As Chinese President Xi Jinping passed an apartment complex last week during his tour of Wuhan, ground zero of the global coronavirus pandemic, he looked up and waved back at rows of residents who – still under lockdown – greeted him behind masks from their apartment windows.
The upbeat footage – beamed into millions of homes across China later that evening – was meant to send a confident message that, under Xi’s leadership, the country had turned a corner.
But for many Wuhan residents, the images on state media do not match with the reality of day-to-day life.
“What’s for sure is that Xi Jinping cannot hear any genuine voices at all,” said resident Zhang Yi of the leader’s visit, his first since the outbreak emerged in Wuhan in December.
Zhang, and many others like him, have been sealed off from the outside world since late January, when the metropolis of 11 million was placed under a state-imposed lockdown to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus – and their frustrations have been mounting.
When the epidemic was at its most severe, many Wuhan patients said they were unable to get treated due to an extreme shortage of hospital beds and medical resources. Now, as the number of new reported cases in China slows to a trickle, millions of residents are still restricted by the government to their homes; they’re not even allowed to go outside to shop for groceries. Instead, the residents CNN spoke to said they have to rely on designated neighborhood committees to make group orders for daily necessities – often at a higher price.
While state media has doubled down on constructing a positive narrative of life in Wuhan, the deep well of public anger resulting from stringent censorship, soaring food prices and the failures of the local government is starting to chip away at the propaganda facade.
The coronavirus has now spread to more than 140 countries and territories worldwide, and a growing number of governments – like that of Italy, Spain and the Philippines – have imposed lockdowns like the one first introduced in Wuhan. The strict measures in the Chinese city have been credited with slowing the outbreak: for the past three days, Wuhan has reported new cases in the single-digits compared with nearly 4,000 per day a month ago. However, the lockdown has also come at a cost to millions of people.
“It’s fake! It’s all fake!”
That rising discontent in Wuhan was evident during what was supposed to be a morale-boosting visit to a local residential community by Vice Premier Sun Chunlan on March 6. During a walk around, Sun was bombarded with cries of “It’s fake! It’s all fake!” from angry residents yelling from their high-rise apartment windows.
The residents accused the neighborhood committee of staging grocery deliveries of free and reduced-price food for Sun’s visit when affordable daily necessities were actually in extremely short supply. Sun, the vice premier, ordered an immediate investigation.
Events attended by high-level Chinese officials tend to be highly choreographed and such outrage is exceptionally rare. Unsurprisingly, Wuhan authorities went to great lengths to prevent a repeat from happening during Xi’s tour. Social media posts and photos from the neighborhood WeChat groups seen by CNN suggest local police were stationed on residents’ balconies in protective suits to discourage any potential yelling or jeers.
CNN reached out to the Wuhan government to inquire about the measure but have yet to receive a response.
Xi’s tour – which included a visit to a neighborhood community center and a video conference with medical workers and a patient – ended smoothly with no drama, but the anger and frustration in Wuhan remains.
The city has borne the brunt of the outbreak, accounting for the majority of infected cases and deaths in China. But even people not stricken with the disease have had their lives turned upside down by unprecedented quarantine measures.
“We won’t be able to sustain our daily life”
Li Hong, a university student who requested to use a pseudonym over fears of retribution from authorities, has been confined to her home with her father and grandmother for seven weeks.
She’s been living in constant anxiety, worrying about what skyrocketing food prices could mean for her family when the money runs out. Her father, a delivery man, was the only breadwinner in the household, but he has not earned anything for weeks due to the lockdown. Now, the only income supporting the family of three is the small state pension collected by Li’s grandmother each month, she said.
The cost of vegetables has soared at least three or four times since the implementation of the lockdown, while regular pork ribs can cost more than $10 a pound, Li said. Other angry Wuhan residents have also posted costly grocery receipts on social media.
While some more affluent families may have enough savings to rely on during the outbreak, families such as Li’s are being squeezed.
“If it continues like this, we won’t be able to sustain our daily life,” she told CNN over video chat, showing her dwindling food supplies in the kitchen. A handful of potatoes, two cabbages, some peppers and a small basket of apples and pears stood on the shelves.
Apart from the financial burden, life under lockdown has also taken a mental toll. “Living under an enclosed condition for so long, people find themselves constantly in anxiety,” Li said.
She is due to graduate this year, but does not know when her university will reopen. She longs to go out for a stroll and take some fresh air, but instead is required by the local government to stay at home, day after day with no end in sight. She feels depressed and restless, and often fights with her father.
The most trivial things can quickly flare into shouting matches: her dad playing loud videos on the phone while she is trying to study, or smoking cigarettes despite her repeated protests. Like her, Li’s father is also fed up with being stuck at home.
Scientists have already started to study the psychological toll of the outbreak and the ensuing quarantine measures. A study published in the China-based journal General Psychiatry this month found nearly 35% of 52,730 respondents across China had experienced psychological distress during the epidemic, based on their reported frequency of anxiety, depression, specific phobias, cognitive change and other symptoms over the course of a week.
Li said the government should bear the blame for the suffering of Wuhan residents. “If they had made public the situation of the outbreak earlier, and had quarantined those patients who had already shown symptoms, I don’t think we would have to come to the point of lockdown,” she said.
“Sealing off the whole city is a helpless move, a last resort that was forced upon us.”
What has further fanned her anger towards the government is the gaping discrepancy between what has been promised by officials on state media and the reality on the ground.
“(The government) said in the news that they’re doing a better job now, but I haven’t sensed any of that,” she said.
CNN has reached out to the Wuhan municipal government for comment on the soaring prices, but has not heard back.
The Wuhan government, however, did respond to complaints about high food prices earlier, during a press conference on February 29.
Xu Honglan, deputy mayor of Wuhan, explained that during the epidemic, logistics and labor costs were three times higher than usual, driving up food prices. She also said the government was going to take four major measures to fix the problem including releasing more of the government’s reserve of frozen meat and selling it at 15% below the market price.
A few Wuhan residents have told CNN that food prices have indeed gone down slightly compared to the start of the city lockdown. However, not everyone has benefitted.
Li said she hadn’t seen any of the promised price reductions on frozen meat, and was told by her community officials “not to believe everything that was said in the news.”
She submitted a complaint to the mayor’s office via its online official WeChat account. She showed CNN a screen grab of the letter. She hasn’t heard back since.
Earlier this month, the city’s newly appointed party chief Wang Zhonglin suggested Wuhan residents weren’t expressing enough appreciation for the government.
It was necessary, Wang reportedly said, “to carry out gratitude education among the citizens of the whole city, so that they thank (President Xi Jinping), thank the Chinese Communist Party, heed the party, walk with the party, and create strong positive energy,” according to remarks published by the state-run Global Times.
His comments ignited a storm of criticism online. Censors quickly scrubbed most articles and posts about his remarks, though some state media reports including the quote remain accessible.
“Everybody is outraged,” Zhang, the Wuhan resident, said. “How is it they sent such an ignorant official to Wuhan?”
During his tour of Wuhan on March 10, Xi, China’s top leader, said: “The (Communist) Party and the (Chinese) people should thank the people of Wuhan.”
“Wuhan is a heroic city and people of Hubei and Wuhan are heroic people who have never been crushed by any difficulty and danger in history,” the Chinese leader said.
But Xi’s high praise has failed to appease boiling anger against Wang, who was parachuted in by Xi to replace Wuhan’s former party chief who was fired early last month.
Wang’s request for Wuhan residents to go through “gratitude education” is particularly jarring to many.
With his mother now in the hospital treating her swelling legs and heart problems, Zhang said he was determined to point out local government missteps – even though police had visited him on Wednesday, warning him to keep quiet, he said.
“Somebody has to step out and speak up,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those who have lost every member of their family to the virus and yet never spoke up.”
“We Wuhan people are like a lone island”
Melanie Wang, an independent journalist who covers the arts in Wuhan, was furious over the strict censorship.
“Since the outbreak, especially since the lockdown, we Wuhan people are like a lone island. (It’s as if) we don’t have any right to be informed,” she said.
“The lack of freedom of speech and freedom of the press is the culprit of the secondary disaster of this epidemic. So many innocent people have died, including professional health care workers, yet relevant departments are still deleting critical posts online and silencing people from speaking up – they’re simply ignorant, senseless and shameless,” Wang said.
At the beginning of January, Wuhan authorities punished medical workers who tried to warn others about the emergence of the coronavirus. One doctor, Li Wenliang, was reprimanded by police for spreading “rumors” and later died of the virus he contracted from a patient.
The whistleblower’s death set off a remarkable storm of calls for free speech across the country. In response, the government has doubled down on its attempts to control the narrative.
Just as Xi made his tour around Wuhan, the censors were again busy containing a story about another Wuhan doctor, who reportedly informed colleagues like Li about the emergence of the coronavirus.
An interview with doctor Ai Fen in a prominent Chinese magazine was scrubbed shortly after publication, but on major Chinese social media platforms, users have been trying to beat the censors by posting it over and over again.
Undeterred by the blanket censorship, many came up with creative ways to display it in an attempt to avoid automatic deletion, such as writing the text backwards or vertically, in braille, Morse code or emojis, and in several foreign languages. Some users of Weibo and Wechat – China’s two popular social media platforms – described it as a “relay race” to try to stay one step ahead of the censors.
Wang said she was not at all impressed by Xi’s strictly choreographed visit.
“We Wuhan people have already been locked up for a month-and-a-half, and some have managed to shout some words of truth to Vice Premier Sun. Why aren’t we allowed to shout to President Xi from our windows?” she said.
Neither was she impressed with Xi’s lavish praise on the “heroic” Wuhan people.
“If I have an opportunity to stand in front of President Xi, I will tell him: ‘Wuhan is a heroic city, and the people of Wuhan are heroic people. But heroes will have to sacrifice. We don’t want to die an obscure death, we want to live with a clear (conscience and mind),” she said.
CNN’s James Griffiths contributed reporting.