Source: The China Project (2/17/23)
From prizewinning author to censored chronicler of COVID in Wuhan — Q&A with Murong Xuecun in exile
Murong Xuecun rose to fame as an internet writer, and then won a prestigious official literature award in 2010. But then the state turned on him. His most recent book, ‘Deadly Quiet City,’ tells the stories of eight people in Wuhan in the spring of 2020.
By Jeremy Goldkorn
He was “one of China’s most famous cyber-writers,” the state-run newspaper China Daily said in 2004, describing Mùróng Xuěcūn 慕容 雪村, the pen name of Hǎo Qún 郝群. Those were heady days: The China Daily is a propaganda sheet, but back then, it dared to print a story about Murong Xuecun that opens like this:
He describes himself as pessimistic and lacking ambition, he says he’s ugly and vulgar and likes good food and drink above all else.
His novel, Chengdu, Leave Me Alone Tonight (成都，今夜请将我遗忘) was a… trend setter [that] sparked a series of books describing life in modern Chinese cities where the young abandon idealism in search of fortune.
Murong says he writes for fun. He says he’s never had any ambitions to make [it] big in Chinese literary circles, and has no interest in dealing with “profound” social issues.
There is no way a passage like that would appear in the China Daily today. Murong, too, has changed. He is still something of a punk, but he has found himself dragged willy-nilly, or perhaps rather willingly, into “profound social issues.”
In 2010, he published The Missing Ingredient of China (中国, 少了一味药), an investigative piece about a criminal gang running a pyramid scam, which won that year’s People’s Literature Prize (人民文学奖). But he was not allowed to give his acceptance speech, which was a searing indictment of the censorship process at Chinese publishing houses and media. (The New York Times later published a translation of the speech.)
After that, things went downhill, gradually and then quickly. Publishers stopped talking to Murong Xuecun, and by 2020, he was mostly scrubbed from China’s internet.
On April 6, 2020, he bought a train ticket from Beijing to Wuhan, which relaxed its COVID lockdown on April 8. He stayed in the city for a month, talking to the eight people whose stories comprise Deadly Quiet City.
I chatted with him by video call last week about his book, China’s COVID-zero policy and its sudden end, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, and being “invited to tea” — a euphemism for being questioned by the secret police that also provides the name of this Q&A column.
We chatted in a mix of Chinese and English. This is a translated, abridged, and edited transcript of our conversation.
When and how did you get out of China?
I left China on August 7, 2021.
At that time, this book of mine, Deadly Quiet City, was in its final stage of editing. The publishing house was very worried about my situation. They worried that if I was still in China when the book was published, something very bad would happen, that I would be arrested. So they urged me to leave again and again. I thought I’d try, but I wasn’t sure if the authorities would let me leave.
On August 6, I packed up some clothes and a few dozen books. I did not give notice on the apartment I was renting. The next day, I just left with one suitcase and went to the airport. Before I went through customs, I thought my chances of getting through were about 50:50.
But they didn’t even ask too many questions. And they let me leave.
Yeah. In Beijing. They didn’t interrogate me. So I just got on the plane and went to Hong Kong, then to London, stayed in London for five months, and then went to Australia.
It really surprises me they let you go!
Yeah. But a little while ago, a good friend in China called me and he warned me never to come back. He said some secret police came looking for him. They questioned him about my situation, how we knew each other and communicated. So he warned me, “don’t go back!”
And more than half a year ago, a lawyer friend of mine had tea with security agents and they talked about me, and the agent said, “how could they have let a guy like Murong Xuecun just go?”
I was surprised, too. They just let me go without doing anything.
Are you planning to stay abroad? In Australia?
I may only be able to live abroad in the future. If I go back, there’s be trouble.
Yeah, there will. Let’s turn to your new book, Deadly Quiet City. In the introductory section, you talk of your fear of security agents when you were on the way to Wuhan on April 6, 2020. The entire world was panicking about the virus. But you did not seem to be scared of COVID.
Before I went to Wuhan, I was actually quite nervous. I was living alone in Beijing, and I always carried a bottle of alcohol-based disinfectant with me, and I sprayed it wherever I went. But after arriving in Wuhan, I was not so afraid.
At that time, the most frightening thing was not COVID, it was our government. At that time, the citizen journalists Fāng Bīn 方斌, Chén Qiūshí 陈秋实, and Lǐ Zéhuá 李泽华 had all disappeared. They were not arrested. They just disappeared. This is even more terrifying than being arrested. No one gives a reason, you don’t know what happened. They just disappeared.
And I was basically doing exactly what they were doing. So a government that can make you disappear at any time, that’s the scariest. Viruses didn’t seem that scary.
So I spent more time worrying about keeping my work secret, making myself as safe as possible, not from the virus but from our government.
I also had some friends in Wuhan. Some were journalists, some were residents of Wuhan. After 70 days of lockdowns, people in Wuhan were not that worried about COVID, so this influenced me too.
The eight people in your book could in some ways come from any time in China. They are trying to survive in a society where often everything seems rigged against them. The stories reminded me of the book that made you famous, The Missing Ingredient of China (中国, 少了一味药), about people who get caught up in a pyramid scheme. There’s a disaster, and individuals get caught up in it, they get no help from the government, and then people who try to write about it get censored and repressed. Does that comparison make sense?
It makes sense. Both books are nonfiction but I wanted to use my pen to record stories of our times. The first book I wrote in 2010. And then in 2020, I went to Wuhan. For both books, I wanted to write about real stories, real histories.
Xi Jinping’s anti-pandemic policies…The primary goal was not to control the virus, nor was it to benefit people’s livelihoods or health. I think the main goal was to control society. Because in the history of the Communist Party’s rule of more than 70 years, there’s always been one main goal: the so-called strengthening of the Party’s leadership. It is to infinitely expand the power of the Communist Party.
From the start of the pandemic in Wuhan, three years of COVID zero, and then they suddenly abandoned it on December 7, I don’t think they were very concerned about the lives and health of citizens. What they cared about was expanding their power. The Chinese people as a whole were not protected.
In the last three years, Xi Jinping built so many temporary hospitals, so many COVID testing stations. Locked down so many cities, and brought their economies to a standstill. But they did not make even the most basic preparations for ending COVID zero.
For example, after December 7, even basic painkillers and fever drugs were extremely scarce. So it really feels like their most important goal was to strengthen their control of 1.3 billion people in the name of epidemic prevention.
Why do you think they ended COVID zero so quickly?
It is difficult to know how this government makes decisions, and on what basis it makes decisions. At least as late as November 30, Xi Jinping was still saying that he would unswervingly adhere to the policy of dynamic zero [动态清零, the government’s name for its COVID zero policy].
Then just a week later, all of a sudden, they completely relaxed the policy. No more controls, no one had to line up to get tested. You did not have to scan a QR code to get into restaurants or other buildings.
Many people talk about three factors behind this decision.
Firstly, in fact, there were already too many patients in hospitals in Beijing and other cities. In other words, it might be that the virus was already out of control. And even though they were very aware of this situation, they did not speak publicly about it.
Another reason is that over the past three years, these strict lockdowns, even of important cities like Shanghai, were severely damaging China’s economy. So their tax revenues were also affected.
It is possible that after three years…it will be very interesting to look at China’s financial figures. Every province probably spent more than they took in. They were in debt. The economy could not sustain it.
Another possible reason is that from the end of November, many college students and young people took to the streets to oppose the COVID-zero policy, and in Shanghai, people were calling for the Communist Party and Xi Jinping to step down. And Xi Jinping obviously knew about these protests, and perhaps he thought it was dangerous for him? So he opened everything.
But this is all speculation from the outside. Under China’s one-man dictatorship system, all decisions are actually made by one person, that is, Xi Jinping himself. And judging from his past decisions, you may say that his decisions have been justified or very rational, or based on listening to many people’s opinions.
But I don’t think so. I think he’s an impulsive decision-maker. Some person tells him about a situation, he bangs the desk, taps his forehead, and makes a decision. And it determines the policy of the country, and also determines the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
At one point in the book, you describe a security agent calling you up and advising you to leave Wuhan by saying “You don’t want to get infected.” The words sound like he is trying to be caring, but it’s a threat. Why are they always like this, the secret police in China? I have had some unpleasant experiences with this type. They seem to like threatening you with expressions of concern.
strong>Is this a Chinese Communist Party thing or did they learn that technique from the Russians?
It’s a mafia thing, gangster behavior. When Chinese gangsters threaten you, they say: “Be careful when you go in and out.” It sounds like they care, but what it means is you have to be careful everywhere!
Another example, in China if a gangster wants to extort money from you, he’ll pick up your child from school and take him home. Nothing else, just pick up the child, buy him a small toy and snack, chat with him happily, take him home. But of course, this is actually a very serious threat.
China’s secret police are not much different from the mafia. Their way of talking to us is the same as the gangsters. When they come to me, they seldom say who they are. Their conversation is always tinged with threats, or they tell me I am not allowed to do something.
When they come to invite me to tea, they never directly say their purpose. They beat around the bush, making a long, slow circle until they finally ask me my thoughts or my opinion on a certain matter.
And then at some point, they will beat someone very badly. For example, [the human rights lawyer] Gāo Zhìshèng 高智晟, and the [dissident writer] Yú Jié 余杰 were both brutally beaten by them. Many of my friends have had this experience.
When they beat someone, they will find someone else to do it. The policemen who often drink tea with me, even if I pissed them off, they wouldn’t beat me themselves. They’ll get their colleagues to come do it.
They’re just thugs.
Of the characters in your book, I found myself most drawn to Li, the illegal motorcycle taxi guy who had once made a fortune but lost it because he was addicted to gambling. Maybe it’s typical of people born in the 1960s and ’70s in China, my generation and the generation of most of my Chinese friends. We lived through a period when there was so much money to be made, so many opportunities. You yourself, you won the official People’s Literature Award in 2010! If you were willing to be obedient, perhaps you would still be living in Beijing, in a mansion. But for many people, their lives came crashing down in the last decade or so. I know plenty of people who had a similar story arc during the years I lived in China, from 1995 to 2015. My old website that I thought was part of an opening-up of media in China was blocked in 2009. Your writing life in China did not last much past getting that award in 2010. Mr. Li lost all his money.
That’s an interesting observation. Many people born in the 1960s or 1970s experienced particularly difficult periods. The Great Famine did not end until 1962. In my own childhood, we still had to worry about food.
And then what? We see the Chinese economy starts to rise and take off, and it seems that everyone’s life is getting better. In cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, you can see countless skyscrapers and brightly lit streets at night, which may not be much worse than New York or London. Then it seems with money, our society has become better, and it seems that we have begun to live a better life.
But since Xi Jinping came to power. We are feeling the situation is bad. Foreign investors, including big businessmen like Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠 Lǐ Jiāchéng) are withdrawing from China. Society is becoming more and more closed, censorship is more and more severe. And now the economy has also started to go into a recession.
What about in the future? Will a catastrophe like the Great Famine happen again? We’ve been through the worst of times, we’ve been through the best of times, but now it seems we’re losing everything we have ever had. The wonderful times we lived are no more.
Do you know what has happened to Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua, and Zhang Zhan?
Li Zehua is at university in the U.S. Chen Qiushi is free. He is in Qingdao doing some business. Fang Bin: After he disappeared on February 9, 2020, there has been almost no news. At one period, there were rumors from some people that he was being held in a certain detention center in Wuhan, but it is difficult to confirm. As far as I know, after February 9, 2020 when Fang Bin disappeared, nobody knows what happened to him, or even if he’s dead or alive.
Zhang Zhan is now in her third year in prison. She was arrested in May 2020. She is now in the third year of a four year sentence. In theory, she will be free in just over a year. But what will “freedom” mean for Zhang Zhan? She is just going to move from a smaller prison to a bigger one.
I am not sure if she will even survive that long. She has been hunger striking in protest ever since her arrest. She’s quite tall for a Chinese woman, 1.77 meters (5.8 feet). Now I hear that she only weighs about 40 kg (88 lbs), and is very weak.
Her brother thinks that he might not be able to last until she is released. Zhang Zhan is a very brave person, but she might pay a very heavy price for it.
Has the government’s handling of the pandemic changed ordinary people’s views of the government and the Communist Party? I know a lot of people in China who were living their beautiful lives before the pandemic, eating the finest foods and driving in flashy cars in Shanghai and Beijing and Chengdu. They did not care about censorship, or Uyghurs, dissident lawyers, they were living large. But some of those people seem to have changed over the last year.
We don’t have any real statistical data or proper surveys of people’s opinions about the government. The official figures are absolutely unreliable. So what each of us may be talking about is the situation that we feel around ourselves.
In my opinion, propaganda and the education system in China teach people to “love” the Communist Party. You are required to accept the idea that the Communist Party is wise, great, and correct. This has always been effective. Most people think the government is still doing its best to protect them, and they will support it.
Of course we don’t have data, but I believe over the last three years there are more people who have started to see the situation clearly, and to know what kind of government this kind of government is.
At the same time, over the last three years, their income suffered serious losses. This is the upper middle class, many of them want to leave, you must have heard of “the art of running away” [internet slang for figuring out how to emigrate: 润学 rùn xué]. So many people including my friends are ready to leave. They want to sell their apartments in Beijing or Shanghai, transfer the money abroad, and then take their families and leave China.
But what about those with lower incomes? Because their incomes are lower, their ability to obtain information might also be weaker. As I see it, they probably are more loyal to the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party, and still feel that China did a good job in epidemic prevention.
But I also have another idea. In November, I heard a recording that was circulating on the internet. A policeman from Chaoyang District in Beijing called a woman surnamed Zhao, who was doing very badly paid domestic work in the city. She complained a little about epidemic policies in a WeChat group. So a policeman gave her a phone call to admonish her and teach her a lesson.
In my experience, when people like Ms. Zhao hear the word “police,” they usually are very scared. But in that recording of her phone call, she started to angrily rebuke the policeman after he said just a few words: “You are paid a salary. How can we live without income?”
Then she mentioned that one of her elderly family members was sick, her children needed to go to school, she had no income at all, how could she survive?
So I think the three years of COVID zero have made many people like Ms. Zhao — who were originally very docile and obedient — become very angry, and fearless. Because they have nothing to lose.
So soon after that there was the White Paper Revolution, people took to the streets to protest, holding pieces of white paper. Like Ms. Zhao, they were angry, and they felt they had nothing to lose. I believe that there will be more protests like the White Paper Revolution, and there may be a larger scale protest movement. Whether this will pose a threat to Xi Jinping is still hard for us to say.
Jeremy Goldkorn worked in China for 20 years as an editor and entrepreneur. He is editor-in-chief of The China Project, and co-founder of the Sinica Podcast. Read more