Inside the Early Days of China’s Coronavirus Coverup

Late on the night of February 2, as her insomnia kicked in, a Beijing woman whom I’ll call Yue took out her phone and religiously clicked open WeChat and Weibo. Over the past two fitful weeks, the two Chinese social media platforms had offered practically her only windows into the “purgatory,” as she called it, of Wuhan. At this point, according to official estimates, the novel coronavirus had infected just over 14,000 people in the world—and nearly all of them were in the central Chinese city where Yue had attended university and lived for four years. A number of her friends there had already caught the mysterious virus.
An inveterate news junkie, Yue hadn’t been able to look away from the ghastly updates pouring out of Wuhan, which—interspersed with a dissonant bombardment of posts praising the Chinese government’s iron grip on the outbreak—kept hitting her in an unrelentingly personal way. Her mental health was fraying, and she was “disappointed in humanity,” as she later put it.That night, just when Yue was about to log off and try to sleep, she saw the following sentence pop up on her WeChat Moments feed, the rough equivalent of Facebook’s News Feed: “I never thought in my lifetime I’d see dead bodies lying around without being collected and patients seeking medical help but having no place to get treatment.”
Yue thought that she had become desensitized, but this post made her fists clench: It was written by Xiao Hui, a journalist friend of hers who was reporting on the ground for Caixin, a prominent Chinese news outlet. Yue trusted her.She read on. “On January 22, on my second day reporting in Wuhan, I knew this was China’s Chernobyl,” Xiao Hui wrote. “These days I rarely pick up phone calls from outside of Wuhan or chat with friends and family, because nothing can express what I have seen here.”Unable to contain her anger, Yue took a screenshot of Xiao’s post and immediately posted it on her WeChat Moments. “Look what is happening in Wuhan!” she wrote. Then she finally drifted off.

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The next morning, when she opened WeChat, a single message appeared: Her account had been suspended for having “spread malicious rumors” and she would not be able to unblock it. She knew at once that her late-night post had stepped on a censorship landmine.

What she couldn’t have realized, though, was that she had posted her screenshot at what seems to have been a turning point in China’s handling of the epidemic: Over the previous two weeks, the government had allowed what felt like an uncharacteristic degree of openness in the flow of information out of Wuhan. But now the state was embarking on a campaign of censorship and suppression that would be remarkable even by the standards of the Chinese Communist Party.
Illustration: Elena Lacey; Getty Images

Over the past several weeks, as the number of new cases in China has tapered off and lockdowns have lifted, China has been positioning itself as a global leader in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It has vigorously promoted the narrative that its unprecedented quarantine measures bought time for the world—and that much of the world then botched and squandered that head start. Now, the story goes, China has again come to the rescue as it shares its expertise, experience, and equipment.