BEIJING – China’s government has relied on familiar propaganda tricks to quell an unusual outpouring of public discontent over its perceived mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak.
From renewed rhetorical attacks against the United States, a presidential publicity campaign, media censorship and a purge of local officials, Beijing’s efforts to reel in dissent is palpable.
Public anger on social media hit fever pitch after Dr. Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded by officials for “spreading rumors” after he voiced an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak, died from the disease.
Li has since been heralded as a hero by many social media users in China.
“There is something historical happening right now in China,” said a Chinese citizen who spoke to EFE on the condition of anonymity. “There is a hero who passed away silently with a noble epitaph built by millions of people’s prayers, tears, and anger.”
“There are millions of ordinary people in the country who are awake, but silenced.”
Authorities have meticulously removed such messages from the Internet.
But a few days after the explosion of online criticism, China’s President Xi Jinping paid a visit to a Beijing hospital where, donning a protective face mask and surrounded by cameras, he met with a group of patients.
The visit, according to state media, showed he was “leading the struggle of the Chinese people against the coronavirus.”
The propaganda reel is not limited to TV sets. In the streets, huge billboards relay messages to passersby.
Hanging over a popular tourist spot in Beijing – which is currently void of visitors – one banner reads: “The prevention and control of the epidemic is everyone’s responsibility.”
Local officials in Hubei province, ground zero for the disease that has since been named COVID-19, have been felled in a purge.
Hubei province’s Communist Party chief was replaced Thursday by Ying Yong, a relation of President Xi who had until now been the mayor of Shanghai.
Two senior officials of the Hubei health commission were also relieved of their duties and replaced by the deputy director of the National Health Commission, Wang Hesheng, who is part of a government committee specifically created to tackle the coronavirus.
One of the outstanding tasks for Xi is to convince the public there will be no lasting economic damage inflicted by the virus.
“I think that more Chinese are complaining about the way the coronavirus crisis has been handled but that the political consequences will remain limited,” Professor Jean Pierre Cabestan, Head of the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, told EFE.
“Li Wenliang’s death has had a big impact for some asking for freedom of speech, but the government is not going to change. The crisis has been compared to Chernobyl: the problem is that Xi Jinping is no Gorbachev, he looks more like Brezhnev.”
Cabestan said Xi’s actions aimed to reassure the public and settle his critics, highlighting the fact that the judiciary has already contradicted the local police account of Li’s death and that a team of investigators had been tasked with digging deeper into what happened.
“But not much is going to change; the Chinese Communist Party has already criticized foreigners who are trying to use Li death to blame the regime.”
“Xi wants to use the crisis to consolidate his regime’s legitimacy as well as his own legitimacy; my view is that he will basically succeed at keeping the critics in China weak and silenced.”
Exhaustive media coverage of the construction of a hospital in just 10 days or the mobilization of 4,000 doctors to combat the outbreak is another key element in the state propaganda reel.
In Wuhan, which has been in a state of de facto quarantine since late last month, Chinese state press became the sole provider of international news.
Joseph Cheng, a Hong Kong political analyst and democracy activist said the Chinese government had sent an army 300 journalists there to generate positive coverage of the city.
He also noted Xi’s decision to order the resumption of economic activity in a bid to keep up production.
“This a gamble. To maintain a sense of normalcy, Xi has not canceled the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference sessions in March yet,” he added.
“China’s medical experts are talking about the epidemic reaching its peak in late February. This is far too optimistic, but in line with what the leadership wants,” he added.
A reliable tactic for the Chinese government is to find a foreign enemy and to play the victim. The state-run Global Times newspaper has in recent weeks rolled out a number of opinion pieces lambasting the US’ apparently harmful measures against the coronavirus.
The paper’s editorials have accused the West of fueling panic and of harnessing the outbreak as an opportunity to launch a propaganda war against China.