The messages wishing me a gruesome death arrive slowly at first and then all at once. I am condemned to be burned, raped, tortured. Some include a video of joyful dancing at a funeral, with fists pounding on a wooden casket. The hardest ones to read take aim at my mother, who has been immobilized by the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis since 2014. Most of the messages originate in China, but my mother and I live in New York. As the COVID lockdown has swept the city, I find out that the health aides she depends on are to be banned from her facility and take to Twitter to publicize my despair. But this personal plight as a daughter unexpectedly attracts the attention of Chinese nationalists who have long been displeased with my work as a writer reporting on China. In short order, my predicament is politicized and packaged into a viral sensation. “Has your mom died yet?” China15z0dj wants to know. “Your mom will be dead Haha. 1.4 billion people wish for you to join her in Hell. Haha!”
At some point, I stop scrolling. The messages I dread the most come not from Internet strangers but from people who know me—my aunt, my uncle, my mother’s childhood best friend. On WeChat, they link to various Chinese-language articles about me and ask, “Have you read this?” The next question would be almost funny if it weren’t so painfully earnest: “Do you know this Jiayang Fan?”
I do not presume to know this character, but countless social-media posts, video blogs, and comments describe her as a creature driven by self-loathing. I find a story about my mother and me in the Global Times, a state-controlled Chinese newspaper with twenty-eight million followers on Weibo. It has been picked up by the country’s most popular news aggregator and then energetically disseminated on various platforms. The more I read, the more fascinated I become by the creation of this alter ego. I am watching a portrait of myself being painted, minute by minute, anonymous hands contributing daubs and strokes, the more lurid the better. “Jiayang Fan, of Chongqing, China, followed her parents to the U.S. at the age of eight,” one article begins. “Even though her body flows with Chinese blood—the blood of the descendants of the Yellow Emperor—she has decided to metamorphose into an American citizen and denigrate her Chinese face as an indisputable burden!” Creatively, the same words are used as a voice-over accompanying a video post in which images of my mother’s face and mine, culled from social media, are rendered in traditional Chinese brush-painting style. A computerized female voice describes Jiayang Fan as a columnist at the New York Times—evidently, this piece of fact checking fell by the wayside—one who makes a living by smearing her homeland. Not only have I falsely accused China of being the geographic origin of the coronavirus pandemic; I also had the nerve to support the pro-democracy terrorists in Hong Kong.