Chinese social media users are scrambling to reproduce and repost a banned article by a doctor on the front line of the coronavirus epidemic in the central city of Wuhan after it was deleted by ruling Chinese Communist Party censors.
The 8,000-character essay titled "Whistlemaker" by Ai Fen, director of the Wuhan Central Hospital ER, initially appeared in China's People magazine, but was soon deleted from its website while paper copies were removed from the shelves.
China's tightly restricted internet went into overdrive in a bid to ensure that anyone who wanted to read it still could, with people translating it into English and braille, distorting and handwriting the text or setting the characters vertically rather than horizontally to evade automatic detection of its key phrases.
People then retweeted and reposted the article to various chat groups and to their personal friend circles, sources told RFA.
While some copies only survived a matter of minutes, others were still visible hours after posting, although the distortions used to evade censorship also made some versions hard to decipher.
Journalist and writer Luo Siling said she had seen at least 10 different versions of the article online, including translations into Chinese internet slang (known as Martian), and transcriptions into Tangut script, a form of Chinese calligraphy.
"It's all a way to get around censorship, so it's pretty cool," Luo told RFA. "The scariest thing about authoritarian power is its ability to say that black is white and vice versa."
"You're not allowed to say that: only they are, so this is kind of a satire on the part of internet users," she said.
Order to delete all copies
A source familiar with the workings of the central propaganda department told RFA that the order to delete all copies of Ai's essay had been given on Tuesday, sparking widespread public anger.
"It was totally deleted yesterday, and the order for total deletion could only have come from a central propaganda department directive," the source said. "Otherwise it wouldn't have had the same power."
"There's been a lot of anger, public anger, about this, because apart from a couple of party secretaries, who are small fry, getting fired it's pretty clear that nobody higher up in the State Council or higher than that [is being held responsible]."
A China's People magazine journalist declined requests for an interview when contacted by RFA on Wednesday, while medical personnel in Wuhan Central Hospital didn't respond to requests for comment.
In the article, Ai writes of a patient seen in the ER on Dec. 16 with an "inexplicably high fever" on which medication had had scant effect, and who was diagnosed with a "SARS-like coronavirus."
A second patient on Dec. 27 arrived in a similar state, as social media reports began to circulate of numerous "fever" cases linked to the now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Market.
"Just after 4 pm that day, my colleague showed me a report that said: SARS coronavirus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, 46 types of oral/respiratory bacterial colonization," Ai wrote.
"I read the report many times and the appended note, which read: SARS coronavirus is a single-stranded positive-strand RNA virus. The main mode of transmission of the virus is close-range droplet transmission or contact with respiratory secretions of patients, which can cause a form of pneumonia that is obviously contagious and can affect multiple organ systems, also known as atypical pneumonia."
"I broke into a cold sweat of fear ... and immediately called and reported it to the hospital's public health department," she wrote. "I also circulated this report to my colleagues, purposely marking a red circle around the words 'SARS coronavirus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, 46 types of oral/respiratory bacterial colonization' to draw it to everyone's attention."
"I also sent the report to the doctors in the department to warn everyone to take precautions."
The report with its red pen circling the key words soon began to circulate among medical staff in Wuhan, passed on by the late opthalmologist Li Wenliang, who was among eight people summoned for questioning by police over the disclosure, Ai later learned.
Li later died of COVID-19, sparking a public outcry.
The authorities immediately ordered medical staff to stop passing on reports, and hauled Ai in for a reprimand.
"I couldn't sleep that night, I was so worried," she wrote. "But I felt that there are always two sides to everything, and that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing to warn medical staff in Wuhan to take precautions, even if there were adverse effects."
"[But] I suffered an unprecedented and very severe rebuke."
Bruce Lui, journalism professor at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said Ai's essay came as President Xi Jinping was in Wuhan claiming that China had the coronavirus epidemic under control.
"Now that China is moving into the so-called 'victory' phase of the epidemic ... any murmurs of dissent must be deleted," Lui told RFA. "Under official propaganda guidelines, no discussion of the origin of the epidemic can be allowed to happen."
"How it started, how it was covered up and how late it was declared are all taboo subjects," he said.
Ai said in her essay that she had had another conversation with her boss on Feb. 21.
"I actually wanted to ask a few questions, for example, whether he thought the criticisms he made of me on that day were wrong," she wrote. "I was hoping he would apologize, but nobody has apologized to me once."
"But there has to be somebody, somebody to stand up and tell the truth. There has to be room for different views in this world, right?" she wrote.
Reported by Wong Siu-san, Sing Man, Fong Tak-ho and Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.