To shape public opinion about China’s response to the deadly new coronavirus, Beijing has turned to a trusted strategy: deploying a massive propaganda campaign and suppressing critical news coverage.
But with public cynicism running high over an epidemic that has killed more than 2,600 people, some of the propaganda is backfiring, as people question the lack of critical reporting in Chinese media and dismiss what they say are ham-handed attempts to create Communist Party heroes.
Even state media have acknowledged failings in their approach. Justice Web, a news arm of China’s prosecutor-general’s office, lamented the lack of an independent streak in Chinese media, which it said was instead filled with formulaic stories that emphasize only the positive aspects of the government response.
“At a critical juncture in the battle against the epidemic, the drummers and buglers are playing discordant notes, severely damaging the credibility of the media,” said a commentary published last week on Justice Web’s Weibo microblog. Encountering information they dislike, journalists “automatically filter it and block their ears, reporting only good news and not the bad.”
The fast-spreading Covid-19 epidemic has stirred a flood of negative opinion about the Communist Party’s handling of the crisis, which President Xi Jinping has described as China’s most challenging public-health emergency since the founding of the People’s Republic seven decades ago.
Much of the anger has focused on government censorship, particularly after the virus claimed the life of a doctor, Li Wenliang, who had been reprimanded by local police for raising early warnings about an outbreak. Following a massive outpouring of grief on social media, many ordinary Chinese have invoked Dr. Li in demanding speech and media freedoms. Online tributes often feature a quote from an interview he gave days before his death: “I believe a healthy society should not just have one voice.”
The party has largely followed its crisis-management playbook, trying to suppress criticism of systemic shortcomings and convince people that Beijing is capable of overcoming a crisis that it blames on local-government incompetence, said King-wa Fu, an expert on Chinese censorship at the University of Hong Kong.
After the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, for example, Chinese media blamed the high death toll from collapsed schools on local government corruption and lax enforcement of building regulations. Beijing’s narrative is faltering now because the fallout from the epidemic has been felt nationwide and many Chinese people see the party’s propaganda doesn’t match their experience, Mr. Fu said.
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Chinese officials and medical experts have continually offered assurances that the epidemic is coming under control. On Monday, the World Health Organization said the number of new coronavirus cases is declining in China. Still, the number of deaths in China has continued to rise, and hundreds of millions of people remain under quarantine or face curbs on their movement, including restrictions on workplaces and schools.
Suspicion is running high that the government isn’t revealing the full extent of the epidemic. “I can’t really believe the official data showing large declines” in new Covid-19 cases outside of Hubei province, a Weibo user wrote, referring to the region in central China where the epidemic first emerged. “Because large numbers of new cases are political lapses, whereas smaller numbers of new cases are political achievements.”
The Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus kicked into high gear after Mr. Xi on Feb. 3 ordered that “publicity and opinion work must be strengthened.”
Dissident writers who had attacked Mr. Xi’s leadership went quiet. Chen Qiushi, a lawyer and self-styled citizen journalist who has been documenting conditions in Hubei’s capital, Wuhan, disappeared earlier this month after he told his family he would be visiting a local hospital. In a video posted to Mr. Chen’s Twitter account, his mother appealed to social-media users to help track down her son’s location.
The online opinion magazine Dajia, run by Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd., shut down its WeChat social-media account last week without explanation. Chinese journalists say the closure was likely due to blowback from Dajia’s publication on Jan. 27 of a commentary blaming censorship and the absence of independent media in China for exacerbating the epidemic.
“These days, everyone’s saying the openness of information is the best vaccine,” said the commentary, which was later deleted. “Blocked ears and eyes are also a contagious disease, and no one can escape.”
Tencent didn’t respond to a request for comment.
To rally support for the government’s epidemic response, Chinese state media have produced many stories lionizing doctors and nurses for their sacrifices on the front lines of the “people’s war” against the disease. Some have struck readers as having gone too far.
News reports praising two nurses—one working in full protective gear while nine months pregnant, and the other returning to work 10 days after suffering a miscarriage—prompted critics on social media and even state news outlets to denounce what they saw as irresponsible glorification of foolhardy acts.
“When encouraging such extreme behavior, did they consider the harm done to the mother and child, or how severe the health threats are for the people involved?” asked a commentary published last week on the website of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper. “Even if these were voluntary, the media should dissuade, rather than eulogize.”’
Social media users also criticized a video published recently by a state-run newspaper in the northwestern Gansu province that showed female nurses having their heads shaved—as a hygienic measure—before their deployment to the Hubei province. Viewers called the display degrading and pointed to the women’s grimaces and tears.
“Looking at these girls’ facial expressions, I don’t think they did this willingly,” Gao Cheng, a researcher at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote on Weibo. “They are female warriors going into battle, and not props for staging formalist shows.”
The hospital where the nurses worked has told local media that the shaving was voluntary.
Public cynicism toward government propaganda even derailed a high-profile effort by the Communist Party’s youth wing to rally patriotic fervor in the midst of a national crisis.
When the Communist Youth League launched last week a pair of anime-style “virtual idols”—a boy, whose name Hongqiman can mean “red flag fluttering,” and a girl named Jiangshanjiao, which can translate as “lovable country”—the announcement was swiftly swamped with criticism from Weibo users, who accused the organization of gimmickry that cheapens China’s image.
“While people are painfully persevering on the battle front against the epidemic, why are you messing around with two-dimensional idols?” a Weibo user wrote. Another user accused the league of “wasting resources and ignoring the national disaster.”
The league deleted the announcement from its official Weibo account hours later. The two avatars’ official Weibo account now features a message: “Sorry, we still need to rest.”