What could the Chinese city of Wuhan relate to Chernobyl, zone of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history? At first glance, not much, except that the term 切尔诺贝利 (transcription in Chinese simplified by Chernobyl) emerged on social media when discussing the COVID-19 outbreak, the flu caused by the coronavirus that was first reported Once in Wuhan. As public outrage increases, Chernobyl became a key word to discuss an extremely sensitive issue – the political future of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Chernobyl and the end of the Soviet Union
The Soviet Union was officially dissolved in December 1991. Its dissolution was due to a mixture of economic, military and ethnic factors, as well as an ideological opening in the form of “glásnost”, or transparency, which began in 1986. This commitment to The increase in transparency in the USSR was led by the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed that these reforms were inevitable. Historians recognize that one of the many accelerators of the glásnost was the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in April 1986:
Few Westerners were convinced that the new leader’s reforms would be serious in 1985 and 1986. Yet by 1987, the year following Chernobyl, glasnost had taken hold of Soviet society, with sudden openness dominating the press and the public forum. Outrage over the catastrophe began to spread among even loyal citizens who had never questioned the infallibility of their government.
Few Westerners were convinced that the reforms of the new leader would be serious in 1985 and 1986. Already by 1987, the year following Chernobyl, Glásnost had taken over Soviet society, with a sudden opening that dominated the press and the public forum. The outrage over the catastrophe began to spread even among the faithful citizens who had never questioned the infallibility of their Government.
As Gorbachev gained influence, he was able to reform the role of communism to the point that the party lost power after 74 years in command. His visit to Beijing in May 1989 is well remembered in China among the intellectuals and critics of the CCP. It happened less than three weeks before the Tiananmen massacre on June 4 and reflected the sharp contrast between the reformist communism of the Soviet Union and conservative communism in China.
The art of indirect criticism
In a country where freedom of expression in public places has become increasingly restricted, using coded messages to comment on political and social issues is a matter of professional and personal survival. It has become the second nature of those who dare to criticize or disagree with government policies and declarations, be they journalists, academics, activists, doctors or mere citizens.
A clear example is what happened to the Hollywood production of Avatar when it was screened in China in 2010. The film became so famous that the Chinese government decided to limit its projection. The reason was that it dazzled national production and also that Chinese viewers gave Avatar a political interpretation, as this article explains:
To many Chinese bloggers, Avatar is unmistakably a fable about unscrupulous city enforcement officials, known as ‘chengguan ’, forcefully evicting residents in the name of local development.
For many Chinese bloggers, Avatar is clearly a fable about the city's dishonest officials, known as “chengguan,” who forcefully evict the inhabitants in the name of local development.
A more recent example of the Chinese government's zero tolerance for criticism can be seen in the fate of Dr. Li Wenliang. In December 2019, before the public knew about the new coronavirus, the young doctor published his observations on a series of mysterious infections among Wuhan patients, in a small online chat, then he was interrogated by the Police. He finally contracted the virus and died on February 6, 2020.
For those who know the Chinese space online, it was no surprise that Chinese netizens have adopted another foreign reference to express their anger and frustration over the total moral failure of the CCP and the top Chinese officials following the outbreak of COVID-19.
There may be several reasons why Chernobyl became the last symbol: the HBO Chernobyl miniseries is well known among Chinese viewers and allows you to hide your comments as discussions about the miniseries. Those who know Soviet history also use the term to talk about an absolutely taboo subject – the possible disappearance of the CCP in China.
On February 5, the main trend stories on WeChat, the best-known Chinese social media platform, included many stories with the term 切尔诺贝利 (Chernobyl).
References to political dissidents and writers of the Soviet era are also part of the Chernobyl narrative. In early February, many social media memes circulated that mentioned Soviet dissident and writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, considered one of the most powerful critics of communism in the Soviet Union. His best-known quote, as seen in the photo above, says:
我们 知道 他们 说谎, 他们 也 知道 他们 在 说谎, 他们 知道 我们 知道 他们 说谎, 我们 也 知道 他们 知道 我们 知道 他们 在 说谎 ， 但是 他们 依然 在 说谎。
We know they are lying, they also know it, they also know that we know it, we also know that they know that we know they are lying, and they continue with the lies.
Another known meme uses another quote from Solzhenitsyn and joins the previous one:
“我们 知道 他们 在 说谎 ， 他们 也 知道 他们 在 说谎 ， 他们 知道 说谎 ， 我们 也 知道 他们 知道 我们 知道 他们 在 说谎 ， 但是 他们 依然 在 说谎。”
“世界 正在 被 厚颜无耻 的 信念 淹没 ， 那 信念 就是 ， 权力 无所不能 ， 正义 一 无所 成。”
为 自己 而 活着 ， 而 不是 为 谎言 活着！ pic.twitter.com/ddS2i0z4M7
– 米线 (@paris_mixian) April 20, 2019
The world is being engulfed by the shameful belief that power is everything and justice is nothing.
We have to live for us, not for lies!
(The white text with a black background is also a quote from Solzhenitsyn and says: In this world, the most depressing is when the literary life of a nation is destroyed by violence. Not only is freedom of public opinion prohibited, but that the mind of a nation sinks by force and its memory is eradicated. In this case, the entire nation is nothing more than a corpse. “
This message of dissent has fallen in broken sack. Recently, several intellectuals have spoken publicly on issues that many Chinese citizens are forced to keep secret. On February 4, the Chinese legal scholar, Xu Zhangrun published a blunt online essay of open criticism of the Chinese government, called 愤怒 的 人民 已 不再 恐惧 (When anger overcomes fear). Writes:
Ours is a system in which The Ultimate Arbiter (an imperial-era term used by state media to describe Xi Jinping) monopolizes power. It results in what I call “organizational discombobulation” that, in turn, has served to enable a dangerous “systemic impotence” at every level. A political culture has consequently been nurtured that, in terms of the real public good, is ethically bankrupt, for it is one that strains to vouchsafe its privatized Party-State… while abandoning the people over which it holds sway to suffer the vicissitudes of a cruel fate. It is a system that turns every natural disaster into an even greater man-made catastrophe. The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance; the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state has consequently shown up as never before.
Ours is a system in which the Supreme Arbitrator (term of the imperial era used by state media to describe Xi Jinping) monopolizes the powers. That results in what I call “organizational confusion” which, in turn, has served to allow a dangerous “systematic impotence” at all levels. A political culture has been fostered that, in terms of the true public good, is ethically bankrupt, as it strives to guarantee its privatized state-party… abandoning the people over which it has power to suffer the vicissitudes of a cruel destiny. It is a system that turns every natural disaster into an even greater catastrophe caused by man. The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of the Chinese government; the fragile and empty heart of the trembling state building that has been shown as never before.
The essay begins with a quote from Boris Pasternak, Stalin's opponent:
February Get out the ink and weep!
Sob in February, sob and sing
While the wet snow rumbles in the street
And burns with the black spring.
Translated by Sasha Dugdale
February. Take out the ink and cry!
Sob in February, sob and sing,
While wet snow resonates in the street
And it burns with the black spring.
Translated by Sasha Dugdale
Since the publication of Zhang's essay, censored in China but spread thanks to those who have access to private virtual networks or friends abroad, other courageous initiatives have taken place. More recently, a petition signed by hundreds of doctors, intellectuals and citizens is now circulating and demanding changes:
The petition, addressed to the National People’s Congress, lists five demands for Beijing: to protect people’s right to freedom of expression; to discuss the issue at NPC meetings; to make February 6, the day Li (Doctor Li Wenliang) died, a national day for free speech; to ensure no one is punished, threatened, interrogated, censored or locked up for their speech, civil assembly, letters or communication; and to give equitable treatment, such as medical care, to people from Wuhan and Hubei province.
The petition, addressed to the National People's Congress, lists five requests for Beijing: protect people's rights to freedom of expression, discuss the issue at the rally of the People's Congress, institute on February 6, the day of Li's death (Dr. Li Wenliang), the national day of free expression; guarantee that no one will be punished, threatened, interrogated, censored or imprisoned for their expression, civil assemblies, letters or communications; give equitable treatment, such as medical care, to people in Wuhan and Hubei provinces.
Since the CCP is preparing for greater political activity, the “Two Meetings” (两会 in Chinese) on March 5, the annual plenary session of the two bodies that vote on political decisions at the national level, will have to consider the increasing pressure in the form of rare signs of public frustration that have not been seen in years.
Check out Global Voices' special coverage of the impact of Wuhan coronavirus.