'Sacrifice must be voluntary': Interview with Wuhan diary publisher Zhang Jie

A community worker writes that Wuhan under lockdown was hit by 'secondary disasters' caused by government policy.
By Wang Yun
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'Sacrifice must be voluntary': Interview with Wuhan diary publisher Zhang Jie Screenshot showing the cover of Wuhan Epidemic Diary.
Courtesy: Boden House

Around the time that Fang Fang's diary of life in Wuhan at the start of the coronavirus pandemic was published, a similar work appeared from the pen of an anonymous residential compound employee using the pen-name "Gourd in the the wind." RFA's Mandarin Service spoke to the U.S.-based editor and publisher of The Diary of a Community Worker in the COVID-19" Pandemic, who says its author, far from being confined to their apartment, was out on the streets trying to buy food and essential supplies for people under lockdown.

RFA: What's the main difference between this diary and Fang Fang's "Wuhan Diary: A City Under Quarantine"?

Zhang Jie: The difference is in the sense of presence. Fang Fang, as the former chairman of the Hubei Writers Association, lived in the Literary Federation compound, and she couldn't go outside it, because the city was under lockdown, so her sources of information were all online, and it consists of her thoughts and reactions and her interpretations, too. But the author of this diary was out and about every day, walking through the streets and alleyways, buying medicine and vegetables for the residents of their community. Every aspect of this time is accurately recorded, so it has value as a historic document too.

RFA: When was this diary first published?

Zhang Jie: Around the same time as Fang Fang's diary. When he started writing on Feb. 15, 2020 [after lockdown was imposed on Jan. 23], Fang Fang was already publishing her diary, mostly overseas, in serial form, on websites like Beijing Spring and Boxun. We have been tidying it up for publication, and it is being published now, because we felt that a statement about the pandemic is needed now.

RFA: The book describes people being unable to get hold of medicines or to get medical treatment during lockdown, causing worsening of their symptoms or even death. In one part, he talks about lining up outside a pharmacy for a whole morning to get medicine for his mother, who was seriously ill, and being told there wasn't any when he got there. In another, he talks about people selling vegetables at sky-high prices at the gates of his community under lockdown. Why do you think these secondary disasters kept happening?

Zhang Jie: It's the political system that operates under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is ultimately a totalitarian system. There was no plan for the lockdown of Wuhan, and it didn't go through any kind of legislative process. So it made no provision for problems faced by ordinary people, such as how to get fed and clothed.

Some people seem to think that not very many people died in China, and that the country has been successful in fighting the pandemic, but they have no idea how many innocent people died, including a friend of mine who had to go for weekly dialysis. But that was suddenly stopped [during lockdown] and he wound up dying at home. His wife wrote me begging for help, but in the end she just watched him die.

RFA: In the book, an elderly patient with cancer is taken to the hospital by ambulance, but is turned away by three hospitals. In the end, they call the emergency number. These stories are described in the Chinese media as "sacrifices" made by the people of Wuhan.

Zhang Jie: That's insulting to the people of Wuhan. Sacrifice must be voluntary. This is actually a disaster that came suddenly, and was imposed on the people of Wuhan. There was actually no need to adopt such a harsh approach. There was no need to shut down all transportation or the supermarkets. They could have let life go on as normal with added restrictions including mask-wearing and disinfecting. That way, they could have avoided these secondary disasters.

RFA: The book describes an official in charge of controlling who comes in and out of a residential compound, who takes his work so seriously that he stops pregnant women from going to the hospital, even when they're in labor. Why are these local officials like that, when they know this will cause a host of other problems?

Zhang Jie: Of course they know. A child of five or six would know it. But they have no way to resist orders from higher up. [CCP leader] Xi Jinping holds the highest level of power, and he personally directed and led [the initial pandemic response]. It could never have happened otherwise. But everything happened too late, so lockdown was the only option. That's what happens under a totalitarian system. There is no democracy and no judicial process.

RFA: The author does talk about some measures to provide households in difficulties with groceries ... and allowing community workers to accompany patients to doctors' appointments, which he regards as an afterthought. What do you think?

Zhang Jie: I think the mayor of Wuhan didn't want to wipe out all the citizens of Wuhan; he wanted them to be able to go about their lives happily and peacefully, so he did something to help them, which is what governments are supposed to do. They took some remedial measures after lockdown was imposed. This wasn't ideal, but the disaster had already happened at that point, so I think that's what the author was talking about.

The problem, of course, lies with the system itself. Because the residential communities, which are organizations at the lowest rung of government, are pretty warped places, with unclear definitions of their role, and no power. But they are the front-line protagonists during a major disaster like this. These people make about 2,000 yuan a month and there are only around a dozen of them working with thousands of families. Ordinary people are right to complain, but the problem lies with the system of governance.

RFA: The author describes residential compound security guards talking very seriously about how violence was the best response to the conflicts they were facing, and that they should just detain or beat up anyone who didn't toe the line. Their justification was that a minority should be brought in line with the majority. What do you think about the relationship between power and responsibility here?

Zhang Jie: I think it is a very distorted relationship. Power itself should be in the gift of the people, but in China, the people don't have the right to vote, so power comes from their superiors; it is granted by the CCP. The thinking of officials at the lowest levels determines how these things go. They will always go out of their way to please their superiors and follow their orders, while the interests of the people come last. Their values are hugely problematic.

China basically did a very poor job of handling the whole thing; the government acted arbitrarily, with no due process or prior assessment, and took extreme measures. Maybe extreme measures brought the pandemic under control, but they caused disasters of their own.

RFA: Do you think this book is written from the heart and soul?

Zhang Jie: Of course it is. Its vitality lies in its insistence on the truth, and in the fact that the author wrote down what he saw with his own eyes. He also questions and analyses what he sees, and raises a number of profound questions.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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