Covid-19 Pandemic and Dystopia

Covid-19 Pandemic and Dystopia

Thu, Nov 19, 2020
Covid-19 Pandemic and Dystopia

What Happened in Wuhan, China

Toshiyasu Ogawa
Professor, Waseda University Faculty of Commerce

As of October 5, 2020, the number of people positive for Covid-19 in Japan reached 85,569, exceeding the Chinese national total of 85,489 [1]. By the time this is published, it is feared that Japan’s number will exceed 100,000.

Contrasting with Japan, China was able to stamp out the epidemic quickly because it was able to curb the explosive spread of infections in Hubei province, or more specifically, Wuhan (Figure 1). Hubei’s 68,139 infected accounted for about 8 of 10 in China, with Wuhan accounting for the majority with 50,340. However, the “lockdown” measures implemented there severely limited the freedom of Wuhan residents, exposing the affliction of modern China.

Figure 1: Location of Wuhan and Hubei

At 10:00 a.m. on January 23, 2020, Wuhan was “locked down,” and this was the world’s first Covid-19 lockdown. The city of Wuhan was born after establishment of the People’s Republic of China by combining the three cities of Wuchang, Hanyang, and Hankou.
It lies at the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, the capital of Hubei province and one of the largest cities in China with a population over 11 million. The return of Japanese residents of Wuhan by Japanese government-chartered flights after the lockdown is fresh in our memory.

“Lockdown” is fēngchéng (封城: closed fortress) in Chinese. I first saw the term in a January 23 New York Times article. The headline said “Wuhan Controls Novel Coronavirus Epidemic by ‘Lockdown,’” and used lockdown in quotation marks. The New York Times online edition carries articles in English as well as Chinese or Spanish, depending on the content. This article is posted in two languages, and the English version says “Wuhan, Center of Coronavirus Outbreak, Is Being Cut Off by Chinese Authorities.” Lockdown seems to be established as a translation for fēngchéng some time later.

There are two potential reasons why the translation of fēngchéng wasn’t established. First is because fēngchéng is a new term born in the Covid-19 pandemic. Even a novice would know that chéng (城) means city, but fēngchéng is not in the Hanyu Da Cidian dictionary, a new term born in this historic situation, and the New York Times reporter must have been perplexed. What’s more remarkable is the vagueness of the reality of fēngchéng. Stoppage of transportation and stay-home orders were reported, but no one can live if a metropolis completely stops the movement of people (transportation) and things (distribution). So, how to both prevent the spread of the infection and lock down? As of January 23, no one knew the answer.

The reality of Wuhan’s “lockdown” was brought to light by Diary of the Wuhan Lockdown, by Guo Jing (published in Japan by Ushio Publishing, Sept. 2020). Guo is a social worker involved in women’s rights.

Author Guo Jing (courtesy of Guo Jing)

Just after relocating from Guangzhou in late 2019, she published her experience suddenly encountering the “lockdown” as a diary on the Weibo social media app, creating a large response. The lonely daily life told by an unknown 29-year-old woman conveys without embellishment the reality of life under Wuhan’s “lockdown,” and foreign media who noted the reaction rushed to report on it. When BBC News first reported on it (Jan. 30), the New Yorker (Feb. 7) and the Guardian (Mar. 15) followed. These reports increased her readership further, but Chinese officials repeatedly deleted and blocked her posts, thwarting its spread on the internet. In Japan, NHK broadcast a documentary program “Locked-Down City of Wuhan, 76-Day Record of a Resident” (BS1, May 4), including an online interview with Guo. Just after the broadcast, her story was published as a single volume in Taiwan, and in September it was translated into Japanese by Waseda Emeritus Professor Koichiro Inahata.

Guo couldn’t buy masks and household goods were in short supply, but she found opportunities to go outside and speak to sanitation workers who continued to do their work on the streets. She ascribes this to her calling to help the vulnerable, even predating her activism as a feminist, but even this small liberty would soon be lost. From early February, as the epidemic worsened, the Wuhan government tightened restrictions, imposing “closure controls,” a complete 24-hour curfew, and going out was not the only thing prohibited. Freedom of speech was also strictly limited.

In the early hours of February 7, when the death of whistleblower Li Wenliang [2] was reported, condolences popped up on social media but were deleted one after another. Guo also posted a message of condolence, three times, only to be deleted each time. To me, this is the essence of China’s epidemic control. China did bring the spread of the virus under control very quickly, but that was due to the digital monitoring system which the Communist Party of China established before the pandemic to eliminate speech and behavior which does not conform with its policies.

The core of this system is Alipay and WeChat. Both are essential to life in Chinese society, centered on a cashless payment system. They provide one-stop service from various reservation systems to utility payments. Personal information is centrally managed inside a small smartphone, and the system is a far-reaching network connecting individuals and the society.

Alipay affiliate Sesame Credit uses artificial intelligence to give individuals a credit score based on their payment history, and a high score makes one eligible for low interest rates on loans and other benefits (figure 2). Delinquency in payments causes the score to drop. In the future, in order to avoid losing benefits, it will be more difficult for people to oppose the will of the government. Since the pandemic, an “epidemic prevention health code” app has been added, and its certificate is required to enter public places.

Figure 2: Credit score by Sesame Credit. Moderate score shown here exempts one from prepaying at a hotel.

While China is a superpower with 1.4 billion people and enormous territory, very few Chinese escape this surveillance system with such conveniences because rejecting Alipay means exclusion from social services. Come to think of it, George Orwell’s 1984 was idyllic. Escaping from a “Big Brother” surveillance system which uses digital data is extremely difficult.

This dystopian situation was captured on film by the documentary Coronation (August 21, 2020, directed by Ai Weiwei)[3]. A Chinese expatriate artist living in the United Kingdom, Ai Weiwei created a movie based on footage filmed secretly in China. Running without commentary, actual footage from intensive care unit to crematorium tells the complete story in silence of the terrifying collapse of the medical system, declaring that the dead of Wuhan’s Covid-19 epidemic are victims of autocratic power.

As in China, we also can’t give up the convenience afforded to society by digital technology. However, we cannot entrust the personal information which supports those services to certain corporations or state powers. Wuhan under lockdown has shown us the frightening dystopia which that can cause.


[1] Covid-19 data from Toyo Keizai Online (Japan) and National Health Commission (China)
[2] Wuhan Central Hospital ophthalmologist who recognized the danger of epidemic from the novel coronavirus and quickly sounded an alarm. After posting about the danger of epidemic on a Weibo group chat on December 30, 2019, he was reprimanded by the security authorities for “spreading false and groundless rumors.” He later became infected while treating patients and died.
[3] Published on Vimeo On Demand


Born in 1963 in Tokyo, Professor Toshiyasu Ogawa was a full-time lecturer at Daito Bunka University Faculty of Foreign Languages before he started teaching at Waseda University Faculty of Commerce in 1996, becoming assistant professor in 1999 and professor in 2004. His areas of expertise are modern and contemporary Chinese literature and Sino-Japanese comparative culture.

Major publications include: Rebel and Recluse; Zhou Zuoren in the 1920s (Heibonsha 2019); and Zhou Zuoren’s letters to MATSUEDA Shigeo (coeditor, Guangxi Normal University Press 2013).

Major thesis include: “On the Ideological Framework in Human Literature” in YANGTZE RIVER ACADEMIC vol.66, June 2020; “Zhou Zuoren and the High Treason Incident; concerning the encounter with NAGAI Kafu” in Yaso vol.102, March 2019; and “The boundary between colloquial and literary style; with special reference to Xiao-shi Movement” in Retirement Collection of Professor INAHATA Koichiro, Research on Chinese Classical Literature vol. 2 (Toho Shoten, March 2018).

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