You had your eyes fixed on the mobile phone screen for over ten hours, then suddenly you realise that something has gone wrong. The problem has nothing to do with the common obsession with the electronic device per se, but with the lack of any alternative outlet to help endure this difficult time, with its constant bouts of panic and excitement. In the face of danger, you can’t help others.
My first alert about the virus came through on 20 January, 2020 ― barely an early one, but many who should have been more alarmed heard about it much later than I did. When a crushing danger becomes real, a common first response is to put oneself outside the crisis and skirt around it. This was the case with SARS, at least as I remember it. That was 2003, and I was yet to start my college study in Beijing. I holed up in my hometown – and in that small place I was shielded from most of the heat felt by the outside world.
My first response to COVID-19 was not to go back home. Home for me is in the Hunan province in the south of China, next to Hubei. It had been a difficult decision to make. The virus coincided with the Chinese New Year; it was like a bomb thrown into a mine field. But I also knew that it was the time when I was most needed at home. As one of the few events that still hinged upon traditional beliefs, I would rather not miss this rare testament of filial values. It’s normally a flurry of visits and meetings between families and friends. Its festive aura was becoming thinner and thinner each year but even so I had only once before missed this occasion, at a time when I was studying abroad. New Year is one of the last totems of family attachment in this pragmatic world; the pressure on young people not to miss it can be unbearable sometimes.
My family had no idea of the seriousness of the situation. They declared my precaution an outright overreaction. A common joke was that viruses can be killed by cigarettes and alcohol, and that if they survive, the ailments they cause merely add flavour to the overall atmosphere of the festival. I felt my father’s silent urgings from the other end of the telephone; I simply could not give him enough evidence to support my decision to stay where I was. I took stock of what I had, materially and emotionally, to sustain a few days alone in Beijing. My conclusion: I couldn’t manage it. And so I returned home to Hunan.
Everything was business as usual, except for little tremors felt only faintly by the locals. Then suddenly there was breaking news on the last day of the lunar year: the official announcement of a severe virus predicted to wreak havoc on the entire nation. I felt myself redeemed amid the admiring and equally disbelieving eyes of the relatives and neighbours. The joy of family reunion quickly gave way to the grave concerns shared by the town residents. We had only one big family gathering – normally it continues until the middle of the lunar January. The atmosphere was sullen. I didn’t do anything except nervously browse online news for most of the day. I knew that this time our little nest would not be exempted.
The situation remained unclear for the next few days. Things had worsened but nobody was sure just how dire it had become. The prevalent sentiment was a sense of contingency or luck; if you were missed by the first firing stone, you would probably be forsaken from the second. In the cold air, anxiety was spreading fast. Will I endure this crisis by staying at home? Will people go back to work soon in the big cities?
I decided to go back to Beijing to prepare for a business trip to Australia after the lunar new year. By then another announcement had been issued by the central government ordering the lockdown of the city of Wuhan. Rumours flooded social media. If I left now, would it be safer, I wondered. I was afraid they would close Beijing too. And travel would be quieter because so few people travel just after Chinese new year.
I have never seen an over-strained massive traffic network come to a halt, or a bustling metropolis calmed to reveal the matrix of its deserted streets; I figured it might feel cool or defiant to buck the trend of staying with family for the whole celebration. Instead, on the way to Beijing I felt only the loneliness of an extravagant party suddenly brought to an end.
Not all the parties stopped. Despite the coronavirus, the New Year evening party held by Chinese Central Television still took place and was broadcast nationwide. Sign among the signs, totem among the totems; this broadcast has steadily lost more and more of its audience over the past few years. This time, it was not rebroadcast. It was just gone, like lavish flowers blown away overnight.
I took a flight one week later to Sydney, probably among the last group of passengers from China allowed to touch down on Australian soil. Many of my friends hailed my bravery, thinking it heroic to escape. There was an eerie sense of contingency. A hotel was arranged for me, a top floor room and, as special treat, a breakfast coupon and wine. But a chance encounter with a man (a local, perhaps) in the elevator took the shine off – a quick survey over my unkempt clothes and he said, barely concealing his contempt: ‘You ― staying on the top floor?’
I was pulled back to the vortex of the crisis back home. Only my mobile phone could soothe my racked nerves, bringing me closer to the unfolding events in what felt like another world. Outside the window, there was the city – a stranger to me – with its beautiful harbour. I knew it was still recovering from savage bushfires, and news reports told me that during the smoke haze just a few weeks earlier residents had been forced to wear masks. It felt unreal to be here, at this moment of disasters.
In the meantime, words such as ‘lock down’, ‘sick man of East Asia’, ‘made in China’ reappeared on the global media, with clear pejorative connotations. It didn’t come as a surprise, considering the increasingly conservative and secular political landscape of the world today. Globalisation is but a tag on a flimsy coat of untenable values to which it is attached. What I know, at this exact moment, is that this finger pointing has a heavy cost, and that is the suffering endured by countless souls in Wuhan. I found it vile and callous; I could no longer bear it.
I took a walk in the sun, following Sydney’s undulating streets and lanes. I risked the rising of my body temperature. My heart waged an argument with itself, fierce, almost neurotic. Why on earth does that man who walks towards me cough without wearing a mask? Is the long handle of his umbrella a baton to disperse the crowd?
The tourist ban enforced by Australian government sounded severe, but my experience was, at least at first, that the execution was far from strict: there were still flights (to and from China) and my movement was by no means restricted. Still, my agenda was cut by half. All public arrangements and meetings were cancelled. Some friends ventured to meet me in private, more chose to get in contact through email or telephone, some even downloaded weixin apps to suit the specific purpose. Gifts were sent to the hotel counter for me – books, magazines, flowers, and chocolate, some with a note of apology from the sender. I was startled that these apologies were expressed in the name of the person, despite the fact that my troubles were not anybody’s fault. I started to think that I might be really ill.
Self-isolation was cruel, for it required as much discipline as that in freedom, especially this time, also with a bitter hint of punishment. When I stepped out of the hotel, I did so as if spellbound and I found myself in places furnished with Chinese themes, as if driven by some secret motive. Asian features were deeply incorporated into the fabric of the city. On the foreshore of Darling Harbour and Circular Quay there were flying decorations of the twelve horoscope animals: serpentine ceiling lights, gigantic horse-faced ox-heads, rats who looked like pigs. These Chinese elements combined with their contemporary form created a quaint feeling of fractured aestheticism. A traditional garden was wedged into a cluster of modern buildings, symbolising the friendship between the city and Guangzhou, with its dining and tea rooms, but few people ventured in. China Town was busy as usual. Under the ‘The Worlds Are One Family’ tablet atop the welcoming gate, I saw a throng of people with masks, with an air of sullen severity. It reminded me that I should feel embarrassed – like an animal who escapes the zoo and then unwisely comes backs to the entrance of its former cage.
After a few days of waiting, my business partner told me that the trip to Melbourne was impossible and I’d better fly back home. This suited me well. By sheer accident, I browsed Weibo and found a video of a boar running wild along the second ring road of Wuhan.
To my surprise, the compartments of the returning flight were full. A young couple in the row right in front of me seemed to have just completed a happy journey, and kept talking and laughing all the way. Their unmasked faces made a mockery of our precautions. When the plane began taxiing after the twelve-hour haul, the couple suddenly broke into a loud quarrel. We landed safely in Beijing – there was a smog shrouding over the city and few people on the street.
Now I’m finally alone and can fully commit to the ‘battle’ for a better government response to the virus. I used to have a biased view against Weibo, which to me was a platform for all kinds of egoistic performances. It seemed to be a distraction from the usual quest of a scholar – but the unfolding crisis has broken this misconception.
Despite criticism of the internet by many scholars concerned about its illusive nature infested with entertainment and games, the web is also a second site for our society. During the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, I helped raise funds for the relief work with fellow students and served as a volunteer at Beijing Blood Centre, where I dealt with enquiries about blood donation. Now there are all kinds of taskforce volunteers who have never known each other rallying to provide a wider range of services in response to the virus: receiving and reporting emergent calls and appeals from hospitals, communities, and individuals; making phone calls and verifying information; providing companions to those in need; helping the elderly filling out forms, collating data and relaying to the concerned parties; physically engaged in transporting logistics, some even to as far as the epicenter of Hubei province; raising funds or donating directly from their own pockets. There is an open and broad communication network on Weibo where comments from experts, media, and officials can be circulated and disseminated.
What I learned from Weibo is the progress it has made since 2008. People with prestigious positions might be more visible – but all utterances can now be filtered, examined, verified and challenged. This is what allows a bigger picture to emerge. And no one can hide in an ivory tower and stay smug. Self-understanding can be revived only through challenges. If today the world reveals itself as an abyss, let’s start the salvation cause right away.
So, for a few good days I had to coil at home like a sniper in a besieged fort. Not necessary to wash much, or shave per day, or change clothes, all etiquette in social communication abandoned. This used to appeal to me a lot, this reclusive life; but an outbreak of coronavirus and the public crisis that followed this outbreak has tested my former convictions. I knew that for most modern people, loneliness is a result of their disintegrated, dilapidated personal lives. One need only fall into isolation to able to hear calls for unity.
I still remember John Berger’s A Fortunate Man, in which a country doctor spends all his life curing the patients from the villages and taking care of their ruined dignity. In the end, he takes his own life. The title of a poem by the Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef in Berger’s book captures something of the anguish I experienced in 2019: ‘Learn to swim drowning’. The goals are clearer than ever, yet all leading paths crumbling or collapsed, the prevalent pompousness and vanity, industries in decay, and disintegration of public life, makes the overall atmosphere suffocating; still, there are hopes, and the only way left is moving forward. I had never expected things could be so bad at the outset of 2020.
I managed to kill the rest of the time in Beijing by putting the resources I had on hand to use: eggs and tea left by my parents; hoarded almond seeds, pine nuts, and peanuts; rice crackers and dried sweet potato posted by friends from Fujian; chocolate from Australia; rice and oil that had been untouched for almost half a year. There were even masks sent by friends from Britain. All I needed for the ongoing of this chewed-up, everyday life.
After the smog and recent heavy snow, a cold snap from the north eventually revealed a cold and clear sky over Beijing. This winter, we would not feel the same anguish and pain as those stranded in Wuhan; we had our own pain from 2004 still lingering in memory, over the empty streets. Many say that we look better with the masks. I figure that is because this piece of fabric conceals the pretentious aspects of our face while leaving only the eyes to speak for the truth. Now there are fewer and fewer lights on in the living quarters, elevators become easier to wait for and ride, more distance separating person from person. People are speaking in softer voices. A day passes quietly with this new etiquette and refrain, as if we have already entered into another world. Occasionally an elderly person appears to stretch or there are children playing outside, hands gripped firm by the parents; the deliverymen saunter alone through garden or park, seemingly relieved of their usual burdens.
I felt serene, illusion that the frontline of the war has now relaxed. For a country developing with remarkable speed and scale, these scenes of sparseness and still render a strange picture for the eyes. At this moment, we are wary of a collective narrative, though deep inside, we are all inspired and swept by a consonant wave of emotions.
The city falls deeper into cold and silence.
Translated by Simon Wang