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Nearly a year ago, this city was the pandemic’s ground zero, and those who saw the first signs were pressed to keep quiet. Now, Beijing has used the crisis and COVID-19′s apparent defeat to strengthen faith in Communism – and few in Wuhan will question the new official narrative

A visitor passes a display of medical workers at People Above All, Life Above All, an exhibit in Wuhan about the city's COVID-19 response. An introductory placard calls it 'an epic fight' that 'fully manifested the strong leadership of the Communist Party of China and the significant advantages of the socialist system of our country.'Photography by Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

It was nearly a year ago that Dr. Zhang Jixian examined an elderly couple with pneumonia-like symptoms at the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine.

In short order, others arrived at the hospital with similar ailments. When scans showed unusual abnormalities on their lungs and blood tests came back negative for influenza, Dr. Zhang filed a report noting the apparent spread of an infectious disease.

Her Dec. 27 notice to superiors would become the first officially recognized report of COVID-19, the viral illness whose explosive spread made Wuhan a panic-stricken ground zero for a pandemic that has now touched the farthest corners of Earth, infecting 64 million and killing 1.5 million.

When the virus began to spread in China, the machinery of the state silenced doctors, arrested journalists for reporting unsanctioned news and scrubbed from the Internet criticism of a government whose delayed response exposed social fissures and threatened the public’s willingness to continue accepting the Party’s authoritarian rule.

But in less than a year, the country’s leadership and propagandists have transformed a health crisis to their advantage, making the case that victory over the pandemic illustrates the strengths of the Chinese system.

Dr. Zhang’s Wuhan office is now a place of relative calm. One afternoon last week, she sifted through a tidy stack of papers documenting the two dozen patients she had seen. None had COVID. Her work today is little different from what it was a year ago, before anyone has acknowledged knowing the virus was circulating in this city of 11 million.

“From what we can see at the moment, Wuhan is definitely a city of victory,” Dr. Zhang says in an interview. “We’ve won the battle for this year.” China counts 4,743 COVID-19 deaths, barely a third of the Canadian total.

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Credit, Dr. Zhang says, belongs to those who wore masks, to people who bonded together to fight the virus – and to the country’s leadership. “In China, the Communist Party respects science and issued orders that made everyone work together to concentrate on one ultimate goal,” she says.

The image of a vanquished virus is at odds with a continued state of COVID-19 anxiety in China, where authorities have reported recent instances of community transmission, prompting rolling lockdowns and widespread testing. At Dr. Zhang’s own hospital, visitors last week were greeted by a recording that demanded extra precautions from those who have travelled to a number of regions of the country considered higher-risk areas. In Wuhan, restrictions have recently tightened – local universities have blocked all visitors, saying they are under “closed management” – in a sign of official concern.

China’s leadership also faces a key test of public confidence in how it manages and distributes vaccines. Early-stage inoculations have already been given to the well connected, including executives at state-owned enterprises and those with whom China seeks international influence, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, frontline workers such as Dr. Zhang have been placed in vaccine queues.

Another display at People Above All, Life Above All shows heroic soldiers mobilizing to fight the virus.

Still, a virus that earlier this year appeared to pose an acute challenge to the Communist Party’s authority has instead become a pivotal moment in the construction of a Party-led superpower, the latest in a series of world events that Beijing has used to buttress its rule.

Little more than a decade ago, the Beijing Olympics signified to the Chinese people their arrival on the global stage. The great financial crisis then confirmed for Chinese leadership a belief in the rectitude of their system of state-heavy economic management.

Now, China’s success in battling COVID-19 – which enabled governments to use their systems of surveillance and social control to full effect – has boosted public faith in their own system, while fracturing long-standing public admiration for the freedoms and advancements of more developed countries.

Even the western concept of “freedom,” long an object of aspiration by independent-minded people in China, has been tarnished, as people sneer at those in democratic countries resisting masks in the name of liberty. “Compared with 10 years ago, people have become less inspired by the American system,” says Cheng Li, director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution.

It’s not just the coronavirus. The image of the U.S., long the standard-bearer for the western world among people in China, had already been dimmed by the turbulence of the Donald Trump administration.

The pandemic, however, has provided considerable new grounds for China’s leadership to make the case that it has governed more effectively than the world’s democracies – even if that means ignoring the success of New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan and South Korea. “Far from delegitimizing Xi’s leadership or the role of the CCP, the full and final response of the Party to COVID-19 throughout the year has bolstered the image of governing competence Beijing has been trying to foster,” says Jude Blanchette, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the author of China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong. “And when compared to the catastrophic handling of the coronavirus in the United States, Beijing’s relative success stands out all the more.”

Barber Huang Wenxiang, 91, expresses no complaints about the COVID-19 lockdown Wuhan endured.

It’s a narrative questioned by few in Wuhan.

At the Qingxin Barber Shop, Huang Wenxiang plies his trade as he has for many decades, working each day until 7 p.m. Mr. Huang, 91, has become a minor celebrity in Wuhan for his longevity – he became a barber in 1947, before the founding of Communist China – and his perspective is tempered by his own experience, which includes a narrow escape after Japanese aircraft bombed near his family’s home in 1938.

He has never been held in his own house for three months, as he was during the lockdown earlier this year. But he expresses no complaints.

While COVID cases rise at frightening rates in the U.S., “in Wuhan, we have barely seen any cases in recent months,” he says.

What it comes down to, he says, “is that our government, our country paid great attention to this issue, while foreign countries did not truly realize the seriousness of the disease.”

“Unlike capitalist countries, China, under the leadership of the Communist Party, will be invincible if we continue to follow with one heart the path of socialist development,” he says.

Propaganda posters adorn the fence around Wuhan's now-empty Leishenshan Hospital.

China’s Communist Party has maintained a tight grasp on power, but has long argued that its chief aim is the betterment of its people. In the case of the coronavirus “the state’s promise of being able to protect and work for the public good has actually worked. I think that has certainly raised trust in the party-state system,” says Adam Ni, director of the China Policy Centre in Canberra.

Hints of the past crisis in Wuhan do still linger. On the fence surrounding the Leishenshan Hospital, one of the sprawling facilities built at staggering speed in January and February, a fluttering poster preserves instructions from President Xi Jinping in March, when he urged a virus-stricken population to resist exhaustion and “be determined to win victory in the battle to secure Hubei province and Wuhan city.”

But the hospital is now empty and the urgency of that exhortation has long since diminished.

It has been replaced instead by the images of Mr. Xi as a paramount leader – sometimes stern, sometimes smiling, always in command – that paper the walls at People Above All, Life Above All, a newly opened Wuhan exhibit about the virus. The display is a temple to what an introductory placard calls “an epic fight” that “fully manifested the strong leadership of the Communist Party of China and the significant advantages of the socialist system of our country.”

Built on the site of a former temporary hospital, the exhibit is a 97,000-square-foot paean to viral conquest, replete with mannequins of medical workers and soldiers in heroic poses, large-screen videos of high-speed hospital construction, holographic videos of emergency-room work and telephone-booth-style chambers designed to replicate the heat and confinement of donning full-body hospital protective equipment.

China beat back the virus because the country ensured that “every decision made by Xi Jinping regarding the epidemic was implemented in every household. The whole country was united as one,” says Zhong Xing, a propaganda worker at the Wuhan Bureau of Archives who helped design the exhibit.

People Above All, Life Above All covers 97,000 square feet on the site of a former temporary hospital.

In the exhibit's timeline of the pandemic, President Xi Jinping gets pride of place.

The narrative of state heroism has left little space for unpleasant realities.

Inside the exhibit, only one small black-and-white picture is devoted to Dr. Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist who briefly became a symbol of a national conscience after police punished him for raising concern among colleagues about the spread of a strange new virus. His subsequent death from COVID-19 prompted national mourning. In the exhibit, he is described only as a Communist Party member who “died in the line of duty on February 7, 2020.”

And scant attention is paid to the immensity of epidemic human suffering among the sick, the grieving or those afflicted by family violence and faltering mental health after authorities so harshly enforced isolation orders that some people were welded into their homes.

Though that history is still fresh, “we are only able to see very trivial parts of the whole image,” says Guo Jing, a Wuhan woman who runs a legal advice hotline for women. With censorship pervasive, “we still cannot see enough of the stories of people who were infected during the pandemic or who suffered unfair treatment.”

In particular, Beijing has frustrated efforts to pinpoint the origins of the pandemic, which first took root at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

Today, the market has been shuttered, its exterior covered in blue hoarding decorated with scenic prints. Authorities have cut off electricity to the market and planted palm trees on the nearby sidewalk.

Blue hoarding surrounds the still-closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which was linked to the first known COVID-19 outbreak.

A few kilometres away, outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a security guard bars a journalist from approaching the front door as a worker wheels out a cart filled with yellow bags marked “hazardous waste.” The institute’s research includes manipulating coronaviruses to make them more dangerous to humans. Steel doors lock the entrance to the nearby Virus Specimen Museum of China. A local official says there is “nothing worth seeing” there.

Elsewhere, authorities continue to frustrate efforts to hear those most affected by the virus.

Some vendors who once worked at Huanan have now moved to another market where several say their income has been cut in half. They blame a lingering public fear of seafood and the more remote location of their shops at the new location. Within minutes of The Globe’s arrival, a market manager intervened, saying interviews are not allowed without the permission of local propaganda officials. He then escorted out the Globe reporter.

The pandemic has swelled the power of a government already committed to authoritarian control, Ms. Guo says.

The 76-day lockdown of Wuhan felt like an “experiment to determine the degree to which people can be controlled,” she says. And in the wake of the pandemic, governments have been “able to exploit people’s fears to implement further controls.” She cites cellphone-tracking apps, now pervasive in China, that intrude on personal privacy, but were “implemented with zero public discussion. People just automatically followed and obeyed, because anything that can curb the virus must be good.”

Yet even those closest to the virus outbreak offer little criticism.

The Huanan Optical Wholesale Market is situated on a second floor above the space formerly occupied by the seafood sellers. When the optical market eventually reopened, customers were reticent to return, fearing the taint of the virus.

Today, however, business is back to last year’s levels, says Li Ke, at Clear Eyesight, a shop selling contact lenses. Though the outbreak of the pandemic brought “difficulties and sadness,” he praises Chinese authorities. “Our country is strong and powerful,” he says.

What he can’t understand is why others haven’t accomplished the same.

“When I see the reports of tens of thousands of new cases in other countries,” he says, “I ask myself: why?”

With reporting by Alexandra Li


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