Without a Covid narrative, China’s censors are unsure what to do

Ever since China abandoned its strict “zero Covid” policy, a joke about the sudden postponement has been making the rounds on social media.

Three men who don’t know each other are in a prison cell. Each explains why they were arrested:
“I spoke out against Covid testing.”
“I supported Covid testing.”
“I did Covid tests.”

The joke has yet to be largely censored. It’s a sign of how much the Chinese Communist Party, normally a master at messaging, is struggling to come up with a coherent explanation for the policy shift and clear direction on what to do with an explosion of cases now exceeding medical care of the country are threatening resources.

So staggering was the move that even two weeks later, the state’s powerful propaganda and censorship system still hasn’t caught up with the tide of confusion and criticism seeping through the country’s typically tight internet controls.

Aside from setting the new Covid rules, the official Chinese media still haven’t given much guidance from leaders on the situation. The country’s hundreds of thousands of internet censors, experts say, have received no guidance on what to allow and what to delete — and may be confused as what was blocked a month ago is now official guidance. Many Chinese have wondered why they endured years of severe lockdowns and travel restrictions, only for the leadership to abandon them and allow the virus to spread unchecked.

For China’s leaders, maintaining public confidence depends in part on a difficult task: finding a narrative that makes sense of the reversal.

In the weeks since the end of “zero Covid,” China’s all-encompassing propaganda and censorship machine has slipped into its old routine of deleting negative press and circulating posts with “positive energy” praising the struggles of individuals and the government. However, experts said the three-year trauma caused by the strict pandemic measures and the last-minute about-face will make it difficult for people to get by quickly.

“It will be impossible for everyone to completely forget. Many will remember ‘zero Covid’ deeply and clearly,” said Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies China’s propaganda. However, this may not result in a widespread loss of confidence in government, he added, noting that “people still have ways of reassuring themselves that things don’t seem so bad now”.

So far, propagandists have stuck to past norms in dealing with the crisis. They avoided excessive mentions of policy change, instead emphasizing social stability. State media has sympathetically described the situation as “stressful” but otherwise portrayed it as a well-orchestrated decision to overcome a virus that is no longer as deadly as it once was.

Across the country, acute shortages of medicines, videos of people overcrowding hospitals and long lines outside crematoria and funeral homes stood in stark contrast to the seven deaths reported by the government this week. On Tuesday, health officials said only deaths from coronavirus-induced pneumonia and respiratory failure were attributed to Covid.

Anger soon erupted online, with many accusing authorities of double standards based on their frequent and detailed reporting of Covid death statistics from overseas, particularly Europe and the United States. Many used the hashtag #WhatIsTheCriteriaForDeathByCovid in complaints Tuesday. Censorship began blocking such posts on Wednesday.

People wrote about the deaths of their relatives and urged others not to trust the propaganda that Covid is now like the flu. A blood bank called on college students for urgent donations. Cancellations of travel reservations for the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday surged as people opted to stay at home.

State media coverage of the country’s top leadership has avoided the ongoing outbreak. On Monday, an op-ed in People’s Daily justified the new policy, saying it will have a “significant positive effect” on economic recovery. While the play said that “there’s a lot of work to be done,” it stopped acknowledging the mess it caused.

In some ways, the approach is similar to that used when the virus first broke out in Wuhan almost three years ago. Even as the crisis deepened, the official mouthpieces of the Communist Party at the time emphasized government control of the situation and avoided content that might set off alarms. China’s leader Xi Jinping disappeared from the public spotlight to shield himself from possible criticism. After the virus was contained, Mr. Xi appeared triumphantly in the city.

This time, Chinese officials may be taking longer to regain news of a medical crisis caused by a virus that has been killing hundreds of thousands in major countries like India and the United States as waves of disease have overwhelmed medical facilities. Aside from general comments on coordinating Covid prevention measures, Mr Xi said he has remained silent. He hasn’t said anything directly about the recent spike in cases.

Right now, experts say, both censors and propaganda officials seem to be struggling to figure out what to do.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a planned or orchestrated propaganda plan. It’s more because the general direction has changed, so the propaganda suddenly has to follow suit,” Mr. Fangen said. A big test will come as the virus spreads to smaller, rural areas with insufficient medical resources, he said.

A small but vocal chorus has been declaring the abrupt and incoherent policy changes online. Asong Yu, a 30-year-old finance worker in northeast China, has sardonically and indirectly questioned the sudden changes and lack of explanation.

In a post, Mr. Yu shared a response from viral AI-powered chatbot ChatGPT to the question “Are there pigs that can do 180?” He had particular venom for those he called “epidemic prevention enthusiasts,” nationalists who had previously parroted the government’s position on ‘zero Covid’, only to be let down by Beijing’s about-face. Online he called them: “abandoned dogs being beaten by their owners.”

“The previous propaganda is completely opposite to the current one. I think as stupid as some people are, they’re going to have to wake up,” Mr. Yu said in an interview.

So father, Mr. Yu’s posts escaped the censor’s knife. In part, that’s because there are no obvious ways to deal with such a major reversal. Censors must decide whether to delete some of the official posts supporting ‘zero Covid’ for years and how much to tolerate a renewed zeal for lifting lockdowns.

Some people online have already encouraged others to go out and get Covid to build immunity. Some college students, for example, have complained over the past month about not being able to catch the virus and fear they will get sick during grad school entrance exams scheduled for this week.

The sudden change in Chinese policy has created chaos and confusion among tech companies hiring their own censors and accounts supporting the party that follows the official line, said Eric Liu, a former Weibo censor turned analyst at China Digital Times, a news website tracking censorship in China.

“I haven’t seen a very clear, persistent censorship order yet, so I think it has something to do with the chaos that they’re self-contradicting,” Mr. Liu said, noting that Beijing most likely hasn’t figured out an official narrative have. That, in turn, has prevented the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s internet regulator, from issuing uniform orders to censors.

“Regulated narrative is definitely going to happen, but we don’t know when it’s going to happen,” he said.

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