Immediately after Beijing said it discovered a new coronavirus outbreak, officials rushed to assure residents there was no reason to panic. Food was plentiful, they said, and any lockdown measures would run smoothly. But Evelyn Zheng, a freelance writer in the city, didn’t take any chances.
Her relatives, who lived in Shanghai, urged her to leave or stock up on food. For weeks she had delved into social media posts from that city, documenting the chaos and fear of the months-long lockdown there. And when she went out to buy more food, it was clear that many of her neighbors had the same idea: some of the shelves had already been cleared.
“At first I was worried about Shanghai because my family is there and there was no good news from my friends,” said Ms. Zheng. “Now Beijing is also starting, and I don’t know when it will land on my head.”
Anger and concern over the closure of Shanghai, now in its fourth week, posed a rare challenge to China’s powerful propaganda apparatus, which is central to the Communist Party’s ability to suppress 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 triumphant story of their Covid response, stating that only the Chinese government had the will to confront and stop the virus.
But among a population with growing evidence of the costs of that approach, another story — of anger, frustration and despair — is finding an audience. If not contained, the anger could pose the biggest political test to China’s leadership since the outbreak began. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has put his legitimacy on the line for successful containment of the pandemic, a message that has only been reinforced ahead of this fall, when he is expected to claim an unprecedented third term.
Since the start of the lockdown in Shanghai, residents there have railed against harsh measures, which have led to food shortages, delayed medical care, poor quarantine conditions and even physical fencing around residents’ homes. Officials have responded with their usual playbook, censoring critical posts, flooding state media with positive stories and blaming foreign troops for fueling false reports. But far from controlling the anger, they have fueled it.
Residents have compiled images of their daily lives, showing rotting food or shouting matches with local officials, disproving authorities’ story of a neat, upbeat response to the outbreak. They’ve teamed up to repost deleted content with a speed and sleight of hand 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 damaging its credibility.
The failure of typical narrative control tools speaks in part to Shanghai’s status as a financial capital, home to many internet-savvy elites. But it also underlines the urgent nature of the complaints. These are not the abstract political critiques or one-off news stories that the propaganda machine has become adept at suffocating or spinning. They are born of life-or-death scenarios, with an immediacy not easily taken away by censors.
“The reality is that official propaganda has been quite successful in recent years, or at least has rarely encountered such strong opposition,” Fang Kecheng, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies media and politics. “We see that this is not a normal situation. The temperature of public opinion is very different.”
Anger and grief in Shanghai reached a new high last weekend, when large numbers of people shared a video detailing residents’ experiences of the authorities’ failures. The six-minute video, called “Voices of April,” overlapped black-and-white images of the city’s skyline with voice recordings from the past month: of residents chanting the government to provide supplies; of a son begging for his ailing father to be hospitalized; from a tearful officer explaining to a frustrated caller that she too was exhausted and helpless.
The video, first posted by an anonymous social media user, was quickly removed. But users embarked on a cat-and-mouse game of keeping it out of censorship, turning it upside down, embedding it in separate images, or adding the audio to unrelated clips. In a temporary post, the video was played on a cartoon computer watched by SpongeBob SquarePants in the back of the Krusty Krab.
According to Xiao Qiang, an internet freedom researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, the scale of censorship required to silence dissent is “too big this time.” He compared the removals of the video and other complaints from Shanghai to the massive efforts to erase the mourning for Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who was reprimanded by police for giving an early warning about the outbreak, then died. itself to the coronavirus.
“The censorship is more effective than it was two years ago, but this shows its limits. They cannot solve the root of the problem. People see the government could miss this to the point of disaster,” said Mr Xiao, pointing to emerging complaints that the zero-Covid policy could be self-defeating and unrealistic.
When state media touted the construction of large makeshift hospitals to house patients or their closest contacts, residents were quick to offer their own opinions. In a podcast last week, two young Shanghai residents recently sent to those facilities described seeing elderly or disabled patients struggle using squat toilets, or begging to be sent to an actual hospital.
An accompanying article to 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 from the host.
Another reliable tactic for authorities is to blame negative news on foreign forces seeking to undermine China. But that too has gone awry. When a hashtag attacking the United States’ human rights record began to gain popularity on Chinese social media, some re-used it as a way to complain about China, listing recent issues and sarcastically attributing them to America. The film’s title “La La Land” was censored after some used it online to allude to a time when a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, told foreign journalists that they should be happy to live in China because they benefited from China’s Covid controls.
At times, public skepticism about the official line has been so intense that it has forced the authorities to respond.
Earlier this month, a Shanghai television station announced plans to broadcast a star-studded variety show, complete with song and dance, to celebrate the government’s response to the outbreak. But after furious online reactions, the channel postponed the broadcast. “We welcome everyone’s valuable feedback,” it wrote on Weibo.
Several days later, the state broadcaster CCTV showed a video of shoppers walking past piles of vegetables in a supermarket in Shanghai. Many online accused them of staging the footage, citing their own inability to leave their homes or get food. Ultimately, the Shanghai government issued a statement pledging that the images were 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 supermarket shelves and long cash registers were censored.
But those in charge of pushing the official message have not escaped the unease that Shanghai inspired either.
On Sunday, Liu Xin, a Beijing reporter for a state television channel, said wrote on social media that she had been shopping, she wrote “Beijing’s turn” and “let the hard times come” alongside images of empty shelves. (The next day, she’d deleted the post and uploaded photos of a seemingly well-stocked store.)
Other official outlets have chosen not to directly acknowledge the fear of lockdown at all.
While some Beijing residents rushed to buy extra freezers to store more food, the state-run Beijing Evening News wrote a short article about the surge in appliance purchases. It reported that a seller had sold more than 300 freezers on Sunday — the equivalent of a month’s usual sale.
But the article did not mention the epidemic: “The main reason for the hot sale of freezers is that their volume is relatively small and their price is cheap, so it is a good addition to household refrigerators.”
Joy Dong research contributed.