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China’s Covid Lockdown outrage is testing the limits of propaganda

Immediately after Beijing said it had detected a new coronavirus outbreak, officials rushed to assure residents there was no reason to panic. Food was plentiful, they said, and all lockdown measures would be smooth. But Evelyn Zheng, a freelance writer there, was taking no chances.

His relatives, who lived in Shanghai, were urging him to leave or to stock up on food. She had spent weeks poring over social media posts from that city, which documented the chaos and month-long lockdown angst there. And when she went out to buy more food, it was clear that many of her neighbors had the same idea: some shelves were already cleared.

“At first, I was worried about Shanghai, because my family is there and none of my friends had good news,” Ms. Zheng said. “Now Beijing is also starting, and I don’t know when it’s going to land on my head.”

The anger and anxiety over Shanghai’s lockdown, now in its fourth week, has posed a rare challenge to China’s powerful propaganda apparatus, which is central to the Communist Party’s ability to stifle dissent. As the Omicron variant continues to spread across the country, officials have defended their use of widespread and harsh lockdowns. They pushed a triumphalist narrative of their Covid response, which says only the Chinese government had the will to confront and contain the virus.

But among a population with mounting evidence of the costs of this approach, an alternative story – of rage, frustration and despair – is finding an audience. The anger, if left unchecked, could be the biggest political test for China’s leaders since the outbreak began. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has staked his legitimacy on successfully controlling the pandemic, a message that has only been amplified as we approach this fall, when he is set to claim an unprecedented third term.

Since the start of Shanghai’s lockdown, Shanghai residents have spoken out against the harsh measures, which have led to food shortages, delayed medical care, shoddy quarantine conditions and even physical fencing around residents’ homes. Officials responded with their usual playbook, censoring critical posts, flooding state media with positive stories and accusing foreign forces of stoking false ones. But far from stemming the anger, they fueled it.

Residents have compiled footage of their daily lives, showing rotten food or shouting matches with local officials, refuting authorities’ story of an orderly and cheerful response to the outbreak. They banded together to republish deleted content with a speed and skill that for a time exceeded the censors’ ability to keep up. Even some members of the political and academic elite have suggested that the government’s propaganda about Shanghai hurts its credibility.

The failure of typical narrative control tools is partly a testament to Shanghai’s status as a financial capital, home to many internet-savvy elites. But it also underscores the urgency of the complaints. It is not the abstract political critiques or the one-off reports that the propaganda machine has become adept at stifling or turning around. They arise from life-or-death scenarios, with an immediacy that is hard for censors to suppress.

“The reality is that in recent years, official propaganda has been quite successful, or at least has rarely encountered such a setback,” said Fang Kecheng, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies media and culture. Politics. “We can see that this is not a regular situation. The temperature of public opinion is very different.

The rage and sadness in Shanghai reached a new height last weekend, when a large number of people shared a video recounting the experiences of residents in the face of failures by authorities. The six-minute video, titled “Voices of April,” overlaid black-and-white footage of the city’s skyline with voice recordings from the past month: residents chanting for the government to provide supplies; of a son pleading for his sick father to be admitted to the hospital; of a tearful civil servant explaining to a frustrated caller that she, too, was exhausted and helpless.

The video, first posted by an anonymous social media user, was quickly taken down. But users have engaged in a cat-and-mouse game to keep it out of the censors’ attention, by displaying it upside down, embedding it in separate images, or adding its audio on top of it. top of unrelated clips. In a workaround, the video played on a cartoon computer watched by SpongeBob SquarePants on the back of the Krusty Krab.

The scale of censorship required to silence dissent is “too great this time” according to Xiao Qiang, an internet freedom researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. He compared the deletions of the video and other Shanghai complaints to massive efforts to erase the mourning of Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan who was reprimanded by police for issuing an early warning about the outbreak, then is died of the coronavirus himself.

“Censorship is more effective than two years ago, but that shows its limit. They cannot fix the root of the problem. People see that the government could be wrong until disaster strikes,” Xiao said, pointing to emerging complaints that the zero Covid policy could be self-defeating and unrealistic.

When state media praised the construction of large makeshift hospitals to house patients or their loved ones, locals were quick to come up with their own solution. In a podcast last week, two young Shanghai residents who had recently been sent to such facilities described seeing elderly or disabled patients struggling to use a squat toilet, or begging to be sent to a real hospital.

An accompanying article for the podcast episode was censored within two days, but not before it had been viewed more than 10 million times, according to a blog post from the host.

Another reliable tactic for authorities is usually to blame negative news on foreign forces intent on undermining China. But that too fell flat. When a hashtag attacking the human rights record in the United States began spreading on Chinese social media, some reused it as a way to complain about China, listing recent problems and attributing them sarcastically to America. The film’s title ‘La La Land’ was censored after some online used it to allude to a time when a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told foreign reporters that they should be happy to live in China as they benefited from Chinese Covid controls.

At times, public skepticism of the official line has been so intense that it has forced the authorities to react.

Earlier this month, a Shanghai TV station announced plans to air a star-studded variety show, complete with song and dance, celebrating the government’s response to the outbreak. But after a backlash online, the channel postponed the broadcast. “We appreciate everyone’s valuable feedback,” he wrote on Weibo.

A few days later, CCTV, the state broadcaster, showed video of shoppers walking past heaps of vegetables at a grocery store in Shanghai. Many netizens accused them of staging the footage, citing their own inability to leave their homes or obtain food. Eventually, the Shanghai government released a statement saying the footage was authentic.

Officials are trying the same tactic again in Beijing, despite their limited success in Shanghai. Over the weekend, some articles showing photos of bare grocery shelves and long lines were censored.

But those charged with delivering the official message have also not escaped the unease that Shanghai has inspired.

On Sunday, Liu Xin, a reporter in Beijing for a public television channel, wrote on social media that she had stocked up on groceries, writing “Around Beijing” and “May hard times come” alongside images of empty shelves. (The next day, she deleted the post and uploaded photos of a seemingly fully stocked store.)

Other state media have chosen not to directly acknowledge the lockdown fears at all.

As some Beijing residents rushed to buy extra freezers so they could store more food, the state-run Beijing Evening News ran a short article about the surge in home appliance purchases. He reported that a vendor had sold more than 300 freezers – the equivalent of a month’s usual sales – on Sunday.

But the article makes no mention of the epidemic: “The main reason for the hot sales of freezers is that their volume is relatively small and their price is cheap, so it is a good complement to household refrigerators.”

Joy Dong contributed to the research.

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