Haunting Zhu is the fear that the virus might return — that once again, the government will conceal the truth, and once again, Wuhan will fall under lockdown.
“I’m in a state of eating and waiting for death, eating and waiting for death,” Zhu said, with a buzzcut he trimmed himself, since he does not dare to venture out to the barber. “People like me might be the minority, but I take it very seriously.”
Zhu, a 44-year-old smelter at the city’s state-run iron and steel works, is well outside the mainstream in China. He is a hardboiled government critic, an on-and-off demonstrator, a supporter of the Hong Kong democracy movement.
He and others willing to publicly air such views are ridiculed, dismissed or silenced. They are a minority in an increasingly authoritarian and prosperous China, where there is less tolerance for protest and less appetite to do so.
Early in the Wuhan outbreak, which would later spread around the globe and kill over 2 million people, Zhu ignored state media reports that downplayed the virus and stayed home, a move that may have saved him, his wife and his son from infection.
For a few fleeting months, as public anger erupted at authorities who hid critical information on the coronavirus, Zhu felt his early caution warranted, his deep suspicion of officials vindicated.
But as winter mellowed into spring and Wuhan’s lockdown was lifted, the mood shifted. Now, the rich kids of Wuhan down pricey bottles of whiskey and bop to crashing electronica at the city’s swank nightclubs. Thousands throng Jianghan road, the city’s premier shopping street.
Once seen as prophetic, Zhu has now become a pariah, his anti-state sentiment more and more at odds with government orthodoxy. He has alienated his in-laws and neighbors and has been detained, subjected to surveillance and censored.
Bracing for another wave of infection, he wonders how it’s possible that everyone around him is carrying on with life as usual.
“This is the biggest historical event in the past century,” Zhu said. “But everyone has gone back to their lives, just like before the epidemic. … How can they be so numb, so indifferent, as though they barely experienced anything at all?”
Zhu grew up in the 1980s, a politically open era in China, when teachers at times touched on concepts like democracy and freedom of speech after the disastrous tumult of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
It suited Zhu, given his self-described “very naughty, very rebellious” nature and his intellectual instincts, reflected in the way he peppers his language with literary references despite never having gone to college.
He was just a kid during the 1989 Tiananmen protests, when hundreds of thousands took to Beijing’s central square to demand democratic rights. But in the years after the bloody military crackdown on the protesters, he read more about it, growing sympathetic even as others grew cynical, indifferent or even supportive of Communist Party rule, won over by China’s growing prosperity.
When Zhu first went online over a decade ago, he discovered others shared his way of thinking. China hadn’t yet developed the sophisticated internet police force that patrols the web today, and uncensored news about the government constantly exploded online.
The first controversy to catch Zhu’s eye was a scandal over tainted milk powder that killed six babies and sickened tens of thousands more. He joined chat groups and get-togethers and slowly slipped into dissident circles.
After President Xi Jinping — China’s most authoritarian leader in decades — came to power, Zhu’s views brought him more and more trouble. In 2014, he was detained for a month after donning a black shirt and a white flower at a Wuhan plaza in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, estranging him from his teenage son.
But when a mysterious respiratory illness began spreading through Wuhan early last year, Zhu’s deep-seated skepticism toward the government suddenly proved prescient. After seeing rumors of the disease in late December 2019, Zhu began warning friends and family. Many brushed him off as an obstinate gadfly, but his wife and son stayed home, saving them from outings that would soon sicken relatives.
The first to fall ill was his wife’s aunt, who started coughing after an appointment with an eye doctor at a hospital where the virus was spreading. Next was his wife’s cousin, who had accompanied her to the same hospital. Then it was his neighbor’s mother.
Then came the lockdown, proclaimed with no warning on Jan. 23 at 2 in the morning. Wuhan stumbled into the history books, the epicenter of the biggest quarantine in history. The virus ravaged the city of 11 million, flooding hospitals and killing thousands, including his wife’s aunt on Jan. 24.
Zhu took grim satisfaction in being proved correct. He watched on social media as public anger exploded, reaching a fever pitch in February with the death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who was punished for warning others of the very disease that would claim his life.
That night, Zhu was glued to his phone, scrolling through hundreds of posts decrying censorship. There were hashtags demanding freedom of speech. There was a quote from Li to a Chinese magazine shortly before his death: “A healthy society shouldn’t just have one voice”.
By early next morning, many of the posts had been purged by censors. On his wife’s cousin death certificate, doctors wrote she died of an ordinary lung infection, though she had tested positive for the coronavirus. That deepened Zhu’s suspicions that cases were being grossly undercounted.
“I was so angry it hurt,” he said. “I had nowhere to vent my emotions. You want to kill someone, you’re so angry, you know?”
The outbreak strained Zhu’s relationships. His neighbor, a childhood friend, quarreled with Zhu after doctors told the neighbor’s mother that she had just a regular lung infection.
“I questioned him. `How can you be sure that what the hospital told you was the truth?’” Zhu recalled. “I said you should still be careful.”
A week later, his friend’s mother passed away. On her death certificate, coronavirus was given as the cause. They argued the day she died, with Zhu’s friend accusing him of cursing his mother. The two haven’t spoken since.
In April, the lockdown was lifted after 76 days. But as others crept back to work, Zhu asked for a year’s medical leave and shut himself in. His quarantine has lasted nearly 400 days and counting.
He refused to go to his cousin’s and aunt’s funerals that summer, even though there were no longer any new cases in Wuhan. His angry in-laws cut off contact.
Pockets of like-minded people still dot China, from renegade intellectuals in Beijing to a punk cafe in Inner Mongolia where posters and stickers read “preventable and controllable” –- quietly jeering the boilerplate phrase officials used to downplay the virus.
In Wuhan, circles of dissidents gather on encrypted chats to swap intelligence. At small gatherings over tea, they grouse about inconsistencies in the party line with a hint of pride, saying they saved themselves from the virus by not trusting the government.
But under the watchful gaze of state cameras and censors, there is little room to organize or connect. Ahead of the lockdown anniversary this year, police spirited at least one dissenter out of Wuhan. He was bei luyou, or “touristed,” the playful phrase used by activists to describe how police take troublemakers on involuntary vacations at sensitive moments.
In his self-quarantine, Zhu has found solace in literature. He is drawn to Soviet writers who poked fun at Moscow’s vast propaganda apparatus. He is also convinced the virus could be spreading widely, even though China’s official case count is now far lower than that of most other countries.
“They’ve been lying for such a long time,” Zhu said, “so long that even if they started telling me the truth, I won’t believe it.”
Associated Press video journalist Emily Wang and photographer Ng Han Guan contributed to this report.
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