President Xi has exploited coronavirus to strengthen his grip on China
Ruthless propaganda appears to have smashed any illusion that coronavirus may become China’s Chernobyl
At about 9.30pm Li Wenliang’s heart stopped beating. But when news of the whistblowing Chinese doctor’s death hit the internet, the public outpouring of grief and anger was so overwhelming the authorities felt that they must “undo” his death.
So the unthinkable happened. State media retracted the death notice and swore that Dr Li, 33, was only critically ill. He was officially declared dead, for the second time, at 2.58am. By then censors had been busy at work, removing posts and comments online.
Dr Li, an ophthalmologist from the city of Wuhan, sounded the alarm in December over the threat posed by a Sars-like virus, but was ordered to stay silent. He was among the first to speak out about what would become known as Covid-19, the novel coronavirus that has since killed 3,140 people and infected more than 80,000 people in China.
His death on February 7 sent propagandists into overdrive to avoid any threat to party rule. Such deft manipulation of public opinion demonstrates the power of President Xi and the ruling Communist Party; its well-oiled, ruthlessly effective propaganda machine appears to have smashed any illusion that the country’s biggest public health crisis in decades may become China’s Chernobyl.
Analysts agree that Mr Xi, 66, and his party could emerge even stronger in the aftermath of coronavirus, convincing people that a powerful leader is needed to cope in such worrying times.
“There have been lots of criticisms, but those criticisms have been behind his back. There’s no direct challenge to him, and he will strengthen the party rule for his benefit,” Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said.
Crucially, the virus has given the party a pretext to expand surveillance — deploying everything from advanced facial recognition software, to thermal camera-equipped drones that can detect fevers — and tighten controls on speech, all in the name of fighting Covid-19. Meanwhile state media portrays Mr Xi as a decisive, caring and effective leader. Last week the official Xinhua news agency detailed his every move and every word about the outbreak to show his dedication to his people.
“His special attention at this special time shows that President Xi has a pure heart like a newborn’s that has people as his number one priority,” the Xinhua article concluded.
According to an analyst in China who requested anonymity: “The disaster is obviously a threat to the big boss, but there’s no viable opponent from within the party, and he will turn the crisis into an opportunity and further strengthen his leadership.”
He added that “people thought the party could fall after the Wenchuan earthquake”, referring to the 2008 disaster that left nearly 90,000 dead or missing in the southwest province of Sichuan. “It was wishful thinking — controls grew tighter.”
Not surprisingly, Beijing imposed more draconian rules on online speech on March 1. Censorship has expanded since the outbreak, with police tracking down and detaining at least three citizen journalists who had posted candid videos from Wuhan, the hardest-hit city, to overseas websites that are banned in China.