Images of health workers have dominated the airwaves as the government tries to shield itself from public rage over the handling of the deadly outbreak Photo: AFP
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Heroes and villains: Beijing crafts its narrative on virus outbreak

15 Comments
By Jing Xuan TENG

China's government is purging unpopular local officials and commandeering heroic stories of doctors on the frontline as it tries to shield itself from public rage over the handling of the deadly coronavirus epidemic.

Facing the biggest challenge of his presidency, Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has cast the crisis as a "people's war" and state media have gone into overdrive to regain control of public opinion.

Images of doctors and nurses in masks and full protective suits, leaving their families behind to care for patients, have dominated the airwaves.

Government censors, meanwhile, have made rare exceptions to allow for criticism online -- but mostly when directed at local officials accused of negligence in central Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

One comment that was allowed to circulate on the Twitter-like Weibo platform declared that "scores should be settled against all the officials in Wuhan after the crisis", which has claimed more than 1,500 lives and infected some 66,000 people.

An investigation into health inspectors in neighbouring Hunan province who had leaked residents' personal information also became a trending search on the platform.

On Thursday, the political chiefs of Hubei and Wuhan were sacked and replaced with Xi loyalists with security backgrounds. The province's top two health officials were also fired.

Senior Beijing law enforcement official Chen Yixin was also appointed to manage local efforts against the epidemic.

Every part of Beijing's messaging is designed to "deflect from the centre: failings at the local level, the heroism of medical staff, the resilience and unity of the Chinese people in the face of great difficulties," Jonathan Sullivan, a China expert from the University of Nottingham, said.

In Hubei, local Red Cross leaders had also come under fire on Weibo for allegedly mismanaging donations of masks and other medical supplies.

Authorities reacted quickly, sacking the local Red Cross vice president Zhang Qin for dereliction of duty.

The death of Li Wenliang, a whistleblowing doctor punished in January by Wuhan police for sending text messages about the illness, prompted a national outpouring of grief and anger that Beijing was quick to redirect towards local officials.

The 34-year-old, who died after contracting the virus from a patient, was mourned on Weibo but his death also triggered calls for freedom of speech and the downfall of the Communist Party.

Within hours, however, hashtags and posts related to free speech disappeared from the platform.

Two open letters, including one signed by 10 professors in Wuhan, were circulated on social media days later but were quickly removed by censors.

At the same time, the central government announced that it would send a team to Wuhan to investigate how Li's case had been handled.

State media and officials sought to paint Li as a hero who was part of a "joint" battle against the epidemic.

Chinese ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming denied in a BBC interview that "Chinese authorities" had punished Li, emphasising it was local authorities who had done so.

"Let's win battle against novel coronavirus for deceased Doctor Li," the People's Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, urged readers.

Other individuals have also been singled out by state media and government representatives as heroes, usually for making massive individual sacrifices.

State news agency Xinhua highlighted on Tuesday 87-year-old Ni Suying, a woman from Chongqing in the southwest, who had donated 30 years savings to help fight the epidemic.

"Salute to these angels!#EverydayHero," reads a tweet by the People's Daily showing nurses with marks and sores on their faces left by the masks they have worn during hours of duty.

The focus on individual sacrifice "obscures the state's failure to discharge its duty to provide public safety," Ling Li, a lecturer in Chinese politics at the University of Vienna, said.

Tear-jerking "hero" stories distract from a "rational understanding of the causal link between the mess of a crisis and the origin of the crisis," Li told AFP.

But there are signs the tolerance for public criticism of officials is beginning to end.

Multiple people took to Weibo last week to complain that they had been permanently locked out of their WeChat accounts for allegedly spreading misinformation, after posting about the epidemic in the popular social media app.

The officials brought in to replace the sacked Hubei leaders have strong backgrounds in security, "hinting at the emphasis on maintaining stability," Sullivan told AFP.

At the start, "the flow of information coming out from citizens and Chinese journalists was too abundant to contain," Sullivan said.

Now, "an element of narrative control has been re-established," he said.

© 2020 AFP

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.


15 Comments
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On Thursday, the political chiefs of Hubei and Wuhan were sacked and replaced with Xi loyalists with security backgrounds.

Pretty obvious who the villains are here

10 ( +11 / -1 )

The truth will be revealed, one day.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

@zichiThe truth will be revealed, one day.

Perhaps. However, authoritarian systems led by a leader appointed for life backed by a single party that limits and even brutalizes opposition can easily manipulate data and info to protect themselves. And who knows whether China can influence how accurately 'global' institutions like WHO report data and info. This is the post-truth era when so many of the globe's leaders have shown they have zero regard for being honest. While countries like the US cut budgets for disease control.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

China appoints its top military bio-warfare expert to take over secretive virus lab in Wuhan, The Wuhan Institute of Virology. The lab is run by the military.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Never my fault narrative strikes again.

You know a system is bad when the one party in power refuses to take responsibility for anything.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

"scores should be settled against all the officials in Wuhan after the crisis",

King Xi and his elite, Commie cronies are scapegoating low-level local officials to save themselves. Any criticism of Xi and his henchmen will see people disappear, never seen again.

When Communism falls - and it will - when King Xi is in the dustbin of history like evil Chairman Mao, we will learn the enormous extent of this disgracefully handled man-made disaster. The numbers of infected and dead, I fear, will be astonishing. All killed by an evil regime.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Who does the low-level officials answer to? Xi and his henchmen. The communist party is at the root of the fault no matter which way they try to paint it.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Standard CCP behavior, shift blame down, punish scapegoats, paint a pretty patrituc picture, protect the party.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

I hope that one day, the people will rise against this authoritarian, disgusting regime.

A regime that has very little to do with actual communism.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Well, CCP spinning their own narrative again because, "Our political party is ALWAYS RIGHT!"

Good luck saving "face" CCP... it will never work with real world facts and consequences.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Socialists always believe that avoiding accountability is as big a goal as standing up to whatever crisis is at hand.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

@Toasted: A regime that has very little to do with actual communism.

You mean the ‘actual communism’ that led to the starvation of 10’s of millions of Chinese in the 50 and 60’s?

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

You mean the ‘actual communism’ that led to the starvation of 10’s of millions of Chinese in the 50 and 60’s

Were they following the tenets of Communism? You do realize that’s how it’s defined right? Not by whether it’s disliked.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Socialists always believe that avoiding accountability is as big a goal as standing up to whatever crisis is at hand.

And then back in reality, the socialists I know are responsible people who take accountability for their actions and are upstanding citizens.

I think that I can explain the discrepancy though. I’m speaking of socialists. You’re speaking of a boogeyman you’ve decided to label socialists.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Socialists always believe that avoiding accountability is as big a goal as standing up to whatever crisis is at hand.

Actually, that couldn't be further from the truth. Socialism is all about collective responsibility.

You mean the ‘actual communism’ that led to the starvation of 10’s of millions of Chinese in the 50 and 60’s?

That horrific period, has nothing to do with communism and all to do with an autocratic leadership under which so many suffered. Confusing communism with socialism and both ideologies with such authoritarian regimes as Xi's and Mao's is a novice mistake for some, and misdirection by others.

Meanwhile, journalists, critics and medical experts continue to go missing. Their crime? For speaking out.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/15/xi-critic-professor-this-may-be-last-piece-i-write-words-ring-true

4 ( +4 / -0 )

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