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China’s COVID lockdown outrage tests limits of triumphant propaganda


A banner reading “Persistence is victory!” at a makeshift hospital and quarantine facility in Shanghai earlier this month.

By Vivian Wang, Paul Mozur and Isabelle Qian


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 unprecedented third 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.


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.


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.S. The film title “La La Land” was censored after some online used it to allude to a moment when a foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told foreign journalists they should be happy to live in China because they benefited from China’s COVID controls.

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