Coded responses

21st July 2020

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When Dr Li Wenliang – the Wuhan ophthalmologist who blew the whistle on the city’s Coronavirus outbreak – died in February of this year, the Chinese internet was briefly flooded with expressions of rage and anguish, said Margaret Hillenbrand in a fascinating presentation to Wadham alumni.

  • Picture composition

    Tank Man is the nickname of the unidentified Chinese man who stood in front of a column of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, the day after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests by force. The image is repurposed to show ducks instead of tanks; a tank covered in a symbolic red cloth; and the tanks as the COVID-19 virus with a symbolic yellow umbrella.

  • Professor Margaret Hillenbrand

    Wadham Fellow and Tutor in Chinese, Margaret Hillenbrand

  • Audience and speakers

Discussing her latest book Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China, Margaret Hillenbrand, Wadham Fellow and Tutor in Chinese, described how the outbreak of Covid-19 made her think all over again about secrecy in China and its expressions in visual culture.

Describing the inventive ways in which Chinese “netizens” attempted to dodge the cyber police and the “search-and-destroy of the censors” as they mourned Dr Li, she noted that “Posts online became increasingly visual, even artistic, in their messaging, and this trend is no accident.” In particular, many netizens repurposed one of the final photographs of Dr Li, creating mordant visual puns about the face mask he wore in that image.

Yet this aesthetic outpouring was short-lived. Within weeks, the tide of anger seemed to recede, even as Coronavirus cases did not, and speaking out about the pandemic has become increasingly taboo in China. “Beijing’s compulsive will to secrecy has always been contagious, and the Chinese people have acquired long-learned habits of silence which will prove crucial to how this virus is processed into history,” Margaret said.

Drawing comparisons between Covid-19 and other catastrophic events in China’s modern past – the Nanjing Massacre, the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square crackdown – Margaret commented that key aspects of such episodes remain uncommemorated in public culture despite their incalculable impact. She argues that this “process of disowning” is commonly understood to be state-led: “Researchers argue that such histories are censored to the point that they fade from mind …  the red-hot core of such events suffers a commemorative attrition that results in slow amnesia. Censorship and amnesia supposedly couple up to conjure the disappearance of ‘bad’ pasts”.

Arguing against this view, Margaret suggested instead “that the hushing of history is a densely collective endeavour in China. The silences of the present are conspiratorial. Knowing what not to know is a core skill acquired by many citizens in China, and they choose not to speak of traumatic things out of fear, guilt, shame, pragmatism, self-defence, or the palliative effects of silence”.

Yet staying mute is also suffocating, and Margaret showed how people in China have always sought out ways to break the silence both creatively and under the radar. “China’s wounded past has left astonishing scars on the photographic record” she said. Photos such as “Tank Man” have been seized upon and repurposed in a broad range of different mediums, which Margaret calls “photo forms”. “Together they form a remarkable body of coded responses to life in a hardcore cryptocracy”, she said.

Warden Ken Macdonald QC moderated questions from more than 150 alumni participating in the discussion. Questions included the personal impacts of the One Child Policy, public secrecy about the Xinjiang re-education camps, the extent to which the Communist Party hierarchy in China is monolithic, and the state’s new “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.  

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