COVID-19 diaries from Wuhan: When diaries become citizen reports

Cherry blossoms. (Photo credit: Ai Xiaoming. Used with permission.)

The following post is the seventeenth and the last installment in a series of diaries written by independent filmmaker and feminist scholar Ai Xiaoming and feminist activist Guo Jing. Both are living in Wuhan, at the initial center of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are the links to the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh, twelfththirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth parts of the series.

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.

Ai Xiaoming: Published on Matter News on April 10, 2020


When diaries are published, they are mediated by time — their meanings are interpreted differently at different periods of time. As time passes, privacy takes on less importance, and the personal experience and historical details contained in the diaries become more precious. In the past, diary writers would be very concerned about privacy, as only keeping their diaries secret allowed them to write with any freedom. Secrecy is a way of escaping government censorship and social repression, circumventing speech polices and attacks from people mentioned in the diaries. As time passes, diaries are like caterpillars transforming into butterflies. They surpass the restrictions imposed by place and time. Those able to punish the diary writers fade into history, but the diaries still exist and stand out.

When we write diaries, we revel in the freedom to go against society, others, and part of our “selfhood” — the “ego” that Freud refers to as central to the process of socialization. From the perspective of the mainstream, some of the contents of our diaries are anti-social, anti-mainstream, and anti-discipline.This is our reality. When writers strengthen their self-consciousness, building their independent thinking and personality in their diaries, society and the dominant ideology find faults between the lines and confront the writers. Any genuine diary will be at odds with ideological dictatorship. Hence, in the era of authoritarian rule, diary writing inevitably falls into dangerous territory.

As censorship keeps tightening, it is more difficult for writers to maintain their privacy and personal writing style. The act of writing a diary is considered unorthodox at any rate. Even if the diary is focused on banal, daily etiquette, what appeals is the dissent it contains, far removed from grand official narratives.

Take the diaries of Fang Fang and Guo Jing as well as other texts in the same genre as examples, they read more like a combination of personal records and citizen reports than personal diaries.

In other words, these texts are written in the form of diary — a genre that gives more freedom to personal observations and experiences. But the audience is now public rather than private.
As these “diaries” seek dialogue with the general public, they function more as reports from the front line than dialogues with the writers’ inner selves.
Why did these writers turn their diaries into citizen reports? When we estimate what these diaries have achieved, we should not forget the existence of censorship and the sacrifice of our reporters.

If we do not intentionally forget or ignore our fear, we must admit that at the time when the pandemic was most dangerous and difficult, front line reporters in Wuhan, who dared to enter hospitals, funeral homes, and high-risk infection communities — reporters like Chen Quishi, Li Zehua, Fang Bin, Zhang Zhan, Zhang Yi, etc — are the most courageous ones. They went against all the odds.
They do not hold official journalist licenses and have zero protection when compared to other journalists. Their lives and security were also at risk. Thanks to their reports, we heard the voices from the most fragile people and saw the despair of the most helpless. On social media, we saw videos taken from different corners of different cities and heard people pouring out feelings from their hearts. We should never forget that several reporters were forced to shut up. Even after Wuhan lifted its lockdown, we have not heard news of their whereabouts.
The rise of the diary genre is our concession to the citizen journalists who got shut down. The diaries are praised by readers because people lack access to reports coming from the front line and the grassroots.

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