Report from Wuhan: The need for genuine diplomacy

Lele with his mother

Lele with his mother

As he approaches his 8th birthday, Sun Jinxin's life is already adjusting to the demands of international developments, events that are certainly far beyond the influence of his family. A bright carefree child, he was born in the Hanyang area of Wuhan city. Two years ago, along with his mother, he was baptised at the church of St Columban, the only Catholic church at the city's northwest side of the junction where the Yangtze river meets its largest tributary, the Han.

Having met his family on a number of occasions in the city over the past two years, our more recent meeting was at the parish church in Xiantao where they arrrived for the May holiday break, their planned stay of a couple of days eventually becoming a two week visit, all part of the flexibility that is normal if there are rooms available at parish churches in China.

Jinxin is more popularly know by the name Lele, meaning happiness. This adjustment of children's names is popular in China and seen as a way to ensure the child's smooth progress through the early years of life before eventually returning to the use of the original name as an adult. Like millions of children in China in recent months, Lele has been adapting to life away from his school friends while teachers at his school find ways to maintain the academic interest of his large class of 32 boys and 21 girls.

From Monday to Friday Lele links in with the school's recently established online teaching system for a daily commitment of three hours. The teachers can be heard but not seen as a cursor moves over the graphics that have been prepared for class. If a student is unable to attend class at the assigned time, there is an option to view a recording later in the day. Lele's mother has been active in this new approach to his education as she ensures that he attends class and completes the required homework. Occasionally parents are expected to send photographs of their children to the teacher to show that the children are engaging as expected in the new learning methods.

These online classes allowed the family to stay longer than originally planned at the parish in Xiantao, a flexibility of location that was certainly not available to children of previous generations. While the havoc and grief caused by COVID-19 cannot be understated, people in many countries have also embraced creative undertakings that would not have otherwise emerged, a reminder of the hope that resides in the hearts of all people but often awaits its opportunity to emerge. For Lele, one creative opportunity that turned up last week was to be linked with a penpal in another country following an initial introduction through a trusted Church friend.

Last Saturday, Lele sat down to write a letter in English. With some guidance he gradually wrote his masterpiece, a production that was greatly encouraged by his parents. Like so many other parents in China, they provide opportunities for him to study English, a language that they see as being important for his future. If his letter were to be submitted to his teacher as the fruit of a weekend of study, his teacher might recommend that he would use just one colour of ink while writing or that he would refrain from filling up parts of the two page assignment with cartoon representations of badminton, his favourite sport, or that he would avoid correcting his occasional prose mistakes in a way that produces comical Chinese puzzles of a linguistic kind for the eventual receiver of the letter.

Thankfully, these are not the requirements of this creativity. The exercise in letter writing took on a surprise development for me as his correspondence was prepared for dispatching, a surprise that shows how fast changes have taken place in one generation in China. As the envelope was prepared, Lele paid close attention to the stamps that were provided for him. He said that this was actually his first time seeing a stamp. Never before had he seen these colourful pieces of paper that can be stuck to an envelope to pay the fee for the service of a letter being sent to another destination. His family does not receive letters, the electronic age ensuring that all documentation has moved online for them. His first opportunity to hold a stamp was accompanied by my explanation that the glue on the back of a stamp can be activated by a little water or by licking it, an approach that he did know has never found favour in China due to the perceived health risks.

Over the next day the letter and envelope were gleefully shown to quite a few people while discussions continued about which post offices might handle a request for an international service. The first part of the letter's international journey took place on Sunday as the family headed to the home town of Lele's father in the rural area at the edge of Hanyang city. The recent emergence of some new coronavirus cases in Wuhan has resulted in a decree that all 11 million people in the city need to be tested within a ten day period. In a scene that echoed the journey to Bethlehem, this family set out for their original home. I availed of a drive with them in the hope of going to Wuhan for a test on Monday. At the village home of Lele's grandparents, the arrival of the city-based family was greeted with joy, the young boy's presence bringing as much joy as might be understood when biblical figures welcomed the arrival of a promised child. The fine meal in the simple room with the old wooden doors open to the early signs of summer spoke of a way of life that still endures in the rural areas, even as the younger generation live in urban apartments that are removed from their place of birth.

Lele brought his own special contribution to the evening when he passed his letter around for viewing, his grandparents giving their approval, clearing the way for the next stage of the letter's journey to be considered. It was agreed that the post office in the nearby town would likely have the authority to receive a letter that was going to travel overseas, the selection of stamps already having being checked by Lele to ensure that it covered the required fee. His learning about the postal system was making quick progress.

In saying farewell to the family on Sunday evening, I wished them well for their coronavirus test and continued on as far as Wuhan to avail of the test in my area. Monday morning arrangements for the testing of people in our area had been announced ahead of time in great detail. On Monday people from designated areas arrived at their assigned times in a process that was highly efficient. If 11 million people can be tested in the space of ten days, it will be a huge logistical acheivement. Even if only half of that number receives testing, it will still give a indication of whether or not the virus has been controlled in the city. In various parts of the city the sight of people eating together at tables set up outside reopened restaurants indicates that the people of Wuhan believe that the virus is now under control. Hopefully they are correct.

This weekend the annual political meetings of the nation are due to take place in the capital, the delayed events likely to attract considerable attention. In particular, Wuhan will probably receive special mention. While recent months have brought a huge focus by the international community on China, the need for international cooperation in containing the coronavirus remains essential. If the language of blame is promoted by influential leaders, it is difficult to see how progress can be made in the effective long-term control of the pandemic. The ongoing encouragement and prayers of people like Pope Francis promote mutual understanding and cooperation so as to ensure lasting benefits for all people. Genuine diplomacy is needed to ensure the well-being of all people, young and old, but especially the most vulnerable.

During these weeks, as so many young people live their lives without normal contact with their friends, perhaps the diplomacy symbolised by Lele reaching across borders with his first ever letter speaks of other possibilities. In these times of uncertainty, as Lele continues his online classes and contemplates the mysterious journey of his letter through the hands of so many people in the international postal system to a penpal at the other side of the world, the experience is likely to open his mind a little more to the wider world. We need to trust that Jesus was expressing a deep truth when he said that it is to these children that the Kingdom of God belongs. The carefree creativity of this generation can provide encouragement and hope for all people in the journey to a resolution of our current difficulties.

The author is a Catholic living in Wuhan.

Tags: China, Wuhan, Covid-19, Coronavirus

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