Murong Xuecun is one of China’s most celebrated writers. His criticisms of China’s censorship regime led to him being silenced by the government several years ago. In April 2020, he traveled to Wuhan to discover how the people of that city were coping with the harsh Covid lockdown. It was a dangerous mission. Deadly Quiet City: Stories from Wuhan, Covid Ground Zero, based on his interviews, has just been published by Hardie Grant Books. Murong left China and is now in Australia.
On 5th March, at the Adelaide Writers Festival, Murong talked about his experiences with Clive Hamilton. The transcript of their conversation is published here. On the stage in Adelaide, the interpreter was Peter Barker. A translator, who wishes to remain anonymous, revised the text.
CH: You took great risks going to Wuhan to tell the world what was happening there. Other citizen journalists were arrested and disappeared. In fact, I think you are the only one that has not been arrested. Why did you think it was so important for you to go to Wuhan?
MX: After Wuhan was locked down, I often wondered what really happened in there and what the people were experiencing, but I didn’t think about actually going there until you called me.
We all knew millions of residents of Wuhan would be suffering, but the censorship and news blockade made it impossible for them to be heard.
The world ought to be able to know about their suffering. The world ought to be able to hear their voices.
I often thought about the consequences of going: arrest, imprisonment, and torture… but I was certain this was the right thing to do. It was something I had to do. If there’s a price to pay for doing the right thing, then I’m willing to suffer the consequences.
How did you find people who were willing to tell you their stories? It was dangerous for citizens to speak openly about what they experienced.
After suffering through an extended lockdown, most people in Wuhan were longing to tell outsiders what was on their mind. I spoke to many Wuhan residents, businessmen, taxi drivers, store owners, young couples…they were not camera-shy and enthusiastically talked to a stranger like me. Of course, some were not enthusiastic. An official said to me, ‘Sorry, we have orders, we cannot be interviewed.’
A doctor at Tongji Hospital who was infected with covid yet had to continue working, and I’m sure he saw many corpses. I could tell he wanted to tell me everything but when I asked to interview him, he said he’d need a few days to think about it. I called him a few days later and he said, ‘It really is not convenient to be interviewed.’ I then said, ‘I hope one day you can talk about your experiences, what you felt and everything you saw and heard.’ He replied in a quiet voice, ‘I hope so, too.’
After I arrived in Wuhan. I joined several WeChat groups comprised of locals. They helped me a lot. And told me many stories. Some journalist friends actually introduced a lot of the people described in our book. Being in China journalists could not write about these people and their stories because they dared not to.
I found some of the stories you tell in Deadly Quiet City very powerful, and they left a deep impression on me. Which story in the book affected you most deeply?
Apart from the illegal motorcycle taxi driver, every other person vented their anger and sadness to me. That was especially true of Yang Min, a mother who lost her only child. While we talked tears rolled down her face and she often broke down crying. That kind of crying is heart breaking to hear. And then, of course, Jin Feng, the cleaner who lost her husband. When I saw her kneeling in front of her husband’s grave wailing bitterly and then to hear the hopelessness in her voice when she talked of her need to get a certificate of disability for her son, I too felt sorrow and anger.
At times like that I often pondered, why are they living such tragic lives? How can they break away from such an existence? To be honest, I don’t have the answer.
At times while you were collecting the stories in Wuhan and then writing them up in the Sichuan mountains you must have felt very afraid. Did you feel you were being watched? Did the authorities have an idea of what you were doing?
I’m sure some secret police officers were monitoring me. On the train to Wuhan, they called me. They called me many times: when I was in Wuhan, when I was in the mountains of Sichuan writing the book. Each time I felt very nervous. The occasion I was most nervous went like this: I had been in Wuhan for about a month when a man with a Peking accent called. I had just greeted him when he asked, ‘What are you doing in Wuhan?’ I told him I’d come to look around. He said, ‘Be careful not to get infected. That would be troublesome.’
He seemed friendly as he warmly greeted me. But then I thought about it more and I realised why I was afraid. He was warning me: We know you are in Wuhan, and we’re watching you.
That telephone call was the reason I changed my travel plans and hastily left Wuhan.
I have no evidence to prove they were watching me, but it always felt like they were. When I went out to do an interview, I felt I was being followed. When I was in my hotel room going through my material, I often felt a hidden camera was recording everything I did. On the occasions when I had to discuss something sensitive on the phone, I’d hide under the blankets and speak as softly as I could to avoid being eavesdropped.
They are very powerful, so I had to always be on guard. But now that I can sit here and talk freely, it proves they are not so powerful. They can’t know everything.
Those of us in Australia working with you throughout the process. When you had finished drafting a story you sent it by encrypted email to us in Australia. When all the drafts had arrived, you sent us a message saying, if you disappear then the book must be published. It seemed to me that for you, as a writer, the most important thing is getting the truth out to the world. Is that how you see it?
For over a year, I was constantly worried. I wasn’t so much worried about being arrested. I was worried I’d be arrested before finishing the book. That’s why when I wrote to you ‘No matter what happens to me, the book must be published as planned’, I could finally relax. The book was complete. My efforts had not been wasted. As for being imprisoned, my attitude at the time was, the day will come sooner or later. If they must come for me, let them. At least I wrote a book.
Of course, I also thought about the worst things that could happen. That would be me to appear on TV saying, ‘That Clive Hamilton, he’s evil. He completely distorted my words.’ That would imply that I had been tortured to the point I couldn’t take any more, that I had surrendered. Now, I would like to say to you, ‘If in those circumstances I was still able to think at all, I would not have any problem with you. I would not think this is your fault. You just gave me a correct and timely suggestion.’
In Wuhan, it was such a harsh and heartless lockdown. One of the things I found most fascinating while working on Deadly Quiet City was your descriptions of how people in Wuhan daily negotiated ways around and through the regime’s controls and regulations. Not just how they physically found a way to survive, but how they mentally or psychologically found ways to accommodate themselves with the system. Chinese people seem to be very resourceful, don’t you think?
There’s a much more important reason: they have no choice.
Regardless of how difficult their lives are, people do their best to convince themselves that their lives have meaning.
If the cost of resisting is too high, the majority will choose obedience. They will tell themselves, My obedience is meaningful and is the most important thing. If being upright earns you a jab with an electric cattle prod, most people will choose to bend, and with the passage of time they will believe that to bend is normal and standing upright is not. As I see it, China is now a country in which you can only bend. So many of our rights have been taken away, like freedom of speech, freedom to worship and the right to vote. The majority do not resist because it would cost a heavy price. They convince themselves, ‘I don’t resist’ —that is, they comply with the system and compromise—is worthwhile and even just. Some will resent the few who dare to resist. This does not mean the Chinese do not deserve to enjoy freedom and rights. I believe the day will come when the system that only allows people to bend will end and the Chinese will be able to live holding their heads high, just like as citizens of the free world. In fact, in 1989, before the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese people provided the proof of this.
How did you manage to get out of China? Here in Australia, we had our hearts in our mouths for several days, expected to hear any moment that you had been arrested. Or, more likely, to stop hearing anything at all. How did you get out? Did they let you out or was it a system error?
Two weeks after I arrived in Wuhan in 2020, to avoid attracting attention from the authorities, I stopped talking about Wuhan. I also held back on criticising the government and turned down media interview requests. Instead, I talked only about the weather, the food, the flowers. The secret police may have been watching but they probably thought I had changed. They called once to ask me what I was doing. I said I was writing a science fiction novel. I think they believed me.
Perhaps for this reason, they let me leave China. But it may well have been a system error. There is a degree of separation between the customs and the secret police and it’s possible they do not notify each other about sensitive matters. Of course, it might just be human error. They have to surveil more than a billion people so they can’t watch everyone closely. There will always be careless people who make careless mistakes.
Before leaving China, a friend in the UK sent me an invitation letter. Over the phone, we often discussed writing a play in the UK. If the secret police were monitoring my phone, they probably believed it. To avoid suspicion, I didn’t end the lease of the apartment that I was renting. I only packed a few books and a few items of clothing, as if I was going on a short business trip. That’s probably why I left China without any drama, but I am grateful for your concern.
The publication of DQC will undoubtedly make the Chinese government very angry. I know we have all upgraded our cyber-security and the security of our offices. You will become a target, an enemy, a traitor. What do you think the government might do? Are you expecting some kind of retribution? And how will nationalist bloggers react? You have already come under attack, haven’t you?
Last month Hardie Grant issued a press release which I sent out on Twitter. Many congratulated me but some had some less than warm reactions. I was called all kinds of traitor, and there was some rather strong language as well. None of my detractors came up with any reasonable points of view. Over the past ten years, I seen a lot of this stuff. If there’s a positive side, it’s that their abuse makes me even stronger in my convictions.
I do not know how the Chinese government will judge this book and I do not know what action they will take. If they were smart, they wouldn’t say anything or do anything. However, I’m sure they won’t stay quiet. Their gigantic system is often stupid and reckless. I do not engage in debates with the propaganda machine because every incident described in this book can withstand examination. I am not afraid of abuse and curses, which simply prove they are crude and weak. I worry about despicable acts like physical threats and the spectre of kidnapping. But I’m not in China. This is the free world, and I should live like a free person, so I am not too afraid or concerned.
Do you feel safe in Australia? Do you think you will ever be able to return to China? It must be painful for you to have to leave your homeland, perhaps for ever.
Thanks to you and other friends for all the help. I feel safe here. I haven’t had a nightmare about being arrested for a long time.
Leaving China is not an easy choice. It implies that I have left everything behind. But after leaving, I have come to realise that I have not lost everything. On the contrary, I have found something far more important: freedom.
While I was in China, I was an author whose works were banned. My books could not be published, and neither could my essays. At certain times even my name could not be mentioned. I had to engage in self-censorship to avoid topics that were forbidden and words which I could not use. Now I can dispense with all the taboos and dread. Every word, every phrase and every topic are all now open to me. I can write whatever I want, and it feels wonderful.
在可见的未来，中国很可能将变成一个监狱国家，人们所享有的自由越来越少，而政府将越发残暴和野蛮，但与此同时，我们也应抱有这样的信念：残暴的制度终将结束，而中国终将自由。我相信，我、我的朋友们，还有更多我关心的人，We will survive the system.
In the foreseeable future, China will become more of a prison. People will enjoy fewer freedoms while the government will become ever more brutal and savage. But at the same time, we should be confident that the brutal system will end, and China will become free. I believe, I and my friends and all the people I care for—we will survive the system.