In China, COVID-19 triggered not only a health and social crisis but also a political one. The Chinese Communist Party has faced scathing criticism for the way it has handled the situation and has suffered an almost-unprecedented amount of questioning, particularly by the country's youth.
After pushing stories of heroism and leadership and sweeping unpleasant ones under the rug, the CCP has decided this is just not enough. So they published a propaganda book about how Chinese authorities defeated the coronavirus.
The Ministry of Propaganda
No matter that the outbreak is still ongoing, that the virus is just emerging in other parts of the world, and no matter that just days ago, two Chinese health workers published a letter in The Lancet asking for help and saying that medical workers in China are overrun (presumably using the scientific journal as a way to bypass censorship). None of these things matter, the "official story" is already written.
According to the state-owned Xinhua News Agency, the book "draws on the expressions of international in-depth reports, selects relevant materials and organically integrates compilations from more than 2 million words of mainstream media public reports". Furthermore, it "reflects President Xi Jinping's public sentiment, mission, strategic vision and outstanding leadership as a great power leader."
Sounds like what you'd expect from a propaganda ministry, right? China's Ministry of Propaganda only changed its English name to "Ministry of Publicity", but its Chinese name remained unchanged. More importantly, so did its mission. The relentless spin machine worked frantically to cover the coronavirus outbreak in a propaganda-woven blanket.
Maybe this part of Xinhua's comment is even more convincing:
"Under the centralized and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, the Chinese people introduced the emergency mobilization and concerted efforts to start the epidemic prevention[..]. The significant advantages of leadership and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics demonstrate China's tremendous efforts to actively cooperate with the international community and jointly maintain global and regional public health security."
There's no doubt that China's efforts have been tremendous. We have praised them repeatedly where we felt this was due -- as did the World Health Organization and other international health bodies.
But heavy criticism is also due, particularly as China tried to manipulate information and spin the story to its advantage.
Outcry vs manipulation
The first major outcry was when news got out that coronavirus had killed Li Wenliang -- a doctor who tried to spread the word about the virus in its initial stages but was silenced by authorities for "making false claims". Wenliang contracted the virus while working at Wuhan Central Hospital. He was killed by the virus just weeks after Chinese police silenced him, and as word of this got out, it sent an uproar that spread far beyond Wuhan.
His story is hardly singular. Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, two video bloggers who documented their life in Wuhan's quarantine contradicted the official story published by authorities. The real story, Chen told BBC, is far different from what is happening. Censorship is very strict, and "people's accounts are being closed down if they share my content". It wasn't long before both he and Fang went quiet and haven't been heard from since.
Beijing has responded to COVID-19 better than it did with previous outbreaks, but its tactics of silencing and detaining critics remain unchanged. The government was slow to disclose information and quick to suppress voices it didn't approve of. Basic human rights were traded away for the promise of security -- but for every story of heroism, there were a dozen stories of pain and struggle. Admiration for front-line doctors and nurses is sincere and deserved -- but the stories neglected to mention that many lacked protective gear, and thousands got sick because of this.
“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.’”
What the Chinese want to brand as a "people's war against the disease", many see as echoes of Mao Zedong's era, where millions of people are under house arrest, and people are taken into custody by the police for the smallest of problems -- sometimes, as little as making a complaint. Images and videos of such public reprimands have widely circulated and often go in direct contradiction to what officials are saying.
Hundreds of thousands of comments have been deleted -- potentially millions. Criticism is almost never allowed, and this applies to international outlets.
China expelled WSJ journalists for criticizing it, and in yesterday's People’s Daily (the largest publication in China, run by the Communist Party) featured an article “How Has America Done in the Face of the Epidemic?”, in which it justifies the decision to silence the journalists.
"They must be made aware that the dignity of the Chinese people must not be compromised, and China’s bottom line must not be touched," the article reads, before going on a long nationalistic rant.
Chinese leaders know that simply removing a story doesn't work -- you have to replace it with something else. The book, like a million other feel-good stories, aims to fill this gap. All the funny quips from the media about disease surveillance and all the crafting of positive stories from disease-affected areas have one purpose: to push the desired narrative above everything else.
That's what the CCP wants, but many are not buying it. Millions of people, particularly youth, are waking up to the realization of what it means to live under an authoritarian regime. They see the importance of freedom of speech and freedom in general. Censorship isn't a distant threat, but a very present reality and that realization is starting to dawn on many in China, especially on social media.
But the facade of an all-powerful and benevolent government is starting to be eroded. China will, of course, overcome the coronavirus outbreak, maybe even sooner rather than later. But the changes it brings may linger far longer, affecting far more than just people's health.