Preserving a ‘national memory’ of an outbreak

In the early hours of February 7, Wuhan Central Hospital reported the death of Li Wenliang—a doctor who had given vital early warnings about the novel coronavirus labeled COVID-19. Li’s health had been the subject of conflicting reports. When his death was confirmed, Chinese social-media erupted; the hashtag “I want freedom of speech” went viral, and became a trending topic.

Franklin, a 22-year-old journalism student in Hong Kong who grew up in mainland China, stayed up to track the social-media response. “Wow, they are so brave,” he thought at the time. He was also alarmed—though not surprised—by how quickly those social-media posts and news reports were altered or deleted. He watched one headline from a Bing Dian Weekly article about Li Wenliang change within thirty minutes, from “If I could do it over again, I’d still speak out” to “If I recover, I would still be a doctor.” He took screenshots of others, a practice he’d started just weeks before. 

In January, Franklin and a classmate began compiling a list of Chinese language news and social-media reports about the COVID-19 outbreak. “At first, it was just for the Chinese people to read the reports more conveniently,” says Franklin, who communicated with CJR via Telegram, an encrypted messaging service. The duo originally started their list on Shimo, a Chinese platform; later, they transitioned to GitHub and Google Docs, where they’ve organized and archived copies of the stories. “We didn’t think too much about the censorship. We just wanted to keep this memory of Chinese journalism.” 

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The project has become a tribute to the Chinese documentarians who’ve tactfully recorded the complex and often murky realities of life during the coronavirus outbreak amid threats of censorship. In the first weeks of coronavirus news coverage, Chinese news outlets published deep dives and government investigations, reporting on conditions in Wuhan under lockdown that many international organizations could not access. Their published stories are a win for press freedom in a country where the information flow is often strictly supervised. 

“Cherish their work,” Shen Lu, a reporter at DealPro, a China-focused business magazine, wrote on Twitter last month. When she saw the list of stories  compiled by Franklin and his colleague, Shen’s own preservation instincts kicked in. With a group of other journalists, mostly based in the United States, Shen started translating headlines of the Chinese articles and saving the articles using the Internet Archive—a digital library that stores cached versions of websites so they remain viewable even if they are altered or deleted. “It’s a natural habit for those of us who work in the China field to save things,” Shen says. 

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The habit, she says, stems from an understanding among Chinese journalists of the way censorship can come into play before, during, and after the work is done. But while governmental controls on information can be tight, they are not leakproof, wrote Maria Repnikova in a recent op-ed for the New York Times. Crises can create windows for news coverage that authorities may allow while they are trying to get a sense of what’s happening.

“People were speculating, Is it because the censorship staff is not at work yet because it was a holiday?” Muyi Xiao, Visual Investigation producer for the New York Times, says about the amount of reporting published by Chinese outlets during the early weeks of the outbreak. Xiao also got involved in the archival effort when she started to see clues on social media that signaled government regulations for Chinese publications were going to get stricter. 

Xiao previously worked for Tencent, a Chinese technology and communications company, and recalls the kinds of stories she used to push to cover at a time when government oversight was less rigid. Although Chinese outlets are increasingly limited by government regulations, journalists working there are keen to test their limits, she says. “They always will try before they get an order explicitly saying ‘No you cannot do that.’” 

For journalists, accepting lines that might be officially drawn only after you’ve crossed them can be thankless and frustrating. Xiao, a Wuhan native, says she has been in frequent communication with two of her journalist friends inside the city. They describe anxieties about covering the outbreak when they might be told to stop at any point. Even under normal circumstances, the stress of potential censorship is enough to push people out of the industry, she says. “Many of my friends left Chinese publications because they don’t see hope.”

 Franklin said he didn’t have much faith in reporting from mainland outlets when he lived in China because he believed them to be limited by censorship. But he’s gained new respect for Chinese journalists after seeing their coverage of the coronavirus, which is why he now feels even more strongly about the need to preserve their work—an ambition reinforced by calls for free speech after Li Wenliang’s death. That preservation effort has won encouragement from readers: professors and journalists have emailed him and his classmate to thank them for their work. And people using email addresses with Chinese domains have sent Franklin links to reports, asking that he add them to his list, calling it a “national memory.” 

For Shen Lu and other journalists who’ve joined the archival effort, part of that national memory is a shared feeling that truth is a valued commodity in China, and its proponents deserve their due. “We actually have really good journalism in China,” Shen says. “It’s just those who are working very hard to get the stories out, they’re usually not recognized.”

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Betsy Joles is an independent journalist based in Beijing, China. Follow her on Twitter @betsyjoles.