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Will the Coronavirus Change the Way China’s Millennials See Their Country?

OtherWill the Coronavirus Change the Way China’s Millennials See Their Country?

On January 21st, Wu Meifen was at her office in the small city of Zhanjiang, in southern China, where she works as a publicist. It was a few days before the New Year festivities were to begin, and she was going to her parents’ home that evening, but had stopped to check her phone. She began reading reports that a novel coronavirus, which Chinese officials had initially downplayed, was turning into an epidemic so real that it threatened to upend the entire country. Although Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, is almost nine hundred miles from Zhanjiang, when Wu drove to her parents’ home, the streets were quiet, and many shops had shuttered.

A week later, when I contacted Wu, who is thirty years old, through a mutual friend in China, she was still consumed by stories posted by victims of the coronavirus, which was soon named COVID-19. She had noticed that, as the virus sealed people off—even members of her extended family stopped visiting one another—the relative anonymity of the Internet and the urgency of the crisis seemed to be freeing people from their usual reticence. In a manner that Wu had never before witnessed, they were divulging intimate details of their devastated lives, airing grievances, pleading for help. “We Chinese are not in the habit of exposing our vulnerability,” she said. “It’s a measure of how desperate things had become.”

Most people were looking for medical resources. Testing kits were in short supply, and even those who were gravely ill had trouble finding a hospital bed. “I felt painfully useless,” Wu told me. “Like I was watching a person drown, but all I could do was stupidly ‘like’ their post.” She had majored in journalism in college and has a degree in documentary filmmaking; “human-interest stories appeal to me,” she said, “because they reveal so much about how we live day to day.” So, with a half-dozen friends, Wu opened a public channel on WeChat, the Chinese social-media and messaging platform, to document the effects of the coronavirus on both individuals and society. (Anyone can follow public accounts on WeChat, and they have become a popular method of sharing information, although it is known that even private channels are monitored by the state.) She found subjects on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and then messaged them to request interviews over the phone. A few of the friends behind the channel, including Wu, did the reporting, and others edited the stories they wrote. Every few days, they would put up a new piece. “So many friends my age wanted to help but couldn’t figure out how to be useful under lockdown,” Wu told me. Chinese millennials, who have come of age in the increasingly prosperous but increasingly repressive nation led by Xi Jinping, have not been known for boldness or public displays of social responsibility. But the current malaise has led Wu and many of her peers to reconsider both the structure of their society and their roles, as individuals, in it.

One of the first people Wu spoke with was a thirty-something Wuhan native named Weng Wen, who was working in Beijing when the coronavirus hit his home town. His sixty-one-year-old father became sick, but, by the time Weng learned that, Wuhan was already on lockdown. His father was quarantined, and Weng’s eighty-three-year-old paternal grandmother, who had been living with his father, was left to fend for herself. A few days later, she developed a fever and a cough. She had no means of getting herself to the nearest hospital, and city resources were too strained to send an ambulance. Panicked, Weng wrote to a local official, via WeChat, but the official subsequently blocked him. “My grandmother started working at a state factory at the age of twelve,” Weng told Wu. “She has never been afraid of death. But the government has a duty to care for her. It’s a matter of public health. The country should be held responsible.”

In the course of several weeks, Wu interviewed more than thirty people in Wuhan. One was a thirty-year-old wedding photographer who became sick shortly after his parents were infected; all three were eventually hospitalized, but at least they were getting medical attention. Others found the ordeal of seeking treatment so debilitating that they seemed on the verge of emotional collapse. “That’s how I learned that people in heartbreaking calamity do not want to hear the words ‘Fight on,’ ” she said. “They don’t have the energy to do battle. It’s not a war. They can only endure.” But, she added, “having the will to tell one’s story gives you a purpose.” One day, she spent three hours teaching Weng’s father, who was recovering from the virus, how to shoot and save short videos about his daily life in the hospital. She knew the effort was worth it when she heard the excitement in his voice over the phone, after he sent her his first video.

There’s a difference between social crises, such as the coronavirus, and political problems, she told me carefully. She uses a V.P.N. to get around China’s digital firewall, which bars users from accessing sites such as the Times, the BBC, Facebook, and Twitter. Still, she thinks that, under Xi, China is getting better. She didn’t take too much interest in governance, anyway, partly because the subject tends to invite trouble. (Everyone knows better than to discuss politics on WeChat.) But she does see a general erosion of trust. In early February, she chatted with a nineteen-year-old woman who felt that ailing members of her family had been so neglected by the health-care system that she vowed to immigrate to another country. Wu could hear in her voice the depth of her frustration and pain. “I tried to ask what, exactly, enraged her,” Wu told me. “All I wanted to do was help her to talk through it.” The young woman said that she would think about it. But, a few days later, when Wu called again, the young woman’s tone was wary. “She was fearful that I was trying to entrap her into bad-mouthing the government,” Wu said.

Xi’s regime has also eroded trust in the institutions of civil society. The largest charity in China is the Red Cross. The organization, which has no affiliation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, is predominantly state-funded and controlled by the government. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, it had a reputation for corruption and incompetence—in China, it’s often referred to as the Red Lice. (The words for “cross” and “lice” are homonyms.) Then, as health-care workers across Hubei Province, where Wuhan is situated, made online pleas for supplies and protective gear, it was discovered that supplies paid for by private donations were languishing, unsorted, in Red Cross warehouses. Yet raising money privately is difficult, which is frustrating for many young professionals. To start, it requires filing an application with the state civil-affairs department, in order to obtain the proper credentials—a laborious process that is impractical in a fast-moving crisis.

I recently communicated on the encrypted app Signal with a thirty-year-old documentary filmmaker in the southern city of Xiamen. “I don’t know anyone in Wuhan, and have never been there,” she said. “But how can I do nothing?” Working with a group of four other people her age across China, she began collecting donations to buy and ship supplies—face masks, biohazard suits, safety goggles, sterile gloves, and even rice—to Wuhan. They raised half a million yuan, about seventy thousand dollars. “We coördinated and worked out logistics exclusively on messaging apps,” she told me. She compared the process to smuggling drugs, because it was shadowy, demanded anonymity, and required a network of covert handlers at every stage.

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