Coronavirus weakens China's powerful propaganda machine

A nurse adjusting his goggles in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Wuha on Feb 22, 2020.
A nurse adjusting his goggles in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Wuha on Feb 22, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - Exhausted medical workers with faces lined from hours of wearing goggles and surgical masks. Women with shaved heads, a gesture of devotion. Retirees who donate their life savings anonymously in government offices.

Beijing is tapping its old propaganda playbook as it battles the relentless coronavirus outbreak, the biggest challenge to its legitimacy in decades. State media is filling smartphones and airwaves with images and tales of unity and sacrifice aimed at uniting the people behind Beijing's rule.

It even briefly offered up cartoon mascots named Jiangshan Jiao and Hongqi Man, characters meant to stir patriotic feelings among the young during the crisis.

The problem for China's leaders: This time, it isn't working so well.

Online, people are openly criticising state media. They have harshly condemned stories of individual sacrifice when front-line medical personnel still lack basic supplies like masks. They shouted down Jiangshan Jiao and Hongqi Man. They have heaped scorn on images of the women with shaved heads, asking whether the women were pressured to do it and wondering why similar images of men weren't appearing.

One critical blog post was titled "News Coverage Should Stop Turning a Funeral Into a Wedding."

Ms Daisy Zhao, 23, a Beijing resident, said she once trusted the official media. Now she fumes over the reports that labelled eight medical workers who tried to warn about the coronavirus threat as rumourmongers. Images and videos of their public reprimand have been widely shared online.

"The official media," Ms Zhao said, "has lost a lot of credibility."

China's propaganda machine, an increasingly sophisticated operation that has helped the Communist Party stay in power for decades, is facing one of its biggest challenges.

The government was slow to disclose the threat of the coronavirus and worked to suppress the voices of those who tried to warn the country. In doing so, it undermined its implicit deal with its people, in which they trade away their individual rights for the promise of security.

To tame public outrage, Beijing is determined to create a "good public opinion environment." It has sent hundreds of state-sponsored journalists to Wuhan and elsewhere to churn out heart-tugging stories about the frontline doctors and nurses and the selfless support from the Chinese public.

China's propaganda spinners have some tough competition. Chinese people have seen images of a young woman crying "Mom! Mom!" as her mother's body was driven away. They have seen a woman banging a homemade gong from her balcony while begging for a hospital bed. They have seen an exhausted nurse breaking down and howling.

And they have all seen the face of Dr Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to warn China about the very virus that killed him.

The crisis has exposed many people, especially the young, to troubling aspects of life under an authoritarian government. In the silencing of people like Dr Li, they see the danger in clamping down on free expression. In the heart-wrenching online pleas for help from patients and hospitals, they see past the facade of an omnipotent government that can get anything done.

Beijing is doing everything it can to take back the narrative. State media is offering steady coverage of people who leave donations at government offices then dash before anyone can give them credit. One compilation of "dropped cash donations and ran away" headlines tallied 41 of them.

Other stories feature medics who join the front lines after "Mom just passed away" or the person "just had a newborn." Beat by beat, the stories sound the same.

In China, admiration of the frontline medical workers is widespread and sincere. But the state media's coverage does not show the reality that many of those workers lack protective gear. Over 3,000 of them have been infected.

"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.'"

The backlash may suggest new attitudes among the young generation toward the state.

"In the past month, many young people have been reading a lot of firsthand information and in-depth media reports about the epidemic on the Internet," said Ms Stephanie Xia, 26, who lives in Shanghai. They were angry and confused by what they learned, she said.

"There's some gap between what the young people are really like and what the government believes what they're like," Ms Xia added.

Despite the growing skepticism, the party state has widespread popular support. While older people who rely on state media make up the bulk, the party still counts on the backing of apolitical young people like Ms Lu Yingxin.

Ms Lu said she was touched by the reports about the sacrifices of the front-line health workers and ordinary people donating money to Wuhan. She was sad about the passing of Dr Li and was not happy that the police accused him of spreading rumours.

Still, she is not disappointed with the government. It has a full plate to deal with, she reasons.

"Even if I say that I don't trust the government, what could I do?" Ms Lu said. "It seems there's nothing I can do."

There is no scientific way to gauge public sentiment in China. But hers is probably a widely shared attitude and one that the Chinese government wants to nurture.

To get there, Beijing has intensified Internet censorship in the past few weeks. Social media accounts have been deleted or suspended. Starting Saturday, online platforms will be subject to new regulations that could ensure even tighter limits.

Some of the older generation are worried that the epidemic will be forgotten just like many other tragedies in China.

"If we can't become a whistleblower like Li Wenliang, then let's be a person who can hear the whistle blowing," Mr Yan Lianke, a novelist, said in a lecture at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in February.

"If we can't speak out loud, then let's become a whisperer," Mr Yan said. "If we can't be a whisperer, then let's become a silent person who remembers and keeps memories … let's become a person with graves in our heart."

In an effort to build a collective memory, thousands of young people are building digital archives of online posts, videos and media stories about the epidemic that have been or are likely to deleted and posting them on the Internet outside the country.