The View From Wuhan, Where China 'Won The War' On COVID-19

Eight months after cutting itself off from the world, the Chinese megalopolis is coronavirus-free and back to business as usual, albeit with a healthy dose of propaganda.

 Life is slowly going back to normal in Wuhan
 Life is slowly going back to normal in Wuhan
Frédéric Schaeffer

WUHAN — Cheng isn't really into hip-hop, but when a friend suggests they go see the Bad Guys in concert, she didn't hesitate. "We were so bored during lockdown," the 20-year-old woman, her hair dyed electric blue and her ears adorned with piercings, explains.

Next to her are dozens of young people wearing massive sneakers and oversize hoodies, quietly flocking in front of the stage of the Vox, an independent concert hall in Wuhan. Eight months after the central Chinese city of 11 million inhabitants was sealed off, its young people are craving some party-time.

Entering the Vox only requires a quick temperature check. Inside, masks are optional and social distancing non-existent. For Xiao Xian, the club manager, the only undesirables are smokers. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 epidemic continues to cast a shadow. "We reopened in May but we still can only operate at 50% capacity," Xiao Xian explains.

"My country: good!"

For 76 days between late January and early April, this sprawling metropolis in Hubei province was cut off from the world. Now, though, life is slowly going back to normal. Visitors can even come from Beijing by train now without having to present a green health QR Code, the precious "open sesame" number people still need to pass through the doors of many Chinese cities.

"Wuhan is the safest city in the world," says Mr. Yi, all smiles and no mask, as soon as a group of foreign travelers climb onboard his white and yellow Citroën taxi. He goes on to explain that the entire population was tested in the spring. Then, to make sure they understand, the cabbie stammers a few words in English."

Beijing is turning Wuhan into a symbol of the "Chinese victory".

My country: good!" he proudly says as his taxi speeds over the Yangtze River.

In Paris, Berlin or New York, face masks continue to be mandatory. But that's no longer the case in Wuhan, or in the rest of China for that matter. In the Old Concession District of Hankow, people are lining up to grab breakfast from the many food trucks. Traffic jams are back in the main streets of what was merely a ghost town last winter. At at rush hour, the metro bursts with commuting workers. And on Snake Hill, tourists pose again in front of Yellow Crane Tower, one of city's most emblematic monuments.

Heroes and victims

In the middle of a war against a virus that is still raging in the rest of the world, Beijing is turning Wuhan into a symbol of the "Chinese victory" over an illness authorities recently dubbed the "devil." The statement came at a lavish ceremony at the People's Palace, held on Sept. 8 to celebrate the anonymous "heroes' of this "people's war" against COVID-19.

All of the emphasis that's being placed right now on the rebirth of Wuhan is part of an extensive propaganda campaign that's designed, it appears, to neutralize international criticism over China's initial handling of the epidemic. State-owned media hailed the reopening of schools earlier this month, along with a massive techno party that several thousand people attended last month, as further evidence of Wuhan's "victory" over the epidemic.

Students taking part in the opening ceremony of a new semester at Wuhan High School — Photo: Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua/ZUMA

And yet, for some residents of Wuhan, which accounts for approximately 80% of the 4,634 coronavirus deaths officially recorded in China, these celebrations are hard to swallow. "The authorities turn us into heroes so people forget that what we really are is victims," one young artist, who prefers to remain anonymous, explains.

Thanks to a small camera and her voluntary caregiver status, which granted her access to most facilities, the woman kept a record of the tragedy. "When I went to the funeral home right after the lockdown lifted and saw this woman holding her father's ashes in her arms while trying to control her grief, I couldn't help but burst into tears," she recalls.

A nurse adds her own insights into the crisis. She says that despite the construction of field hospitals, there were still a lot of people queuing for treatment. "It felt like the whole town was sick," she says. And even though she's now regaining her footing, one step at a time, the nurse confides that she feels haunted still, especially at night, by her memories of the dead.

Toeing the party line

There's a reason people are cautious about protecting their identities. Chinese authorities are determined to control the COVID-19 narrative, and they muzzle victims' families who hold them accountable.

Still, Zhang Hai, who lost his father to COVID-19, refuses to back down. Speaking over the phone from Shenzhen, he says that if authorities "hadn't hidden the truth and reacted so late, the situation would never have been so catastrophic."

Zhang Hai is convinced that his father caught the virus when he went to a hospital in Wuhan in mid-January. But the Wuhan Intermediate Court rejected his complaint, as it did with those filed by other families as well. Determined not to be intimidated, he submitted a new complaint with the higher court.

"My father, like the other victims, deserves official apologies," Zhang Hai says. "The authorities must be held accountable for their bad management of the crisis."

For some, the lies and the delayed reaction at the beginning of the epidemic are hard to forget. The death of the young whistleblower Li Wenliang — noticeably missing from the ceremony in heroes tribute held in Beijing — had a particularly big impact.

Still, many Wuhanese prefer to move forward and salute the government for having successfully controlled the epidemic. "We were not satisfied with what the local authorities did at the beginning, but as soon as the central government took over, it quickly improved," a young woman says, echoing the official speech.

Chinese authorities are determined to control the COVID-19 narrative.

Seated in front of a plate of spicy chicken feet, her friend agrees: "The people of Wuhan and the government have done a good job. Look at the situation abroad, it's frightening."

Indeed, while the rest of the world lives in fear of a second wave, China's success against the illness has granted even more legitimacy to the Communist Party and to President Xi Jinping's authority.

A gradual recovery

Since the lockdown lifted, Wuhan has taken the time to work on its trauma. The Museum of the Revolution put together an exhibition on the epidemic, complete with symbolic items such as coveralls. In a pavilion not far from the Yellow Crane Tower, drawings are on display.

"Wuhan deserves to be called a city of heroes," says one visitor. "In a short time and thanks to everyone's efforts, we kept the virus from spreading in this great city. Lockdown was the price to pay and now things are back to normal."

But to get the real, full picture of Wuhan's return to normalcy, it's important to look beyond the propaganda. Economically speaking, the city is still recovering from a 40% drop in its GDP in the first quarter. Many don't hold back their concern regarding a bumpy recovery.

"On a rainy day like today, I wouldn't normally have to drive around looking for clients," a taxi driver explains. "But people don't go out as much as before, and they have less money."

In the night market on Jiqing Street, seafood restaurants lament the absence of tourists. "Last year, customers were queuing outside every night waiting for a table," says one restaurant owner. "But today we were again only half full."

Actors from the People's Art Theatre of Wuhan changing costumes during a drama — Photo: Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua/ZUMA

Among the first people infected in Wuhan, many worked at the Huanan fresh market, closed by authorities in January. Since then, it has been abandoned behind tall blue partitions, to the dismay of the surrounding businesses. "No one comes here anymore," says a cigarette seller. "The market must be reopened."

Ready for takeoff

Authorities are working towards restoring Wuhan's image as well as reviving the economy. In an attempt to lure visitors come back, entrance to more than 400 tourist sites across Hubei province is free until the end of the year. A relief fund of 100 billion Yuan ($14 billion) has been set up for low-interest loans to struggling small- and medium-sized businesses. And new infrastructure projects have also been announced, including construction of a gigantic 1,650-meter bridge over the Yangtze.

"It's Hollywuhan," one observer says. "Money is pouring out and companies wanting to set up here are getting the red-carpet treatment."

Wuhanese people, in the meantime, are finally beginning to regain confidence. Even after the end of the lockdown, many waited before going out again. "It's only really been since last month that I see people in shopping centers again," on city resident explains.

No new COVID-19 cases have been recorded in Wuhan for several months, but the fear hasn't completely disappeared. "I am ashamed to say, but I'm still afraid to meet friends who've been infected," says another resident.

On campuses, students are still asked not to go out unless absolutely necessary. People in Wuhan also have in mind that the easing of sanitary measures may be short-lived, as Beijingers discovered in June, when the Chinese capital experienced a sudden increase in new cases linked to a cluster from its main wholesale market. Authorities there responded by immediately quarantining contact cases, locking down residences near the market, and conducting mass testing.

Another sign that things are going back to normal is that on Sept. 16, Wuhan airport became receiving international flights for the first time since January. CCTV broadcasts showed the arrival of first travelers wearing masks. Staff members were pictured wearing full protective gear and face shields.

The passengers —most of them Chinese people returning home — must present a negative test done less than 72 hours prior take off. Once in China, they must undergo a strict quarantine in a hotel designated automatically. In Wuhan, the danger now comes from outside.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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