Virus Crisis Exposes Cracks in China’s Facade of Unity

Wuhan’s medical system was so overwhelmed that videos of overworked medical workers having breakdowns and desperate patients pleading for help circulated widely online.

The situation was so dire that Zhang Ouya, a senior reporter at the state-run Hubei Daily, wrote that “Hubei must immediately replace its commanders” on his verified Weibo account. The post was soon deleted, but a screenshot circulated widely. In an official document leaked online, the newspaper apologized to Wuhan officials and promised that its staff would post only positive content.

For many people in China, the most unexpected revelation came when local hospitals ran out of supplies and had to ask for donations on social media, going around the Chinese bureaucracy. As the crisis expanded, even hospitals in Beijing and other provinces resorted to public appeals for face masks and protective medical gowns.

“I’ve always thought we have the most refined state-run system, which can pool and deploy resources at a moment’s notice,” wrote a Weibo user called Meng Chang, a former journalist in Beijing. But the reality was disappointing, he wrote: “Where is the omnipotent system?”

National leaders, meanwhile, look out of touch. As the outbreak became a national crisis, the front page of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, last week extolled the leadership but didn’t mention Wuhan. “There’re no people in the People’s Daily,” one of my WeChat connections, an economist, messaged me.

China Central Television, the state broadcaster, featured a banquet held by the leadership to celebrate the country’s successes. On Friday night, the eve of the Lunar New Year, CCTV’s annual holiday broadcast worked in six minutes of praise for Wuhan’s medical workers between the skits and songs. Wuhan’s people went unmentioned.

“I was very sad when watching the Spring Festival gala last night,” a woman named Jiujiu told the podcast Gushi FM. “Wuhan has come to this, yet the whole nation still seemed full of great joy.”

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