Agonising lockdown tests the limits of China’s propaganda

Immediately after Beijing said it had detected a new coronavirus outbreak, officials hurried to assure residents there was no reason to panic. Food was plentiful, they said, and any lockdown measures would be smooth. But Evelyn Zheng, a freelance writer in the city, was not taking any chances.

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

“At first, I was worried about Shanghai, because my family is there, and there was no good news from any of my friends,” Zheng said. “Now, Beijing is starting, too, and I don’t know when it will land on my head.”

Anger and anxiety over the Shanghai lockdown, now in its fourth week, has posed a rare challenge for 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, heavy-handed lockdowns. They have pushed a triumphalist narrative of their Covid response, which says that only the Chinese government had the will to confront, and hold back, the virus.

But among a populace with growing evidence of the costs of that approach, an alternate story — of rage, frustration and despair — is finding an audience. The anger, if not contained, could pose the biggest political test for China’s leadership since the outbreak began. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has staked his legitimacy on successful control of the pandemic, a message that has only been amplified before this fall, when he is expected to claim an first term.

Since Shanghai’s lockdown began, residents there have railed against the harsh measures, which have led to food shortages, delayed medical care, shoddy quarantine conditions and even physical fencing around residents’ homes. Officials have responded with their usual playbook, censoring critical posts, inundating state media with positive stories and blaming foreign forces for fanning false ones. But far from stemming the anger, they have fueled it.

A crew of quarantine workers in Shanghai on Monday, April 25, 2022. (The New York Times)

Residents have compiled footage from their daily lives, showing rotting food or shouting matches with local officials, rebutting the authorities’ story of a tidy, cheery outbreak response. They have banded together to repost deleted content with a speed and savvy that for a time overwhelmed censors’ ability to keep up. Even some members of the political and academic elite have suggested that the government’s propaganda about Shanghai is hurting its credibility.

The failure of the typical tools of narrative control speaks in part to Shanghai’s status as a financial capital, home to many internet-savvy elites. But it also underscores the urgent nature of the complaints. These are not the abstract political critiques or one-off news stories that the propaganda machine has grown adept at stifling or spinning. They are born of life-or-death scenarios, with an immediacy not easily excised by censors.

“The reality is that these past few years, official propaganda has been pretty successful, or at least rarely has met such strong pushback,” Fang Kecheng, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies media and politics. “We can see this is not a regular situation. The temperature of public opinion is very different.”

The rage and sorrow in Shanghai hit a new peak last weekend, when vast numbers of people shared a video chronicling residents’ experiences of the authorities’ failures. The six-minute video, called “Voices of April,” overlaid black-and-white images of the city’s skyline with voice recordings from the past month: of residents chanting for the government to provide supplies; of a son begging for his sick father to be admitted to a hospital; of a tearful official 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 embarked on a cat-and-mouse game to keep it beyond censors’ notice, posting it upside down, embedding it within separate images or adding its audio atop unrelated clips. In one workaround post, the video played on a cartoon computer watched by SpongeBob SquarePants in the back of the Krusty Krab.

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

“The censorship is more effective than two years ago, but this shows its limit. They can’t solve the root of the problem. People see the government could be getting this wrong to the point of disaster,” 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 close contacts, residents quickly offered their own take. In a podcast last week, two young Shanghai residents who had recently been sent to those facilities described seeing older or disabled patients struggling to use squat toilets, or pleading to be sent to a real hospital.

A volunteer uses a megaphone to talk to residents at an apartment building in Shanghai, China, April 12, 2022. (AP)

An accompanying write-up of 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 by the host.

Another reliable tactic for authorities has typically been blaming negative news on foreign forces intent on undermining China. But that, too, has fallen flat. When a hashtag attacking the United States’ human rights record began trending on Chinese social media, some repurposed it as a way to complain about China, listing off recent problems and sarcastically attributing them to the U. The film title “La La Land” was censored After some online used it to allude to a moment when a foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, told foreigners they should be happy to live in China because they benefited from China’s Covid controls.

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

Earlier this month, a Shanghai television channel 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 furious online backlash, the channel postponed the broadcast.

An delivery worker hands a bag to a resident behind barriers sealing off an area, before the second stage of a two-stage lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Shanghai, China. (Reuters)

“We welcome everyone’s precious feedback,” he wrote on Weibo.

Several days later, CCTV, the state broadcaster, showed a video of shoppers walking past heaps of vegetables at a Shanghai grocery store. Many online accused them of staging the footage, citing their own inability to leave their homes or obtain food. Eventually, the Shanghai government issued a statement pledging that the footage had been genuine.

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

But those tasked with pushing the official message have not escaped the unease that Shanghai inspired, either.

On Sunday, Liu Xin, a reporter in Beijing for a state-owned television channel, wrote on social media that she had stocked up on groceries, writing, “Beijing’s turn” and “let the tough times come” alongside images of empty shelves. (By the next day, she had deleted the post and uploaded photos of an apparently fully stocked store.)

Other official outlets have opted not to directly acknowledge the lockdown fears at all.

As some Beijing residents rushed to buy extra freezers to be able to store more food, the state-run Beijing Evening News wrote a short article on the surge in appliance purchases. It reported that one vendor had sold more than 300 freezers — the equivalent of one month’s usual sales — on Sunday.

But the article made 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 supplement to household refrigerators.”


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