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Seventy-six days and counting

China Daily | Updated: 2020-05-16 09:50
Arnauld Miguet [Photo provided to China Daily]

Exclusive: Arnauld Miguet and Gaël Caron of France Télévisions were among the only Western journalists in Wuhan during the entire 76-day city lockdown. Miguet, Beijing-based head of the station's Asia bureau, shares his first post-lockdown interview with CDLP.

How did you start those 76 days?

We arrived on January 22nd, just before the lockdown, which must have been a shock for everyone. We learned just like everyone else that the city was going to be contained, and the announcement came around two in the morning on the 23rd. From then on, it was all surreal scenes of a city that was cut off from the world and where everything stopped. Ultimately, we experienced it with incredible astonishment and a fresh perspective on it all. Now, everybody is used to it because it has happened in other cities in the world – but it was quite surreal and anxiety-provoking not to hear a noise in the city, not to see a car, not to see anybody.

Why did you decide to stay in Wuhan?

For two reasons. The first was a journalistic reason: the start of the epidemic that became a pandemic was happening there, so journalistically speaking, that was obviously where we had to be. I've always thought that China is the country of the future and that one could read the future from China, and it turns out that what happened in Wuhan happened later in Southeast Asia and then in Italy, Spain, France and the United States. We didn't know it at the time, but journalistically speaking, it turned out to be an incredible experience. I think we made the choice to stay to witness and explain everything that was happening, which was absolutely out of the ordinary – and remains that way.

The other reason is that Gaël and I are correspondents in China; we are there to cover and relate what happens in China, so we had no reason to leave and be repatriated to France. We live and work in China, and it was therefore normal to stay and cover this exceptional event. It's no longer exceptional today, since many other countries have been affected, but journalistically speaking, I don't see how we could have left. We do this job for better or for worse. Sometimes there are light, playful subjects, but this time it was a serious subject and we had no reason to leave.

The authorities asked me this question several times. First, the French asked us if we wanted to be repatriated – and I always replied that if we were, it would be to our home in Beijing and not to France. The local Chinese authorities asked us the same thing – if we were going to get on the plane. I asked them if they would come with us. They said, "No, we live in Wuhan." And I told them that we were going to do as they were, to live in Wuhan and die if necessary – without any reason for us to die, anyway! In a city of 11 million inhabitants, we knew that this disease was going to affect many people, but it wasn't going to kill everyone. It's like in La Fontaine's fable The Animals Stricken with the Plague – they were all affected, but not all of them died. So I told the local authorities that we would stay with them in Wuhan.

What did – and do – the Chinese people you met think about the management of the crisis in other countries around the world?

There are a lot of people who are obviously worried about what can happen in other countries of the world. The cordon sanitaire placed around Wuhan probably halted the spread of the disease, but it didn't completely stop it since it became a pandemic. Many people are appalled by what is happening elsewhere because it has already happened in China – and probably not enough attention has been paid to the silent cry of the people of Wuhan, who first suffered in the flesh, with people in their families who got sick or died. 

Then we found out that this disease made its way to Europe and the United States, whereas since December it has been affecting China. Not enough attention has been paid to the Chinese people. It's often something that comes back around. What also comes back around is that ultimately, the Chinese methods – aside from some countries like South Korea – that have been applied in Italy or France are the methods that the Chinese used. This was when it was thought that the specific way to stop the epidemic was strictly Chinese and could only affect China for various reasons. Containment methods are common-sense methods; the wearing of masks is nowadays applied almost everywhere in the affected countries in the West. There are many Chinese people who today say that the danger comes from elsewhere.

Compared to what you lived through and reported every day, how do you feel about the coverage by other Western media outlets that weren't on the ground?

We had a lot of work to do and didn't necessarily have the time, working like crazy on the overflowing news. Everyone wanted to know what was going on in Wuhan. So we didn't have time to watch what was being broadcast on the other channels. There must have been some aberrations and some mistakes, but I won't blame anyone. We were focused on what we were doing.

What was your relationship with the local media in all of this?

We have had very little communication, actually. Wuhan is a very big city. Even in those times of absolute containment, when there was nobody in the streets, by definition we didn't meet many people. We never met the local media. We had some exchanges with CGTN and we exchanged some contacts with CCTV when they arrived in much greater numbers around the middle of February. They were positive exchanges with people from the CCTV group. But we weren't necessarily looking for the same stories, so we didn't really cross paths.

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