The streets of Wuhan, China were all but empty during the early days.
A mysterious virus had swept through the city of 11 million, prompting authorities to impose a lockdown.
As many residents longed to leave what would become a 76-day ordeal, Murong Xuecun was arriving to stay.
It was April 2020, and the celebrated Chinese writer could enter — but not leave — the city that became synonymous with the origin of COVID-19.
At the time, cellphone footage had offered the only real glimpse of what life in Wuhan was like. Yet the origin of the COVID-19, destined to kill millions of people around the globe, was starting to generate conspiracy theories, and China’s handling of it was increasingly under international scrutiny.
Against this backdrop, the writer, once a regular New York Times opinion contributor, decided to make the trip to document what was happening in Wuhan as COVID-19 emerged. He believed, he says, that the government would try to hide the truth.
Two years later, Murong has released “Deadly Quiet City,” an in-depth and personal account of the grief and sorrow Wuhan residents endured that also paints a picture of the corruption and ruthlessness employed by government officials desperate to appear in control of the outbreak.
People “died silently,” he writes in the book’s foreword.
“They wailed plaintively for food and medicine, but hardly anyone on the outside heard them. No one knew what the millions of ‘inmates’ were going through and how they lived inside this catastrophe.”
Murong says he wants the world to know how the people of Wuhan suffered at the hands of their own government. Upon his arrival in 2020, the toll was obvious, he recalled.
The city was dead, its residents ordered to stay home amidst a lockdown so strict it was difficult to get food or access health care. People feared jail or being taken into quarantine if caught on the streets.
“The streets looked very empty. Many times, there was only me walking on the entire street,” he told the Star through a translator. “In some business areas, people started to appear, and most of them were youth. Everyone was wearing a mask. What struck me most was, there were almost no smiles on their faces.”
Murong, whose real name is Hao Qun (Murong Xuecun is a pen name), wrote the book while hiding in a small village in the mountains of Sichuan province. He went there upon leaving Wuhan after, he says, received a menacing phone call from authorities.
He sent the chapters in English to a contact in Australia who translated them. They were then edited by Clive Hamilton, an Australian academic and author of the book “The Hidden Hand: Exposing how the Chinese Communist Party is reshaping the world.”
Tales of grief, loss and a city whose residents feel abandoned by their country fill Murong’s pages.
A doctor, aware of others being accused by authorities of “spreading rumours,” tells of purposely misspelling words to spread warnings of the infection without being detected by government censors. All the while, officials were under-reporting the number of deaths.
In another chapter, a schoolteacher recalls classes being mysteriously cancelled for “influenza” in late 2019 and details his own sly escape from Wuhan, evading police roadblocks to visit his father in a nursing home.
“The purpose of writing this book, is to provide a channel for the people in Wuhan to spread their voice, and let their sufferings be known,” Murong says. “At the time, the true voice of the Wuhan people couldn’t be heard because of the government propaganda and censorship.”
“Deadly Quiet City” was released March in Australia and U.K.; a Chinese version of the book is still in the works and a North American release is expected next year. Murong himself is now in Australia, and says he is unable to return to China safely.
Hamilton says the book is of “extraordinary literary quality,” detailing the suffering of the city’s residents at the time and the effects of government oppression.
“I think what Murong is showing us is just how cruel and brutal the Chinese Communist Party system can be,” he says. “The most fascinating insight to emerge from working on the book is the way with which Chinese people find ways around and through the repressive and cruel system.”
It also tells the tale of Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist Murong befriended who rose to international fame when she began exposing government actions in Wuhan. She was arrested eight days after Murong left.
Zhang was sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” according to Amnesty International. In protest, she started a hunger strike.
Hamilton says few people in the West “understand the true ruthlessness” of the Chinese regime and that many will likely be shocked at what people in Wuhan endured.
Now Murong says he fears the current lockdowns in China — across more than 40 cities, by some estimates, most notably Shanghai — have little to do with health concerns and more to do with asserting control at an uneasy time.
The country’s economy is slowing down and the government has stayed devoted to a COVID-zero policy employed more effectively against less contagious variants in the past.
Shanghai, China’s largest city and its business hub, began a lockdown in March, leaving residents isolated and afraid. Though restrictions were beginning to ease last week, on Monday authorities showed signs of tightening them once again as the Communists push to reach their COVID-zero targets.
Public demonstrations against the lockdowns have even manifested, highlighting tensions between the public and Chinese Communist Party.
“The tragedy in Shanghai indicates that the Chinese government is taking advantage of the lockdown experience in Wuhan and amplifying it to implement a tougher and crueler control over the country,” he said.
Residents in Beijing are also anticipating a full lockdown in the capital city, which is now under a partial one.
Murong said he’s been following the lockdown in Shanghai and thinks its effects are worse than the one endured by residents in Wuhan in 2020.
One example, he said, is the lack of access to food for residents in Shanghai. It appears the government never bothered to examine the logistics of providing food for some 25 million people in the city’s lockdown, he suggested.
In Australia, Murong is far away from the lockdowns and he may never see his home country again. But, he said, it was the risk he knew he was taking the day he set out to Wuhan.
“On the day I decided to go to Wuhan, I knew the journey would be full of danger and hardship,” he said, recalling the day he sent his last chapter to his contact in Australia.
He told the contact, “no matter what happens to me, this book must be published.”
With files from The Associated Press
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