The Story of the Wuhan Flu

Liao Yiwu’s new book comes with a contradictory subtitle—a “documentary novel”. Fact or fiction? Clever, biased infotainment, for example about global warming, has made us mistrustful of “documentaries”. However, this book deserves attention because the author skilfully weaves a fictional novel from strands of documented reality about what happened in Wuhan in early 2020. The final fifty pages and helpful footnotes by the book’s translators reveal some of the bitter factual reality behind the story, as well as Liao Yiwu’s motivation for writing the book. Much of his information derives from internet communications—often quickly erased—in the PRC.

Liao Yiwu is a prolific reporter, writer, poet and musician. Now in his sixties, he lives in Berlin. His poem “Massacre” about the suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations earned him torture and four years of prison. Since his release he has published numerous interviews with ordinary people about official corruption. The Independent Chinese PEN Centre nominated him in 2007 for the “Freedom to Write Prize”, but the PRC authorities stymied the awarding of the prize. In 2011, after numerous failed attempts to leave China, he managed to cross the border into Vietnam and then settled in Germany. Over the past decade, he has published several best-sellers, which have been translated into many languages and earned him several German and American literature prizes.

The Chinese original of the book under review was first published in late 2020 in Taiwan as When the Wuhan Virus Comes. Liao Yiwu is well known in China because copies of the Taiwanese editions of his books are frequently smuggled into the PRC. Plagiarised knock-offs are then sold in street markets—very much to Liao’s delight! At the beginning of 2022, the German translation of the new book (in its e-book version) became a major, instantaneous publishing event. An English translation is well under way and—judging by the impact of the German version—is bound to make headlines.

The novel begins with an account of the fate of the daredevil “citizen journalist” Li—internet name Kcriss. He travels from Beijing to locked-down Wuhan, which he manages to reach by a subterfuge. He takes a job in a crematorium because “he is not afraid of ghosts” and promptly discovers that official reports about the impact of the new, unknown viral pneumonia are untrue. Telling the facts on the internet quickly gets him into trouble with the authorities and into prison, where he is brutally treated and “disappeared”. The main part of the novel deals with Ai Ding, a hapless historian who interrupts his research scholarship in Germany to return to see his family for Chinese New Year 2020. The ill-starred hero stumbles from one mishap to the next, vividly portraying the public hysteria and the dehumanising chicanery of officials in China in the early months of the pandemic.

During enforced lockdowns in China he writes a diary, has long, grog-fuelled Skype conversations with his friend in Berlin (the ill-disguised author Liao Yiwu) and uses his time to conduct intensive research on the web about the origin of the virus. He witnesses panic, numerous suicides of people jumping to their deaths from high-rises, and encounters dire shortages of protective equipment, test kits, hospital beds and cremation capacities. The Chinese cities where he is held resemble ghost towns. The government fails to protect people’s safety and tries to suppress the truth by shameless lies and ceaseless obfuscations. Ai Ding ridicules the wolf-warrior press when it alleges that the virus was brought to Wuhan by an American participant in the 2019 World Military Games (a kind of uniformed Olympics). The fictitious diarist also discovers on Bloomberg News that China’s three big telecom companies have, within two months in early 2020, lost over 21 million subscribers, a possible indication of the real death toll. Officials promptly turned all documentation about this into a state secret and then destroyed all evidence.

When Ai Ding reads that the origin of the virus is attributed to the Wuhan seafood market, he immediately knows that this must be a brazen lie—as I also concluded in early 2020: people in central China simply don’t eat bats! The new virus must therefore have been artificially created in what he calls the “high-security prison for viruses”, the Wuhan Institute of Virology. When the fictional Ai Ding learns that the “bat lady”, the formidable non-fictional Dr Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan lab, blames Covid sufferers for their unclean and dangerous eating habits, he is angered. He finds evidence that the Virology Institute conducted “gain-of-function” experimentation with a bat virus which has been harmless to humans for millennia. It engineered a highly infectious new virus. The seafood market was only an early hotspot. Carelessness explains how the virus escaped into the mega city of Wuhan, and official secretiveness prevented early control measures, “just like what happened at Chernobyl”. He notes in his diary that the French, who built the Wuhan Institute, conveniently “forgot that China is a dictatorship”.

Ai Ding concludes with growing confidence that the origin of the new virus lies in the Wuhan virology lab. Not only are some of the heroes of the story detained and “disappeared” simply for having been near the institute, but the Academy of Science facility was taken over immediately after the beginning of Wuhan outbreak by Major General Chen Wei, the top People’s Liberation Army specialist in biological warfare. He reads reports about the 2008 French Nobel Prize winner in medicine, Luc Montagnier, and other Western experts, who subscribe to the lab theory, but also many statements by virologists who dismiss it. Ai Ding and his friend in Berlin Skype each other about the published warnings by Western virologists against irresponsible gain-of-function research conducted by the “bat lady” in Wuhan. Such experiments are banned in the West for being far too dangerous and pointless. Why is Shi Zhengli doing this work? Why are some foreign outfits subsidising her work?

The diarist’s wife tells him over WeChat that the “currently ruling Emperor” eventually visited Wuhan. Tens of thousands of security personnel entered all individual apartments in a city block and secured the streets before Xi Jinping was filmed walking through—or was it his double?

The longer Ai Ding attempts to return to his home in Wuhan, the more scurrilous the reported events become, yet the book comes across as a vivid testimony to the many courageous citizens who no longer simply accept the official propaganda. Liao Yiwu tells us numerous hitherto little-known but plausible facts. He invites the reader to embrace the perspective of ordinary Chinese and the undaunted bloggers, who are amazingly resourceful in getting across the firewall that surrounds the PRC’s internet sphere. I have myself had many occasions to be astounded by the agility with which young Chinese manage social media and escape into the global social-media world. Crossing the PRC’s firewall into international cyberspace is a ceaseless and risky cat-and-mouse game between the official masters of the Chinese cybersphere and the young network warriors. Yet this is often the only way to preserve messages and findings that China’s internet police have a habit of promptly deleting.


THE BOOK introduces the reader to the reality that the grandchildren of Mao’s subservient masses are an educated middle class with aspirations to freedom. The translation I read seems quite good at echoing the jargon and everyday habits of the new generation, even if I had occasional difficulties with understanding all historic allusions and was at times a little irritated by long citations of old and new poetry. But this is after all a novel with Chinese characteristics.

This book is a valuable pendant to Sharri Markson’s What Really Happened in Wuhan (2021). Where Markson proceeds with rational, almost clinical research of the facts and has direct access to prominent Western sources, Liao Yiwu imbues the information he gets through the social media and other contacts in China with a warm, often humorous, human understanding for the suffering of ordinary Chinese. Although he wrote in Berlin, he writes as an insider who does not spare the reader the angst, the anger and the disillusion that his compatriots feel in the face of the Covid onslaught and the lies and cover-ups of the government.

For me, the big questions after reading this unsettling book are: How representative are the heroes in the novel of urban China as a whole? Have so many really died untreated after catching the virus made in Wuhan? Will the social consequences of the virus that Liao Yiwu “documents” have a long-term influence on the general attitudes of the Chinese middle class towards the rulers? Do ordinary people believe the catastrophe was made in Wuhan, or do they believe the propaganda? Do they interpret the events as a sign of overall government failure? The critical social media may well reflect a more broad-based, more persistent aversion to the Communist regime than the Tiananmen protests of 1989 did. What does this mean for the Xi’s life-long tenure?

Needless to say, Liao Yiwu’s books are banned in China. He does not endear himself to the Beijing powerbrokers by statements such as his conclusion of a recent public radio interview: “For the peaceful well-being of mankind, this empire [China] must break apart.”

Wuhan: Dokumentarroman
by Liao Yiwu

Fischer, 2022, 352 pages, $30 (e-book)

Wolfgang Kasper has a long-standing interest in China. All quotes are his translations from the German version of Liao Yiwu’s book

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