all know what it’s like living under a lockdown, we all know now about the vaccine, we know how its transmitted, we know the efficacy of masks. At that time in early 2020, we didn’t know anything. They were in a dark tunnel and she’s figuring it out. How is it transmitted? How contagious is it? Will I die if I get it? How effective are masks? All of these questions that the world would be fumbling through for all of 2020 (and in some countries we’re still fumbling). And we still have anti-maskers who are raging against masks, even now in 2021. But she functioned as our collective guide through all of that. I think people in Wuhan were reading her with a sense of camaraderie, that this is someone going through the exact same thing I’m going through. And she was well connected, so she had these doctors from various hospitals that she was getting first-hand information from. And it was consistent — every day, every night, sometime between 11pm and 2 or 3 in the morning. She would post these blogs and they were explosive.

These were not carefully refined literary gems that are flowery and ornate, they’re really explosive. It’s just a raw release of emotion. So there’s a sense that it’s not something that’s censored, it’s not something that’s been sanitized or heavily copy edited. It’s just one woman’s raw response to this very unsettling historical period that so many of her compatriots were living through at the time, and the whole world would live through as time would go by. And so I think that’s what pulled people in — that they could relate to it and they trusted her because she was not CCTV, she was not Xinhua News Agency. They knew that she was not going to sanitize things.

Some of it was dark and depressing and there were mistakes she was seeing that she was calling people out for. She was also giving constructive criticism of, for instance, people with secondary illnesses, non-COVID illnesses. When all of a sudden the hospitals are filled up, what are they going to do? She would give suggestions — why don’t we bus them out to a neighboring city that doesn’t have COVID and treat them there? Why should people be dying of strokes and heart attacks amid this pandemic? And so she gave a lot of these kind of constructive suggestions. She was trying to figure it out like everyone else, and I think people trusted her. She was a voice that they came to for solace and almost looked at her as a friend online and they got to know her.

MM: So it probably didn’t read as very journalistic when you were translating? She’s doing these journalist activities like talking to people and trying to gather all of this information, but she’s writing it as an experience, correct?

MB: She’s writing it as her experience under lockdown which includes getting information from these sources, from online, from the phone. She never passes it off as her own first-hand experience. One of the things the trolls criticize her for is they say, “Who are you? You’re just some old lady locked up in her house reading stuff online! You’re not a front line worker, you’re not a hospital worker!” And her rebuttal is “No, this is the experience — being locked down in my house. All 9 million residents of Wuhan — we are on the front lines. Being quarantined is part of being on the front line. This is the experience.” And she does not give primacy to one type of experience over another. It’s not that by being an ER doctor, your perspective is more authentic or more “real” or more “true” than my experience being stuck in my house. Of course, they are different experiences, but they all have their value. And so she feels that everyone should have this responsibility to document what they’re seeing and feeling, including the ER doctors and the frontline workers. But just because she’s not out there in the streets doesn’t mean that somehow her account is fake or her account is not legitimate. And in some ways, it’s more representative of how most people were experiencing and would experience lockdown and COVID-19.

MM: I find it interesting that a lot of the vitriol and political extremism gets hidden behind calls for factual accounts. Not that the factual accounts really matter to political extremists — they want a truth that fits their vision of their home, their nation. I do wonder if there is an appreciation of the setting of the diary, and how that would translate into other places?

MB: Well the diary does also play a role as a historical record because it’s the first major lockdown and it’s the most complete chronicle of that lockdown that I think we have. It’s like riding a bike, you can never unlearn how to ride a bike once you can do it. Once we know what COVID-19 is, once we know what it’s like to live under a lockdown, we can never go backwards and recapture those emotions of what it was like for the first time. And even when we went through it for the first time in the U.S., we had the experience of learning from Wuhan and from Italy and from other countries that had gone through a similar thing. We had seen that in the media. But for Wuhan, this was the first moment. I think there’s a historical value in Fang Fang’s documentation of what the early phase was because we can never go back and recapture that. And so, I think that’s also an important part, its historical value as a document.

MM: Do you have a sense of whether there’s a network of trolls also trying to combat the network of diaries that you were talking about earlier? Are there links between the trolls that attacked Fang Fang and these other accounts?

MB: Yeah, so Ai Xiaoming and Guo Jing and other diary writers — I do not think they have been subjected to a fraction of the attacks that Fang Fang has. This is partly because those diaries were very much under the radar. They did not have the same readership. They did not hit the same pressure points that Fang Fang’s diary was hitting. The fact that Fang Fang’s diary was sold to all of these international publishers somehow stuck out to the trolls. The fact that it was translated very quickly — I worked around the clock seven days a week for about two months to finish a 400 page book — the trolls framed that in a conspiratorial context. They basically said that the only way this could have been done is if we had a team of CIA-backed translators that were producing this thing like it was a piece of manufactured evidence used to hurt China. So the speed at which it was translated and published became itself fodder for more attacks, and it got pulled into these controversies around the origin of the virus. It got pulled into the Sino-US trade war, it got pulled into all of these controversies that had absolutely nothing to do with the actual diary. If you read the diary, she doesn’t talk about the United States. It’s not part of the issue, it doesn’t talk about the origins of the virus. Yet if you read the troll accounts, you’ll be led to believe that this diary is somehow a big exposé on all of these topics that it actually has nothing to do with. And so it got twisted and contorted into this politicized tool.

MM: Do you have a sense of whether the readership of the trolls and their attacks is more than the readership of the original diary? Is there more media attention around the troll accounts?

MB: Right now it is, because the diary is kind of suppressed. Supporters of Fang Fang are suppressed, and all you see is the trolls gone wild. And there are so many of them. And I still get attacks now, a year later, every day. And so they have changed the discourse and I see how it plays out, especially with young naïve readers who do not either have access or interest or the time. I mean for most of us, it’s easy to get a little message on your phone and then you read the headline and you believe it’s true. If it’s coming from an official Chinese news source and they read enough of those and it sinks in then they think “of course it’s true, and of course Fang Fang did this,” when in reality the discourses have been turned completely upside down. And everything those headlines are writing are actually the fabrications, and the truth of the book has been completely buried and suppressed. Propaganda works, unfortunately.

MM: What is the international life of the diary right now?

MB: The book was first published globally in mid-May, 2020 in English. There was an e-book, and the hardback finally came out in November. And in the interim, more than a dozen different foreign language editions have come out around the world and there is a total of at least 20 editions in various languages. It was a bestseller in Germany for many weeks, the German edition got a lot of attention. It’s been featured everywhere from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The London Times, newspapers and media outlets throughout the Middle East and Asia. It’s been a media sensation. Fang Fang herself was recently recognized by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women of 2020. Her earlier book Soft Burial was just awarded a major literary prize in France. And so it’s been getting a lot of positive feedback. And I think generally speaking the work is having an impact.

The trolls are also still active even internationally. If you go to Amazon, you’ll see nearly half of the reviews are 1 star reviews written by Chinese trolls. So they are also trying to change the discourse globally. They release videos on YouTube attacking the book. They are very active in trying to change the temperature in how the book has been received outside of China. But basically it’s become a bifurcation where in China, official and nonofficial media is largely attacking the book with a whole array of lies and fabrications. Internationally the media has tended to laud the book as this brave testimony that speaks to the voice of China or the conscience of China.

I think it kind of does a disservice to embrace either one of those too far. I do feel the book should be embraced and it certainly is a very brave work. At the same time, a lot of the international accounts also tend to gravitate towards a set of very specific talking points — how she’s been suppressed and the censorship and the attacks — but there’s a lot less attention on the work itself and its merits and its importance. I’ve done a lot of these interviews over the last year about the book and I always try to emphasize the American lessons we can get from Fang Fang’s diary and how those lessons about accountability and about even simple things like the efficacy of face masks.

I mean, Fang Fang was wearing face masks in early January when there wasn’t even a single confirmed case of this illness. They didn’t even have the word COVID-19, all they had was a rumor that there was a SARS-like virus transmitting in the city. And she takes it upon herself to put on a face mask and start wearing it. And here a year later, we know exactly how effective face masks are. And yet just a few days ago in Los Angeles one of our COVID-19 vaccination sites was shut down by a mob of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers who descended upon it claiming it was a hoax. I really wish there weren’t lessons like that to be learned anymore. I would have hoped we would have learned the lessons about that and about masks and quarantines, and the effectiveness of testing and tracing. But we still haven’t learned these basic lessons. Let alone the more difficult lessons about accountability.

My point is that I will always mention this in interviews, and they almost always cut that part out. But I feel such an important side of this is that we also take what we can from that diary and look inward. So many of the terrible things that happened in 2020 are all there in that diary, like racism, and the intersection between prejudice and COVID-19. I mean, she talks about Wuhan residents being stigmatized in other parts of China when people learn they’re from Wuhan. Hotels won’t take them, people don’t want them in their cab, they’re getting fired from their jobs. And so, way back in the very beginning of this virus we already saw the ugly face of discrimination and how it interacted with this virus. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated how it would spin out of control over the course of the year in terms of anti-Chinese, anti-Asian violence and discrimination, the way in which demographic groups such as the Latino and African American communities in the U.S. and Native American communities had a much higher rate of infection and death than white demographics. And so there are many ways in which race played into this. Things like that are all there in that very early moment of the diary. And that’s the part of the story that Western media outlets don’t seem like they want tell about the diary.

One of the big things is disinformation campaigns and political extremism. We saw very early on this diary was being attacked by ultra-leftists (which is what Fang Fang calls them in China). It’s different from leftists in the US. It means they are close to the Chinese Communist Party and extremely patriotic. But they are actually mirror images, or bizzarro images of the alt-right in America. And that was another big story in 2020, the rise of the alt-right and American political extremism. What I see happening in the diary is not an isolated case to Wuhan, China. But it somehow was able to tap into these undercurrents that would play out globally throughout the next year and continue to play out. And the big one is political extremism. Fang Fang calls these extremists the greatest threat to Chinese society and even more so than the virus, they are the true virus. And I tend to think in the American contexts we’re in a very similar place.

MM: Do you know of any reflexive activities centered on the diary that are happening in other places?

MB: There’s been a lot of talks on it. I just wrote a book on it, an academic monograph, analyzing the whole phenomenon of this Fang Fang controversy as it played out in 2020. I look at the intersection of COVID-19, China-U.S. relations, disinformation campaigns, and fake news with this book, Wuhan Diary. But there’s also a lot of other scholars who are working on similar topics. Guobin Yang at UPenn I believe is writing a book on Wuhan narratives of COVID-19, and there’s a scholar in the U.K., Hongwei bao, who has been publishing a lot on Wuhan Diary. Howard Choy in Hong Kong has been publishing about it. So there’s a lot of people who are thinking about it in a critical and nuanced fashion, but mainstream media tends to boil things down to the lowest common denominator.


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