China’s ‘absurd’ Covid propaganda sparks rebellion

“We have won the great battle against Covid!”

“History will remember those who contributed!”

“Extinguish every shoot!”

These are among the many battle-battle-style slogans that Beijing has unleashed to rally support around its top-down, zero-tolerance policies against the coronavirus.

China is now one of the last places in the world trying to eliminate covid-19, and the Communist Party has relied heavily on propaganda to justify ever-longer lockdowns and onerous testing requirements that can sometimes lead to three tests per week.

The barrage of messaging — online and on television, loudspeakers and social platforms — has become so overbearing that some citizens say it has drowned out their frustrations, downplayed the reality of the country’s strict coronavirus rules and at times bordering on the absurd.

By day 8 of a citywide lockdown in Shanghai this spring, Jason Xue had no more food in his fridge. However, when he clicked the government social media accounthe noted that a top city official had vowed to “do everything possible” to address food shortages.

Government assistance did not appear until four weeks later, Xue said.

“I was extremely angry, panicked and desperate,” said Mr. Xue, who works for a financial communications firm. He eventually turned to the neighbors for help. “The propaganda was resolute and decisive, but it was different from the reality that we didn’t even know if we could have the next meal.”

Xi Jinping, the leader of China, has made virus control a “highest political priority.” Thousands of state media and social media accounts have echoed Beijing’s “zero covid” policy and praised the sacrifice of workers trying to control covid-19.

Propaganda has long been one of the Chinese Communist Party’s favorite tools for social control. But in the age of Covid, government use has been in overdrive. According to some estimates, at least 120 propaganda phrases related to Covid have been created since the beginning of the pandemic.

When certain terms risked upsetting large numbers of people, officials simply came up with new ones. The authorities, for example, have changed the word “lockdown” to “static management”, “silent” or “work from home” when referring to certain Covid protocols.

“Words shouldn’t be used that way,” Xiao Qiang, the founder of a California-based website that documents Chinese censorship, said in a phone interview. “The government embellished the policies with political rhetoric, with the aim of mitigating the consequences.”

Authorities now avoid words like “lockdown” because they want people to continue to obey the strict anti-coronavirus measures without panic or resistance, Xiao added. Officials made the language of the policy “ambiguous and awkward,” she said, which has contributed to confusion and frustration.

When people tried to flee quarantine buildings during an earthquake in Sichuan province this year, the epidemic workers were caught on camera. blocking they seek safety.

Videos of the episode were posted online and quickly removed by censors, who said people should “at least bring masks before escaping buildings”, even when an earthquake is “highly destructive”.

For some, the video was a reminder of how the government had used the pandemic to tighten its control over their private lives, telling them when they can leave their apartments, what kinds of food they can buy and which hospitals they can enter.

Kong Lingwanyu, a 22-year-old marketing intern in Shanghai, was upset that officials used the phrase “unless necessary” when describing restrictions related to things like leaving home, dining out or meeting other people.

Ms Kong said she had been told by a local official responsible for carrying out coronavirus policies that she should not “buy unnecessary food”. She said she asked the official what standards the government used to determine what kind of food was necessary.

“Who are you to decide the ‘need’ of others?” she said. “It’s totally absurd and pointless.”

On state television, Beijing’s “nine storm fortification actions” around the pandemic are frequently repeated to keep people in line with Covid policies. The nine actions are: neighborhood closures, mass testing, contact tracing, disinfection, quarantine centers, increased health care capacity, traditional Chinese medicine, neighborhood screening, and prevention of local transmission.

Yang Xiao, a 33-year-old cinematographer from Shanghai who was confined to his apartment for two months during a lockdown this year, had grown tired of them all.

“With the control of Covid, propaganda and state power have expanded and occupied all aspects of our lives,” he said in a telephone interview. Day after day, Mr. Yang heard loudspeakers in his neighborhood repeatedly broadcasting an announcement for the PCR test. He said the ads had disturbed his sleep at night and woke him up at dawn.

“Our life was dictated and disciplined by propaganda and state power,” he said.

To communicate his frustrations, Mr. Yang selected 600 common Chinese propaganda phrases, such as “core conscience”, “obey the general situation” and “the supremacy of the nation”. He gave each sentence a number and then put the numbers into Google’s random generator, a program that encrypts data.

It ended with meaningless phrases such as “detecting the line of life and death of citizens”, “strictly executing functions” and “specializing general plans without slack”. She then used a voice program to read the phrases aloud and played the audio on a speaker in her neighborhood.

No one seemed to notice the five minutes of computer-generated nonsense.

However, when Mr. Yang uploaded a video of the scene online, more than 1.3 million people watched it. Many praised the way he used government language as satire. Chinese propaganda was “too absurd to be criticized using logic,” Yang said. “I simulated the speech as a mirror, reflecting its own absurdity.”

His video was removed by censorship.

Mr. Yang added that he hoped to inspire others to speak out against China’s anti-Covid policies and its use of propaganda in the pandemic. He wasn’t the only Shanghai resident to rebel when the city was put on lockdown.

In June, dozens of residents protested against police and Covid control workers who put up chain-link fences around apartments in the neighborhood. As a protester was pushed into a police car and taken away, one man yelled, “Freedom! Equality! Justice! Rule of law!” Those words would be familiar to most Chinese citizens: they are commonly cited by state media as core socialist values ​​under Xi.