China lockdown outrage tests propaganda limits

Immediately after Beijing said it had detected a new coronavirus outbreak, officials were quick to reassure residents that there was no reason to panic. Food was plentiful, they said, and any lockdown measures would go smoothly. But Evelyn Zheng, a freelance writer from the city, didn’t risk it.

Relatives who lived in Shanghai urged her to leave or stock up on food. She has spent weeks poring over social media posts from the city that document the chaos and anguish of a month-long lockdown. And when she went to buy more food, it was clear that many of her neighbors had the same idea: some of the shelves had already been cleaned.

“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 starting too, and I don’t know when it will fall on my head.”

Anger and anxiety over the Shanghai lockdown, now in its fourth week, has become a rare problem for China’s powerful propaganda apparatus, which plays a central role in the Communist Party’s ability to quell dissent. As the Omicron variant continues to roll out across the country, officials are defending the use of widespread hard-locks. They put forward a triumphant version of their response to Covid, saying that only the Chinese government had the will to confront and contain the virus.

But among a population with growing evidence of the costs of such an approach, the alternative story – about anger, frustration and despair – is finding an audience. Anger, if not contained, could be the biggest political test for China’s leadership since the outbreak began. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has gambled on his legitimacy through his successful fight against the pandemic, and that message has only intensified ahead of this fall, when he is expected to seek an unprecedented third term.

Since the lockdown began in Shanghai, residents have been protesting the crackdown that has led to food shortages, delayed medical care, poor quarantine conditions, and even physical fencing around the houses of the inhabitants. Officials responded with their usual game play, censoring critical messages, flooding the state media with positive stories, and accusing foreign forces of spreading lies. But not only did they not contain the anger, but they kindled it.

Residents have compiled footage of their daily lives, showing rotting food or screaming matches with local authorities, debunking the authorities’ story of a neat and joyful response to the outbreak. They banded together to repost deleted content with a speed and agility that for a time surpassed the censors’ ability to keep up. Even some members of the political and academic elite have suggested that government propaganda against Shanghai undermines its credibility.

The failure of typical narrative management tools speaks in part to Shanghai’s status as a financial capital, home to a large Internet-savvy elite. But it also highlights the urgency of the complaints. This is not abstract political criticism or one-off news that the propaganda machine has learned to suppress or spin. They are born out of life-or-death scripts, with an immediacy that censors can’t easily remove.

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

Rage and sadness in Shanghai reached a new peak over the weekend, when a huge number of people shared a video showing how residents survived the failures of the authorities. A six minute video titled “Voices of April‘, black-and-white images of the city’s skyline are overlaid with voice recordings from the past month: residents chanting for the government to provide supplies; about a son begging to put his sick father in the hospital; a weeping official explaining to a frustrated caller that she, too, is exhausted and helpless.

The video, first posted by an anonymous social media user, was quickly taken down. But users have entered into a cat-and-mouse game to hide it from censors by placing it upside down, embedding it in separate images, or adding audio over unrelated clips. In one roundabout post, the video was playing on a cartoon computer that SpongeBob SquarePants was watching in the back of the Krusty Krab.

According to Xiao Qiang, an internet freedom researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, the amount of censorship needed to crack down on dissent is “too much this time.” He likened the removal of videos and other complaints from Shanghai to a massive effort to eradicate mourning for Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who was reprimanded by police for early warning of the outbreak and then died of the coronavirus himself.

“Censorship is more effective than it was two years ago, but this shows its limit. They cannot solve the root of the problem. People see that the government can make mistakes, even to the point of disaster,” Mr Xiao said, pointing to emerging complaints that a 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 were quick to offer their opinion. AT podcast Last week, two young Shanghai residents who were recently sent to these facilities said they saw elderly or disabled patients struggling to use the squat toilets or begging to be sent to a real hospital.

The accompanying recording of the podcast episode was censored within two days, but not before it had been viewed more than 10 million times, according to Blog Post owner.

Another reliable policy tactic has typically been to blame the bad news on foreign forces bent on undermining China. But this, too, has come to a standstill. When the hashtag attacking the U.S. reputation for human rights went viral on Chinese social media, some used it as a way to complain about China, listing recent problems and sarcastically attributing them to America. The film’s title “La La Land” was censored after some netizens used it to refer to the moment when Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told foreign journalists that they should be happy living in China because they benefited from China’s Covid control.

At times, public skepticism of the official line was so strong that it forced the authorities to react.

Earlier this month, a Shanghai-based TV channel announced plans to broadcast a star-studded song-and-dance variety show focusing on the government’s response to the outbreak. But after a violent reaction on the network, the channel postponed the broadcast. “We welcome everyone’s valuable feedback,” he wrote on Weibo.

A few days later, state broadcaster CCTV aired a video of shoppers walking past a pile 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 get food. After all, the Shanghai government made a statement assuring that the footage was genuine.

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

But those tasked with pushing the official message have also not escaped the unease that Shanghai has caused.

On Sunday, Liu Xin, a correspondent for the state television station in Beijing, wrote on social media that she stocked up on groceries, writing “hell Beijing” and “may the hard times come” next to pictures of empty shelves. (The next day, she deleted the post and uploaded photos of what appeared to be a fully stocked store.)

Other mainstream media chose not to acknowledge concerns about the lockdown at all.

As some Beijing residents rushed to buy additional freezers to be able to store more food, the state-run Beijing Evening News published a short article about the surge in home appliance purchases. One seller reportedly sold more than 300 freezers on Sunday, the equivalent of one month’s normal sales.

But article did not mention the epidemic: “The main reason for the hot sales of freezers is that their volume is relatively small and the price is cheap, so they are a good addition to household refrigerators.”

Joy Dong contributed to research.