Chinese Central Television in recent days has been broadcasting scenes of workers constructing a vast hospital on the outskirts of Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic that has already claimed hundreds of lives. Accompanied by swelling chords of heroic music, the broadcast is clearly designed to give the impression of a Chinese government that is on top of the situation, taking firm, effective countermeasures.
A different view of the crisis is being broadcast by a small core of citizen journalists in Wuhan who are carrying out what amounts to a highly unusual and risky little rebellion against China's system of total information control. They are making video reports, some of which have gone viral on YouTube, castigating their government for ineffectiveness and cruelty while claiming that the situation in Wuhan is far worse than the authorities will admit.
One of these citizen broadcasters is a man called Fang Bin, who filmed himself visiting four hospitals in Wuhan on February 1. In contrast to the official images, he documented crowded conditions, people cramming hallways with IV bottles hanging above them, recording doctors pronouncing some of them dead. But the most remarkable of Fang's videos – some of which have been translated and put online by Chinachange.org – was the one he made later that day when a group of men appeared at his home (below).
“I took the video today and you already tracked me down?” Fang exclaims, recording what appear to be four or five men in full quarantine gear outside the locked metal gate of his apartment.
“We came to take your temperature,” one of the men says.
Fang tells the man that his temperature is normal, and then asks who the visitors are.
“Don't worry who we are,” the man says. “Just open the door.”
Fang asks the man's name.
“My name is none of your business,” he replies. “We are government workers.”
Fang then asks whether he has a warrant. “There are laws, right,” Fang says. “If you can show me a warrant I'll open the door.”
At that point, the men, who turn out to be police, break into the apartment and arrest Fang, but not before he managed to push the “send” button on his phone, sending his video into the world.
A few hours later, having been released, Fang was back in his apartment showing a new video of himself reporting on his arrest. The police chastised him, he says, for taking images that reflect badly on China. “You're setting off an atomic bomb,” he quotes one of them telling him. “You're terrifying everybody.” When Fang protested that what he'd been saying was the truth, the policeman replied, “You're not allowed to say that. We have to speak in a single voice.”
“Well,” Fang says he replied, “the official television reporters are getting paid their salaries, but they don't report the truth. That's why I have to do it.”
In some respects, the portrayals in videos like Fang's aren't surprising, given the rapid spread of the coronavirus and reports of shortages of medicine and supplies and overcrowded hospitals, which had made it hard to treat all but a small number of seriously ill patients.
What’s unusual is the emergence of a handful of people who, despite the clear risk of doing almost anything not approved by the government and the Communist Party, have made it their mission to tell the world about the extent of the suffering and the desperation of Wuhan's inhabitants.
Fang, who is reported by Chinachange.org to be the middle-aged owner of a clothing business, appears to have become the most visible of Wuhan's online citizen reporters. But others have quickly taken up his example. One of them is a man, who describes himself in a video (above) as an “ordinary citizen of Wuhan in my twenties.” Wearing a face mask and a knit cap as he stares into a cellphone camera, he asks whether the government of any other country in the world would be sending sick people out of hospitals and forcing them to go home, where, he says, they risk infecting relatives and friends. His question aligns with reports that the local Wuhan government has been engaged in desperate triage, given the acute shortage of hospital beds, taking only a small number of seriously sick patients and telling others to go home.
“I'm putting myself at risk,” the man says, speaking through a face mask. “The police might grab me any minute, but I want to send this video out to let outside people know the truth of what's happening in Wuhan.” He continues, “We ordinary people aren't stupid. We're not brainwashed.”
Taken together, the videos provide a mosaic of Wuhan under siege. One video, by an unidentified person, is taken from a car driving past a line of people stretching perhaps a mile or more, waiting in the hopes of buying face masks. Another video, which has since been scrubbed from the Internet, showed a man standing on a bridge shouting that he’d been sent away by hospitals even though he is sick. He calls out to whoever may be listening that he can't go home, since he fears infecting his wife and daughter. Then the video starts to shake and the image becomes too blurred to be made out, but the voice of the man taking the film can be heard saying, “He's jumped.”
In yet another video that was viewed before it disappeared from the Internet a young woman in a hospital bed loudly protests as doctors or nurses remove her oxygen mask, saying “You don't need it anymore.” The woman takes a video of a letter she's written in which she tells her friends and relatives that, “If I die, it's because they murdered me.”
And then there's the one put out by a man calling himself Chen Quishi, who says he's a professional reporter who has decided to make videos of his own to distinguish between “fake news and the truth.” In one of them, he reports on a visit to a hospital where the entry corridor is full of people awaiting treatment, while nearby are three corpses that have been there all day.
“A nurse told me directly that it wasn't the hospital's fault,” Chen says. “She told me, 'The undertakers haven’t come to take them away. They’re too busy.’ "