That’s the narrative constructed by “In The Same Breath,” a scathing new documentary by the Oscar-shortlisted filmmaker Nanfu Wang. Wang’s movie, which has been viewed by The Washington Post, argues that the alleged suppression led to an untold number of deaths and the virus spreading rapidly, as unaware people kept taking risks.
In a surprising turn, the movie has been financed and creatively overseen by HBO. It will be aired by the Warner Media subsidiary on an as-yet undetermined date later this year, an uncommon decision by a media conglomerate to take on the government of the world’s largest entertainment market.
Experts say the risks to the company, which makes content available on Chinese platforms and distributes some of its biggest blockbusters in the country, could be sizable.
“Look at what happened to the NBA when [then-Houston Rockets general manager] Daryl Morey made his comment on Twitter about Hong Kong — games were taken off all platforms and you couldn’t buy Rockets merchandise online anywhere in China,” said Marc Ganis, the founder of the Asia-oriented company Jiaflix and an expert on the entertainment business in China.
The documentary premiered Thursday night at the virtual Sundance Film Festival, where it is expected to stir up much attention as a damning indictment of the leadership of Chinese president Xi Jinping in the early days of the pandemic.
“We think of the virus as ‘it was an inevitable disaster and the government responded the best way they could,’” Wang, who was born 200 miles outside Wuhan and currently resides in New York City, said in an interview. “And that’s not the reality. No one can make the calculation of how many lives could have been saved if precautions and warnings were given on time.”
“Breath” seeks to paint a different picture of China’s response from the one circulating in some circles in which China handled the virus well. (Early on, a story in Nature offered "What China’s coronavirus response can teach the rest of the world” and in the fall the executive director for the WHO Health Emergencies Program, Mike Ryan, congratulated "the front-line health workers in China and the population who worked together tirelessly to bring the disease to this very low level.”)
“Breath" argues that Xi’s government was eager to sweep away talk of covid during the critical early period, both with suppression tactics and with propaganda dismissing the dangers. The film highlights many reports, well into January 2020, stating “no clear evidence shows human-to-human transmission” — even as victims are dying in the streets and thousands of people desperately upload their medical information hoping someone will see it and offer them care.
It was only later — after, Wang notes, the Communist Party held its annual Lunar New Year meetings and wrung maximum public-relations benefits from them — that the government began publicly acknowledging the risks and imposed the famous Wuhan lockdown.
Ganis noted the NBA is not the only entertainment entity that has suffered retribution in China. "Ask Sony Pictures about what happens if the government disapproves of your movie,” he said, referring to a Chinese outcry in 1997 over the Brad Pitt drama “Seven Years in Tibet.” Beijing saw the film as so hostile to China it stopped all dealings with the studio and imposed a visa ban on Pitt that lasted well over a decade.
The reaction now could depend in part on how vocal HBO went with its support, Ganis said.
“Are they advertising it heavily? Are they pushing it for awards?” he asked. “Or are they just quietly putting it out?”
HBO executives did not comment for this story. Wang said HBO never suggested any changes for business reasons.
Wang’s film builds on the research of many journalists, including those of The Post, that implicates China in not moving quickly enough, offering ground-level visual testimony in a country from which many journalists have been ejected.
Wang, in New York, enlisted a team of guerrilla filmmakers to shoot subjects in China — a college student’s father and grandfather who died one day apart, or Runzhen Chen, who with her husband operated a medical clinic near the wet market at which the virus likely originated. Chen was unable to get care for her husband in January as one hospital after another turned him away, denying he was in danger. He died shortly after.
Though it pointedly criticizes how U.S. government officials and agencies managed the virus, it reserves some of its sharpest attacks for China’s free-speech suppression tactics. Eight doctors are punished for “spreading rumors about an unknown pneumonia” after discussing the virus in private group texts — a warning repeated by state news anchors for days. A public-address announcement blares: “A reminder from the police: obey laws and regulations for online activities" in the streets. A man is taken to the police station and fingerprinted for a cellphone video of a long line outside a funeral home.
In a post-screening question-and-answer session at Sundance Thursday night, Wang noted that the situation in China is in some ways even worse than when she made the film, with many online platforms now dangerous.
“More and more so we are seeing that social-media platforms are not secure either; people can be arrested for stuff they said on social media,” she said. She noted a different kind of risk posed by social media in the U.S., a threat she prominently documents in the film. “We have freedom of speech; we have a free press,” Wang said. "But that doesn’t mean an easier access to the truth. We’re facing an ocean of disinformation. And that works exactly like the virus itself.”
Studios are often reluctant to produce material condemning China. Some executives even go out of their way to include positive Chinese story lines in their products, fearful of being locked out of a market that pours billions into their coffers.
Many HBO shows are available in China through HBO’s local site as well native platforms like Tencent. Warner Media also has plans to expand its new streaming service, HBO Max, around the world.
And several of its theatrical blockbusters, such as “Aquaman” and the “Godzilla” titles, perform well in China; the former grossed $260 million in 2019. Studios need the blessing of the Chinese government to land a release slot in the country.
HBO’s decision to back the film stands in contrast to another recent case of a political documentary from an acclaimed filmmaker, Bryan Fogel’s Jamal Khashoggi movie “The Dissident." Global streamers passed on the film, possibly because of fears of economic reprisal from the Saudi government.
Aynne Kokas, a University of Virginia professor and author of “Hollywood Made In China,” about their relationship, said a film’s popularity was a key variable in China’s reaction. But “if it does go viral I can see possible penalties for other HBO shows and significant impact for broader Warner Media distribution.”
She said she believed that U.S. companies take a “calculated risk” when they release films such as “In The Same Breath.”
“Is it a movie or is it a scene they’re getting in trouble for?" she said. A simple quip or line may not be worth the potential payback, she said. An larger investigation might be.
Warner Media is owned by AT&T, but the telecom’s operations in China, comparatively modest, are less likely to be affected.
Wang, too, has already faced consequences. Her documentary, “One Child Nation,” which assails the country’s population-control policy, was shortlisted for the documentary Oscar in 2019. But Chinese state outlets erased all mentions of the film in their coverage.
There are signs the government is looking to crack down on her again, she said. In November security agents visited her mother’s house in China and questioned her for several hours about her daughter’s filmmaking activities. And while making the film, Wang had a different China-based producer taken in for questioning every month from March to May; each time the producer stopped working on the film shortly after.
Wang said she felt the need to press on, not only to tell the story of the early days of the pandemic but because the Chinese government was now co-opting the tragedy to stoke jingoism.
“It was a failure but it’s being used as an excuse for patriotism,” she said, noting a slew of programming hailing the country’s anti-virus heroism. “It’s working -- a disaster is becoming a propaganda tool.”
She alluded to a line from the movie.
“When the government is telling us where to look," she said, “they’re also telling us where not to look.”