Communist Party desperate to control Covid-19 narrative

Chengdu Letter: History is repeating itself as Chinese officials threaten bereaved against legal action

When the Chinese Communist Party wants to massage a narrative into a shape of its liking it can go to startling lengths. We see it today and we saw it in grim action in 2008 in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake that claimed 88,000 lives and left five million homeless.

At least 7,000 school buildings collapsed in that earthquake, and in many cases surrounding government buildings and homes remained standing. Shoddy construction, with kickbacks going to corrupt officials, had played a key role in the deaths of thousands of children.

Exactly how many children died, we still do not know. The government put out a figure of 5,335 but volunteers going from village to village had tallied more than twice that before officials stopped them and their research.

In Dujiangyan, standing behind a police cordon with a group of distraught parents, I watched as rescue workers in orange jackets pulled tiny corpses out of the rubble of a collapsed school and laid them out in straight lines on to two basketball courts.


With the one-child policy still strictly in force then, for many parents their only offspring was gone. Most had been sterilised after childbirth, in accordance with local policies. Their homes and work places were in ruins.

Quell the rage

Officials came clamouring to quell the rage. To parents who had lost their only children they offered free treatment from fertility clinics to reverse vasectomies and tubal ligations. They offered hush money – big sums. When that didn’t work they threatened, coerced and jailed.

Unperturbed, thousands of enraged parents were intent on marching through Beijing – determined to tell the world the true story. For a short while the movement gained noisy and powerful momentum. But then, within a few days, the wheels seemed to suddenly fall off and silence prevailed once more.

One broken woman who had lost her eight-year-old daughter quietly told me afterwards what it was that had finally made her back down. A local party official sat at her kitchen table and took out an A4 sheet of paper. In the middle of the blank sheet he wrote her name. Then in a circle, on the points of a clock, he wrote 12 other names around hers – the names he listed were a mix of her closest relatives and friends who had survived the tragedy.

One by one he described how local officials would systematically destroy their lives. Compensation to rebuild a flattened house for an uncle would be withheld; another would be fired from his government job on spurious grounds; her best friend’s daughter would be denied entry to university; an aunt’s pension application would be rejected.

For each one, the official calmly outlined how they could and would ruin them. They would also let each of them know who was to blame for their misfortune, he said. And when they had finished with the list, they would put their retaliatory focus on her.

Kept her silence

The bereaved mother crumbled. She signed the agreement, took the money, and kept her silence. As did many others like her. “The party does not want to be blamed or criticised for anything. They just want us to show our gratitude for their great work. Social stability is everything to them,” she said.

Sympathetic lawyers have been warned to steer clear of any legal battles challenging the party-state

Twelve years on and in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, there are evident echoes of Sichuan. While the party might have already controlled the outbreak, it is desperate to control the narrative surrounding it.

Bereaved families in Wuhan planning to sue the government for covering up the severity of the outbreak have been threatened and several have withdrawn their cases; sympathetic lawyers have been warned to steer clear of any legal battles challenging the party-state; volunteers who ran emergency hotlines during the outbreak have been interrogated and accused of revealing information to foreign "hostile forces"; independent journalists have been detained, as have volunteer archivists who were trying to store online copies of reports about the outbreak that the censors have been busy deleting.

Fingers of blame

Despite repeated requests, scientists say China has not yet shared clinical specimens or details of the early patients with the international community, or allowed them access to the Huanan market or the Wuhan virology laboratories.

Fingers of blame are pointed and disinformation dished out in Beijing, Washington and beyond. The world needs an international science-based investigation to establish what exactly happened with Sars-Cov-2 – in China, Europe, the US and elsewhere – to ensure we are better primed next time.

But while China has modernised greatly in many ways since the Sichuan earthquake, the Wuhan experience shows how the party continues to go to drastic efforts to deter any deviations from its sanctioned version of the narrative.