Even as it abruptly swung from zero-Covid to dismantling the bulk of its coronavirus restrictions, one thing has been remarkably consistent in China’s pandemic response: a unique focus on narrative control.
In early 2020, this meant censorship of social media posts about the Death of a doctor and whistleblower; Prohibition of the term “Wuhan virus”; Lobbying the World Health Organization Avoid the name SARS-CoV-2; and the nation’s pandemic response as “people’s war‘ – a collective struggle that the decadent and freedom-loving West, as Chinese officials put it, could not and would not fight.
More than two years later, in late 2022, Beijing suddenly reversed course. The “people’s war” gave way Rhetoric about personal responsibility– a convenient way for officials to avoid finger pointing and to protect the party apparatus from it deadly consequences an ill-planned, ill-prepared transition to “living” with the coronavirus.
Authorities tried to downplay the risks of Covid, Change in Chinese term for covid from “novel coronavirus pneumonia” to “novel coronavirus infection” and rolling out senior medical experts on state television to insist that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus “not scary.”
Now, as the coronavirus races through the Chinese population, it must contend with a surge in cases and deaths. Beijing has already been severely forced to do so revise the Covid death toll to 60,000– from only several dozen – for the period from December 8th to January 12th. This is very likely still an undercount based on modeling by researchers.
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That number is likely to get much worse. That is what the British health analysis company Airfinity predicts up to 36,000 Covid deaths per day during the busy Lunar New Year seasonif usually hundreds of millions all over China come home for the holidays.
Censor away the pandemic gloom
With its elderly and vulnerable population not sufficiently vaccinated, and few who have received a fourth dose of Covid vaccine, authorities have limited ability to significantly reduce cases and deaths. But the Chinese government has a tried-and-tested tactic up its sleeve: censorship.
In an opinion published yesterday (January 18, link in Chinese), the Cyberspace Administration of China—the country’s top Internet regulator– Outlined steps in his Spring Festival Internet Environment Fix campaign.
Among other things, censors were ordered to erase “dark emotions” as part of their mission to “step up rectification of pandemic-related rumors online.”
It will also ban all content that “incites social panic,” including content that “manufactures pandemic trends” and “spreads fictional patient experiences.” Online posts that use writing about the trip home as an excuse to “spread fear” and “play up the dark side of society” will also be cleaned up.
Of course, the Chinese authorities have carte blanche to consider anything uncomfortable or unfavorable to the regime as a “rumour.” Sadly, tragedies will unfold nationwide as Covid rampages sweep through communities. Whether these stories will be publicly told and remembered is another matter.