Wednesday, 26 February 2020


Coronavirus Weakens China’s Powerful Propaganda Machine

Beijing is pushing tales of perseverance, but many young people are openly questioning the Communist Party’s message.
Credit...Jialun Deng
Exhausted medical workers with faces lined from hours of wearing goggles and surgical masks. Women with shaved heads, a gesture of devotion. Retirees who donate their life savings anonymously in government offices.
Beijing is tapping its old propaganda playbook as it battles the relentless coronavirus outbreak, the biggest challenge to its legitimacy in decades. State media is filling smartphones and airwaves with images and tales of unity and sacrifice aimed at uniting the people behind Beijing’s rule. It even briefly offered up cartoon mascots named Jiangshan Jiao and Hongqi Man, characters meant to stir patriotic feelings among the young during the crisis.
The problem for China’s leaders: This time, it isn’t working so well.
Online, people are openly criticizing state media. They have harshly condemned stories of individual sacrifice when front-line medical personnel still lack basic supplies like masks. They shouted down Jiangshan Jiao and Hongqi Man. They have heaped scorn on images of the women with shaved heads, asking whether the women were pressured to do it and wondering why similar images of men weren’t appearing.
One critical blog post was titled “News Coverage Should Stop Turning a Funeral Into a Wedding.”
Daisy Zhao, 23, a Beijing resident, said she once trusted the official media. Now she fumes over the reports that labeled eight medical workers who tried to warn about the coronavirus threat as rumormongers. Images and videos of their public reprimand have been widely shared online.
“The official media,” Ms. Zhao said, “has lost a lot of credibility.”
China’s propaganda machine, an increasingly sophisticated operation that has helped the Communist Party stay in power for decades, is facing one of its biggest challenges.
The government was slow to disclose the threat of the coronavirus and worked to suppress the voices of those who tried to warn the country. In doing so, it undermined its implicit deal with its people, in which they trade away their individual rights for the promise of security.
To tame public outrage, Beijing is determined to create a “good public opinion environment.” It has sent hundreds of state-sponsored journalists to Wuhan and elsewhere to churn out heart-tugging stories about the front-line doctors and nurses and the selfless support from the Chinese public.

China Is Censoring Coronavirus Stories. These Citizens Are Fighting Back.

Information about the coronavirus outbreak is not immune from Chinese censors. But more and more citizens are dodging censorship by creating a digital archive of deleted posts. They told us how.

Voices like these from Chinese citizens are very rare. People who are willing to speak out about the government’s attempts to control news about the deadly coronavirus. They asked to remain anonymous, because what they’re doing could put them and their families at great risk. But these people are part of a new wave of Chinese citizens, fighting to get the message out in a country that aggressively censors information. Accounts or messages like these calling for free speech are quickly scrubbed from the internet. Or videos like this, showing people frustrated about life under lockdown. [clanging] Posted online one day, but gone the next. But the crisis over the coronavirus is changing the landscape, for now at least. Everyday citizens are preserving and reposting information the government doesn’t want out there. Experts say this kind of digital resistance is happening at a scale they’ve never seen before. Social media networks like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China. But internet savvy people use techniques that allow them to repost censored content to these platforms, while staying under the radar of authorities. They’re creating a visual archive by preserving videos like this one, showing overwhelmed hospitals. [screaming] And they’re reposting people’s personal stories. Some are also turning to less obvious platforms, including GitHub, which is a site mostly used by coders. Another taboo Chinese citizens are pushing back on? They’re making open and widespread calls for freedom of speech. These were triggered by the death of Dr. Li Wenliang. He was an early whistleblower who warned about the virus, and was punished by officials for speaking out. He died in early February from the coronavirus. Right after his death, the hashtag “I want freedom of speech” started to trend on Weibo, a Chinese social media site. Then, it was quickly censored by the government. Dr. Li’s become an icon in the online fight for freedom of speech between censors and citizens. So, who’s winning? For now, citizens are staying a step ahead of the authorities. But a renewed government crackdown could test the strength of this digital resistance.
China Is Censoring Coronavirus Stories. These Citizens Are Fighting Back.
Information about the coronavirus outbreak is not immune from Chinese censors. But more and more citizens are dodging censorship by creating a digital archive of deleted posts. They told us how.
China’s propaganda spinners have some tough competition. Chinese people have seen images of a young woman crying “Mom! Mom!” as her mother’s body was driven away. They’ve seen a woman banging a homemade gong from her balcony while begging for a hospital bed. They’ve seen an exhausted nurse breaking down and howling.
And they have all seen the face of Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to warn China about the very virus that killed him.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • Answers to your most common questions:

    Updated Feb. 26, 2020
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. has warned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan, Italy and Iran. The agency also has advised against all non-essential travel to South Korea and China.
    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      The World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world is not ready for a major outbreak.

The crisis has exposed many people, especially the young, to troubling aspects of life under an authoritarian government. In the silencing of people like Dr. Li, they see the danger in clamping down on free expression. In the heart-wrenching online pleas for help from patients and hospitals, they see past the facade of an omnipotent government that can get anything done.
Beijing is doing everything it can to take back the narrative. State media is offering steady coverage of people who leave donations at government offices then dash before anyone can give them credit. One compilation of “dropped cash donations and ran away” headlines tallied 41 of them.
Other stories feature medics who join the front lines after “Mom just passed away” or the person “just had a newborn.” Beat by beat, the stories sound the same.
Some are blatantly unbelievable. One newspaper in the city of Xi’an apologized after it posted an article claiming that a nurse’s newborn twins asked their father where their mother was, saying it was an editing mistake. Another newspaper wrote that after a nurse went to the front line, her husband, who had been in a vegetative state since 2014, would smile whenever her name was mentioned “as if he knew that his wife was engaged in a great endeavor.” That story was later deleted.
In China, admiration of the front-line medical workers is widespread and sincere. But the state media’s coverage does not show the reality that many of those workers lack protective gear. Over 3,000 of them have been infected.
“Their sacrifices should be remembered,” wrote a user on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media sites. “We should make sure that the tragedies won’t happen again, not highlighting ‘Sacrifice is glorious.’”
Deng Xueping, a lawyer who wrote the “Funeral Into a Wedding” blog post, cited a story about a patient discharged from a makeshift hospital in Wuhan, at the center of the outbreak. She liked the hospital so much, the story said, that she was reluctant to leave.
“When many patients in Wuhan were struggling to get treatment, our TV camera chose to turn to one happy outpatient,” Mr. Deng wrote. “By magnifying one individual’s happiness while hiding the sufferings of most people there, it’s hard to say such coverage was truthful about the epidemic.”
People are also angry about state media accounts of female medical workers who shave their heads. In one viral video, more than a dozen female hospital workers in northwestern Gansu Province on their way to Hubei Province, the center of the outbreak, had their heads shaved. Some cried.
That raised questions online about whether the women had been pressured into shaving their heads and why men weren’t doing the same. The hospital in Gansu Province responded that the women had done it voluntarily.
The biggest setback for the party’s propaganda machine came last week when the Communist Youth League unveiled Jiangshan Jiao and Hongqi Man, sibling mascots in traditional Chinese dress. Their names — “jiangshan” for the Chinese nation and “hongqi” for the party’s red flag — are derived from a poem by Chairman Mao Zedong.
“Come on, cheer on the Youth League’s idols,” the league urged on social media.
People did not cheer. The league deleted the posts hours later as critics accused the party institution of trying to turn the relationship between the country and its citizens into one between entertainment idols and their fans. One comment — “I’m your citizen, not your fan” — got over 50,000 likes.
The backlash may suggest new attitudes among the young generation toward the state.
“In the past month, many young people have been reading a lot of firsthand information and in-depth media reports about the epidemic on the internet,” said Stephanie Xia, 26, who lives in Shanghai. They were angry and confused by what they learned, she said.
“There’s some gap between what the young people are really like and what the government believes what they’re like,” Ms. Xia added.
Despite the growing skepticism, the party state has widespread popular support. While older people who rely on state media make up the bulk, the party still counts on the backing of apolitical young people like Lu Yingxin, whom I wrote about in October as an example of the patriotic youth.
Ms. Lu said she was touched by the reports about the sacrifices of the front-line health workers and ordinary people donating money to Wuhan. She was sad about the passing of Dr. Li and was not happy that the police accused him of spreading rumors.
Still, she isn’t disappointed with the government. It has a full plate to deal with, she reasons.
“Even if I say that I don’t trust the government, what could I do?” Ms. Lu said. “It seems there’s nothing I can do.”
There’s no scientific way to gauge public sentiment in China. But hers is probably a widely shared attitude, and one that the Chinese government wants to nurture.
To get there, Beijing has intensified internet censorship in the past few weeks. Social media accounts have been deleted or suspended. Starting Saturday, online platforms will be subject to new regulations that could ensure even tighter limits.
Some of the older generation are worried that the epidemic will be forgotten just like many other tragedies in China.
“If we can’t become a whistle-blower like Li Wenliang, then let’s be a person who can hear the whistle blowing,” Yan Lianke, a novelist, said in a lecture at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in February.
Credit...Kin Cheung/Associated Press
“If we can’t speak out loud, then let’s become a whisperer,” Mr. Yan said. “If we can’t be a whisperer, then let’s become a silent person who remembers and keeps memories … let’s become a person with graves in our heart.”
In an effort to build a collective memory, thousands of young people are building digital archives of online posts, videos and media stories about the epidemic that have been or are likely to deleted and posting them on the internet outside the country.
Some young people already have the “graves in their hearts” that Mr. Yan references, and want to ensure younger people have them, too.
Ms. Zhao, the Beijing resident, said that after witnessing the polarizing online discourses during the outbreak, she had decided to pursue a career in education. “Care about the world. Care about the people in it,” she said in a Weibo post.
Ms. Xia, whose Weibo account has been suspended for 30 days for her epidemic-related posts, said she was determined to keep speaking up no matter how tight the censorship would become so that the next generation would remember.
“Speak up as much as your courage allows,” she said. “In the end, it’s better than saying nothing

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