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Chinatopix via AP

People buy pork at the entrance gate of a closed residential community in Wuhan, China. (Chinatopix via AP)

Telling the truth about coronavirus

Ordinary Chinese citizens are finding creative ways to tell the truth about their government’s response

As the coronavirus outbreak dies down in China and surges in the West, Chinese officials and propagandists are declaring a victory for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the “people’s war” against the virus. 

In a bit of revisionist history, they are hailing the government’s response as buying the world time (vindicating a whistleblower who died treating COVID-19 patients) and even claiming the virus may not have originated in China.

In total, China has 81,000 confirmed cases of infection, with 3,200 deaths and more than 71,000 recoveries. At its peak in February, China was reporting thousands of new cases each day, while now numbers have dwindled into the teens and 20s. Many of the new cases came in from other global hotspots, such as Europe.

Yet Chinese citizens, intellectuals, and journalists are pushing back against the national narrative. They’re criticizing the government for squelching whistleblowers, covering up the severity of the virus, and using draconian measures to bar residents from leaving their homes. Some are dodging censors to publish banned articles, while others take a more primitive approach: yelling out their windows. 

On March 6, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan visited a community in Wuhan to observe the food and supply distribution to quarantined citizens. A cell phone video shows residents yelling from their apartment windows, “Fake! It’s all fake!” They claim the estate management company had cleaned up the area before the official’s arrival and arranged fake volunteers to pass out groceries. 

In a rare move, the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily shared a clip of the video and used it to criticize the apartment complex’s manager. State-run media sometimes allows these types of dissent as long as it targets local-level officials—so it seems the central government is trying to fix the people’s problems.

Days later, President Xi Jinping also visited Wuhan with a surgical mask. He visited a community center and hospital for quarantined patients, and walked through an apartment complex. He video chatted with frontline doctors to “express my sincere care and concern, and pay high respect to you.” To prevent a repeat of Sun’s visit, authorities stationed police officers in some apartments to keep residents from yelling out their windows. 

On the same day as Xi’s victory tour in Wuhan, Renwu Magazine (or People), published an explosive profile of Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital. She said on Dec. 30 she shared a photo of a diagnostic report for a patient showing the words “SARS coronavirus.” Medical professionals passed the image around. Authorities quickly reprimanded them for spreading rumors. Her hospital's disciplinary office also accused her of “manufacturing rumors.”

“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand,” Ai told Renwu. “I would have [obscenity] talked about it to whoever, where ever I could.” Several of her colleagues have since died of the virus. 

The article quickly went viral on Chinese social media, but censors immediately got to work scrubbing it from the internet. So Chinese netizens started to look for innovative ways to bypass censors. They posted the story in English, Korean, Braille, Morse code, emojis, ancient Chinese script, and Chinese romanization. Someone used QR codes to share the article paragraph by paragraph while others recorded themselves reading the article aloud on a video sharing platform. 

Around the same time, Wuhan author Fang Fang wrote a fiery opinion piece in Caixin responding to Wuhan party secretary Wang Zhonglin’s call for the people of Wuhan to thank Xi and the CCP for providing direction during the outbreak. Instead, Fang countered that the party should thank the brave people of Wuhan: “The government must express its gratitude to the thousands of families who have watched their loved ones die in the outbreak …The government must thank all of the 40,000 medical personnel … for snatching life after life from the clutches of death at great personal risk.

“I say to the government: You need to rein in your arrogance and humbly offer thanks to your masters—in this case, the millions of people in Wuhan.”

He also called for an investigation into how the outbreak began and mistakes the government made. The guilty, Fang argued, deserve punishment: “Perhaps the least the public could do would be to write a petition urging the resignation of officials who view politics as their lifeblood but treat people’s lives like dirt.” 

Censors quickly removed the article.

Chinese officials took to Twitter (which is banned in China) to blast the United States’ response to the virus. Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, tweeted a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in the United States: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” 

Amid increased tensions between the two largest economies in the world, China on Wednesday announced it would expel U.S. journalists who work for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Chinese officials said the move was in retaliation for the Trump administration capping the number of Chinese citizens working in state-owned media in the United States and labeling them “foreign missions.”

In the past few years, these journalists have reported groundbreaking stories about the detention of more than 1 million Uighurs in re-education camps in Xinjiang, the government’s crackdown on house churches, as well as the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said it “deplored” the cancellation of the reporters’ credentials, noting it affects at least 13 reporters. “Journalists illuminate the world we live in,” FCCC said in a statement. “China, through this action, is dimming itself.”

Quarantine boredom: As Americans are now asked to stay home during the COVID-19 outbreak, perhaps we can look to Wuhan residents to see how they staved off boredom while stuck in their apartments for months.

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When a virus kills a wedding

COVID-19 shows us how little control we have

On Sunday, my fiancé, David, and I sent an email to our wedding guests and informed them that we are canceling our wedding on April 25. The last few weeks, we had been watching the increasingly alarming news about COVID-19 with dread coiling in our guts, wondering how this virus will impact what’s supposed to be the happiest day of our lives. We, like the thousands of other engaged couples across the nation, faced an agonizing dilemma: Do we cancel or postpone our wedding and potentially lose tons of money, or do we continue with our plans and lose valued guests? 

For us, it began with disheartening calls from my relatives in South Korea. The coronavirus pandemic had just hit my mother country, and my aunts and uncles and cousins, who had all already bought their plane tickets and booked their Airbnbs, worried that they might not make it to our wedding after all. Come late February, things continued to get worse as new cases doubled each day in Korea. My relatives canceled their trip. We were bummed, but it never crossed our minds that we would have to eventually cancel our wedding. 

Then inevitably, the epidemic hit our country. It began on Jan. 31 in Washington state, and then continued to scatter like baby cockroaches across state lines. New York and my own state of California are hit particularly badly, and as I write this, the virus has infected people in every state except West Virginia. As of March 17, more than 4,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 85 people have died from it in the U.S. The news kept getting grimmer and grimmer: The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. We were planning to go to Berlin and Auschwitz for our honeymoon, but President Donald Trump put a travel ban to Europe. Then he declared a national emergency. Los Angeles (where I live) closed down all schools in the district through April. Most churches canceled their services through March, including ours. 

David and I went from discussing whether we should postpone our honeymoon to whether we should postpone or cancel our wedding. If we postpone our wedding, then when to reschedule? Who knew when this outbreak would blow over? Should we cancel our wedding and just have an intimate ceremony with our local pastor? We were possibly looking at tens of thousands of dollars wasted. And what if things got better before April 25? That would be maddening, if we had gone through that chaotic trouble of canceling or rescheduling dozens of vendors, only to realize things are fine after all. As we agonized over this, any excitement we had for our wedding started draining away. Each time I saw the boxes of stuff we had bought for the wedding, I felt my heart tighten.

Meanwhile, on social media groups, other brides and grooms who had weddings scheduled from March all the way through October were weighing the same undesirable options. At the time, most vowed to press on no matter what. One bride with a mid-May wedding wrote, “I refuse to move my day. We have planned too long and worked too hard to make it happen.” Many were willfully optimistic: Surely things will brighten up in a few weeks? Surely this is just overblown panic from overexcited media and overly anxious folks?

We too were desperately hopeful. Until last Friday, we were both convinced we can still hold a wedding, even if some guests couldn’t make it. Though we got messages from a few guests saying they might not be able to make it (pregnant friends, a cousin who is in danger of losing his job because of how the virus has affected the cafe he works at), we also got reaffirming texts from most guests saying they were planning to come no matter what. I was to be a bridesmaid to a friend’s wedding on March 22, and they were posting #stillgettingmarried hashtags on their Instagram stories. Yes, the show will go on ... but must it? 

Then last weekend, I went to that friend’s bachelorette party. As I drove down to the resort hotel where all the bridesmaids would be staying, I cried the entire way, yelling at God for answers: What do I do, Lord? Why are you so silent right now? I can’t even hear you! Yet even as I talked to God, I knew that I couldn’t listen to Him not because He wasn’t speaking, but because my desires were louder than His voice at the moment. At the resort hotel, I was surprised to see people still swimming in the outdoor pool, even as they were discussing the pandemic. These people included older white-haired folks in their 70s or 80s. I feared for their lives. Throughout the day, my friends and I sprayed hand sanitizer on each other’s hands. 

That night, while tossing and turning in bed, I dreamed of my wedding. It looked exactly how I had planned it—lots of warm-lit candles, twinkly string lights, bright-colored wildflowers in mini clear vases, ivory chiffon table runners—but it was the lamest wedding ever: I couldn’t see a single face I recognized, including my future husband’s. All I saw were strangers eating the Korean tacos and churros we paid for, drinking the wine we bought from Costco, sitting at the tables I decorated. And all I felt was deep unease and sadness. Nobody was celebrating. 

I woke up feeling depressed and texted David, “I had a dream that we had the lamest wedding ever.” He texted back, “I had a dream the world was ending.” 

“We need some quiet time today,” I told him.

My bride-to-be friend had a restless sleep too. She woke up at 4:30 a.m. unable to go back to sleep. That morning, we sat in the hotel room worrying about what this virus might do to our guests. In both our cases, all our family would be flying out of state or the country. Several of them, including our parents, are in their 60s. “I just don’t feel comfortable putting people at risk,” my friend told me: “It just isn’t worth it.” As much as I didn’t want to, I agreed. My friend cut her bachelorette party short. She just wanted to go home and call her fiancé. Their wedding date was next weekend. They had a heavy decision to make. And so did David and I. 

That Sunday, we went for a walk. By the end of the walk, tears rolled down my cheeks, and David was looking wretched. We read the signs that the pandemic was only going to get worse, not better, in the next couple of months. We simply couldn’t put our beloved guests at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Is the wedding worth my parents infecting the older, sick people in their church? Is the wedding worth David’s parents infecting his ailing, 96-year-old grandpa? Is the wedding worth forcing our friends to self-quarantine for 14 days and impacting their jobs and families? No event, not even a wedding, is worth putting anyone’s health or life at risk.

Then we saw a tweet from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending no gatherings of more than 50 people in the U.S. for the next eight weeks. I cried harder. That was it—we absolutely had to cancel. It was simply the wisest thing to do: We wanted to start our marriage right not by throwing a perfect wedding, but by honoring God and others. 

“I’m sorry,” David said quietly, putting his arm around me. “I’m sorry too,” I choked out through my sobs. We walked back home holding hands in silence, each struggling to accept the fact that this stupid coronavirus had killed our wedding. We both called our parents to tell them the news.

I cried all day in the bed before I was able to climb out, dry my swollen eyes, and write an email notifying our guests of our decision: We would cancel our wedding and do a small ceremony at David’s house. Instead of my father flying in to officiate as we had planned, we might have our local pastor do it. We didn’t want to wait another year or so in uncertainty. We can have a party next year instead of a wedding.

My bride friend texted me that evening: They were postponing their wedding as well. Online, many other brides and grooms had made the same decision, either by choice or by force because their venues canceled on them. Others had their bachelorette parties and bridal showers canceled or postponed. “More than a year of planning gone,” one bride mourned with a crying emoji. Another cried, “Tears ... all the freaking tears.” One bride with the same wedding date as me wrote, “I just broke down into a full emotional meltdown about an hour ago. I’m so glad I’m working from home so my coworkers didn’t have to see my sobbing face.” 

Today as I write this, I’m also glad I work from home. David and I have already exchanged flurries of emails and phone calls with our vendors to cancel and beg for refunds that some businesses are reluctant to give, because everyone in the wedding industry is financially suffering right now. This afternoon we went to the courthouse to pick up our marriage license, only to find out all courts in LA County and Orange County are closed indefinitely. 

Ha! Even our Plan B is combusting into ashes! All because of one spiky virus. All because one person in China got sick, and we human beings live in the same broken world and share the same flesh-and-blood body—no matter how divided we may seem right now, what with our politics and stereotypes, and no matter how advanced we may be, what with our rockets and robots. “We just have to accept the fact that this is completely out of our control,” David told me as we came back home from court empty-handed. 

At the time, I hated him for being right. Now, I feel at peace: What a wonderful thing that we are not in control, for we—as our response to the coronavirus pandemic has shown us—botch so many things when we think we are in control. What a wonderful thing that we know that someone righteous and compassionate and all-knowing and all-powerful is in control instead: Our heavenly Father God, who created every cell in our body, every blade of grass, and even the infamous bat that may have started this whole global chaos. And what a wonderful thing to start our marriage (whenever that is) with that glad submission, knowing that we’re not even in control of a wedding, let alone the rest of our life together.

Dear brides and grooms out there who are in the same boat, I feel your disappointment. But hey, what a valuable lesson to be gifted so early on, just for the price of a wedding. Some would say that’s a mighty fine bargain. 

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Young mother and her daughter with a digital tablet in Hong Kong (iStock)

Inside the outbreak: Worshipping online in Hong Kong

Churches are figuring out how to meet virtually during the coronavirus pandemic

On Sunday mornings, Anne Ngai wishes she could step inside her church in Mong Kok and worship with fellow congregants. Instead, she sings along to a livestreamed service that she watches from a tablet in her living room.

Many Christians in Hong Kong are like Ngai, watching livestreamed or pre-recorded messages online as most churches have suspended onsite services during the coronavirus pandemic. After officials declared it an emergency on Jan. 25, the outbreak has now led to 134 confirmed cases and four deaths in the city. Among the infected patients is a preacher of Jubilant Grace Methodist Church and a member of Sai Wan Ho Christian Gospel Disciples Church.

Church services have moved to Facebook and YouTube. Small groups have also switched to Skype and the video conferencing platform Zoom. To Ngai, 41, the experience of gathering in person is “irreplaceable.” She feels worship should be done in a community, not alone. While her church members do leave real-time comments during the YouTube livestream, the remarks are few and mostly revolve around audiovisual issues.

On Facebook, participants in Flow Church’s broadcast reacted with strings of thumbs up, hearts, and laughing face emojis. More than 500 viewers joined the 1.5-hour livestream on March 7. They also left comments, expressing appreciation for the rap segment by the praise band, responding to a sermon about equipping oneself in faith, and echoing “Amen” after prayers for the society strained by the epidemic.

To do online church well, “the biggest challenge is the interactive mood with the congregation and different communication methods,” said Poon Chi Kong, pastor of Flow Church. It’s figuring out “how we can let them feel that we are worshipping together and it’s not one-sided.”

To enhance fellowship online, Flow Church holds a live music session where praise team members respond to viewers who type in comments and song requests. Across screens, musicians and viewers chat and joke around. Flow Church also conducted communion during its Feb. 15  broadcast. Participants partook of the elements in their homes at the same time and responded with “Thanks be to God for His grace” in the comments.

Since moving the church service online, about the same number of people watch the livestream as attend the brick-and-mortar Flow Church service. Yet other churches have seen a drop in attendance: One 300-member church in Sha Tin saw a 30 percent decrease since turning to livestream. Offerings have also dropped by 50 percent in the past few weeks.

In a sanctuary in Tsuen Wan that used to seat 400 congregants, Ho Yee Lai now worships among 40 people. This church is one of the few still holding onsite services, though it livestreams them as well. “Sitting in church, I can concentrate a lot more in a spiritual atmosphere, looking at the cross,” the 49-year-old social worker said. “It’s peaceful and quiet.”

Members attending in person have to take extra precautionary steps. Wearing a mask is a must. Before entering the sanctuary, Ho needs to wash her hands, have her temperature checked, and register her name and contact information.

Worshippers sit farther apart. The church photographs the congregation in case someone contracts COVID-19 and they need to trace where everyone sat. To minimize contamination, there are no Bibles, hymnals, or bulletins now. Leaders have suspended communion and children’s worship, while small groups can book a room with the church or meet in a park.

The big question for churches is when to resume regular onsite services. Schools plan to reopen on April 20, and some churches look to that date as their gauge. Still, each church also must decide what coronavirus precautions to take and whether it can effectively implement them in time to resume services.

While many may feel anxious or uneasy during the epidemic, Wilson Lam, a deacon at the Sha Tin church, feels an urgency to act. Lam and his fellow church members have prepared hand sanitizer to distribute to the community this week. “I feel a sense of responsibility,” Lam said. “Given this situation in society and because the church represents our faith, I want to help those in need.”

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