This is letter is part of a series called Love Letters to Wuhan. If you haven’t read the introduction yet, we recommend you read it here.
There’s this little green app on my phone with a text bubble as its icon. No, it’s not Whatsapp; it’s WeChat, better known in China as 微信 (wei xin). It pings regularly, with messages from my family in Wuhan. Sporadic news updates. Where are they getting their news from? I wonder. Most foreign news sources are censored in China, so what are they reading?
Most trust the government statistics that are reported on a daily basis. Even if they’re falsified, one student says “falsifying a little more or less doesn’t matter” in the larger scope of things.
If you go anywhere in China, you’re bound to see the majority of people on their phones. Many snap pictures and post them on social media—but typically edited and Photoshopped.
However, from an American perspective, there’s quite a bit of suspicion around government-reported statistics. After the 2002 SARS outbreak in China, it was discovered that the government was hiding news about the epidemic in the hopes that they could control it by themselves. This time, although China has been hailed for its transparency, evidence has arisen that the Chinese government attempted to silence one doctor who raised concerns about COVID-19 long before it hit headlines. That whistleblower is now dead from the coronavirus he reported on.
His name, 李文亮 (Li Wenliang), has become a rallying cry for those asking for China to be completely transparent. A couple weeks ago, walking out of the UCSD (University of California, San Diego) library, I stumbled across a message chalked in bold characters at the entrance. We will not be silenced, it read. As if he was a martyr, dead for a cause.
Dr. Li Wenliang. (Source: The Times)
Censorship of information in China has led to an almost unshakable faith in the government’s actions, significantly limiting the amount of suspicion (in comparison to foreigners) that the people have in government information; so, I asked these students: How do you know if the news is fake or true?
The number one response: social media.
Where Facebook and Twitter and Instagram don’t exist, Apps like Weibo and WeChat have taken China by storm. Through WeChat, one can create what’s literally translated into English as “friend groups” and group chats, and for some, this is their primary news source, rather than traditional newspapers or news outlets.
“If [what my friends tell me] contradicts [the government reports], I’ll compare different sources, rather than immediately trusting it,” a student tells me. Another way, a couple of them tell me, is to look at the public comments posted by people on these social mediums. There are so many responses from people all around the country, says the same student who pointed out that “a little more or less doesn’t matter”. Depending on what people are saying, she then judges to what extent the news is true. Some take it beyond the screens to real people. A few say they ask their parents for information, but a couple tell me that they talk to friends who are experts in the field―doctors, officials, and anyone else whose professional lives have put them in “ground zero” or where everything is happening.
Wechat and Weibo, two of the largest social media apps used in China…and yes, they can be censored from within. (Source: The Economist)
Suffice it to say, within China, there’s still quite a bit of faith in the government. For many Chinese-Americans, there’s a fear that this will just turn into another propaganda stunt by the government, and that our families will suffer for it. But for now, as the coronavirus spreads globally, there’s more information — and of course, more suspicion that comes with it. As for determining the validity of information―everyone, of course, is biased, so then it’s up to you, the reader, who decides what to do next.
Read the next letter, Love Letters to Wuhan – Part V: Dear Music, in this series now!