Without a Covid narrative, China’s censors aren’t sure what to do

Ever since China abandoned its strict “zero Covid” policy, a joke has been circulating on social media about the sudden change.

Three men who do not know each other are sitting in a prison cell. Each explains why he was arrested:
“I objected to the Covid tests.”
“I supported Covid testing.”
“I tested for Covid.”

The joke has yet to be widely censored. It’s a sign of how much the Chinese Communist Party, usually a master of messaging, is struggling to find a coherent explanation for the policy shift and a clear directive on what to do about an explosion of cases that now threatens the country’s medical health. resources.

So dizzying was the change that, even two weeks later, the state’s powerful propaganda and censorship system has yet to catch up with the flood of confusion and criticism that is seeping through the censorship checks. Internet typically strict in the country.

Apart from outlining the new Covid rules, Chinese official media have yet to offer much guidance from top leaders on the situation. The country’s hundreds of thousands of Internet censors, experts say, have received no guidance on what to allow and what to remove, and may be confused, given that what was blocked a month ago is now official policy. Many Chinese have wondered why they endured years of draconian lockdowns and travel restrictions, only to have the leadership abandon them and allow the virus to spread uninterrupted.

For China’s leadership, maintaining public trust depends in part on a difficult task: finding a narrative that makes sense of the investment.

In the weeks since “Zero Covid” ended, China’s propaganda and censorship machine has fallen into its old routine of erasing negative press and spreading “positive energy” posts that praise the struggles of individuals and the government. But experts say the three-year trauma caused by strict pandemic measures and the last-minute turnaround will be difficult for people to get over quickly.

“It will be impossible for everyone to completely forget. Many will remember ‘zero Covid’ deeply and clearly,” said Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies China’s propaganda. However, this may not lead to a widespread loss of trust in government, he added, noting that “people still have a way of convincing themselves that things don’t look so bad now.”

So far, propagandists have followed the rules of the past to manage the crisis. They have avoided excessive mentions of policy change, instead emphasizing social stability. State media have sympathetically described the situation as “stressful” but, on the other hand, presented it as a well-orchestrated decision to overcome a virus that is no longer as deadly as before.

Across the country, acute shortages of medicine, videos of people crowding hospitals and long lines outside crematoria and funeral homes marked a stark contrast to the seven deaths reported by the government this week. On Tuesday, health authorities explained that only deaths caused by coronavirus-induced pneumonia and respiratory failure would be attributed to Covid.

Online anger soon erupted, with many accusing the authorities of double standards based on their frequent and detailed reporting of Covid death statistics abroad, particularly Europe and the United States. Many used the hashtag #WhatIsTheCriteriaForDeathByCovid in complaints on Tuesday. By Wednesday, censors had begun blocking those posts.

People wrote about the death of their family members, urging others not to believe the propaganda that Covid is now like the flu. A blood bank asked university students for urgent donations. Cancellations of travel bookings for the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday surged as people decided to stay at home.

State media coverage of the country’s top leaders has distanced itself from the ongoing outbreak. On Monday, a commentary in Diari del Poble justified the new policy, saying it will have a “significant positive effect” on the economic recovery. While the piece said “a lot of work needs to be done,” it didn’t shy away from acknowledging the chaos it created.

In some ways, the approach is similar to that taken during the initial outbreak of the virus in Wuhan nearly three years ago. Then, even as the crisis intensified, official Communist Party spokespeople emphasized government control of the situation and avoided content that could cause alarm. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, disappeared from the public spotlight to insulate himself from possible criticism. Once the virus is contained, Mr. Xi appeared in the city in triumph.

This time, Chinese officials may take longer to get the message back about a medical crisis fueled by a virus that, in major countries like India and the United States, has killed hundreds of thousands as waves of disease have overwhelmed medical facilities. Apart from the general comments on the coordination of the Covid prevention measures, Mr. Xi has remained silent. He has not said anything directly about the recent increase in cases.

For now, experts said, both censors and propaganda officials seem to be struggling to figure out what to do.

“I don’t think I saw a planned or orchestrated propaganda plan coming out. It’s more because the general direction has changed, so propaganda has to follow suit all of a sudden,” said Mr. mud A major test will come when the virus spreads to smaller rural areas with insufficient medical resources, he said.

A small but vocal chorus online has decried the abrupt and disjointed policy changes. Asong Yu, a 30-year-old financial worker in northeastern China, has sardonically and indirectly questioned the sudden changes and lack of explanation.

In a publication, Mr. Yu shared a response from the viral AI chatbot, ChatGPT, to the question, “Are there any pigs that can do a 180?” He had a particular vitriol for what he called “epidemic prevention enthusiasts”, nationalists who had previously voiced the government’s “covid zero” position, only to be rebuffed by Beijing’s about-face. Online he called them: “abandoned dogs who are beaten by their owners.”

“The previous propaganda is totally opposite to the current one. I think no matter how stupid some people are, they will have to wake up,” Mr. Yu said in an interview.

Until now, Mr. Yu’s publications have avoided the knife of the censors. In part, this is because there are no obvious ways to deal with such a major change. Censors must decide whether to suppress any of the official publications that have supported “zero Covid” for years and how much to tolerate a new zeal to lift the blockades.

Some people online have already encouraged others to go out and get the Covid immunity boost. Some college students, for example, have lamented their inability to catch it over the past month, worrying they’ll get sick during graduate school entrance exams scheduled for this week.

The sudden shift in China’s policy has created chaos and confusion between tech companies that hire their own censors and party-supporting accounts that toe the official line, said Eric Liu, a former Weibo censor who is now an analyst from China Digital Times. . , a news website that tracks censorship in China.

“I haven’t seen a very clear and hard censure order yet, so I think it has something to do with the chaos that they are contradicting each other,” Mr. Liu said, noting that Beijing most likely hasn’t figured out an official narrative. That, in turn, has prevented the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s internet regulator, from issuing uniform orders to censors.

“Definitely a regulated narrative will happen, but we don’t know when it will happen,” he said.

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