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Communist Party propaganda machine wants ‘heartwarming’ tales from virus-hit central China

Xi Jinping speaks to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 28, 2017. (Ma Zhancheng/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)
February 27, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is cracking down on earlier signs of original news reporting coming out of Wuhan, the central Chinese city worst-hit by the coronavirus epidemic, replacing frontline video on social media with government-approved narratives about brave “heroes” on the front line.

As millions of people remain confined to their homes in central China, the party’s powerful Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission has set up shop in Wuhan to take charge of the stories that emerge from that city, in spite of growing public anger over the lack of transparency in the early stages of the epidemic.

President Xi Jinping’s right-hand man and party secretary of the commission Chen Yixin was dispatched to the city earlier this month. A directive detailing the sort of “propaganda work” Chen wants to see coming out of Wuhan followed soon after, dated Feb. 18.

With at least two prominent citizen journalists — Chen Qiushi and Fang Bing — ‘disappeared’ or otherwise silenced after they posted grim accounts and video clips of hospitals struggling to cope with the onrush of suspected coronavirus patients, the party is now taking charge of the story, ordering only “positive” coverage from state journalists already trained to sing its praises.

“[We must] step up strategic content planning and innovation … promote positive energy and foster a climate of public opinion that is conducive to waging an all-out people’s war on the epidemic,” the directive said.

“We must project the positive image of the commission’s police, grid operatives and other rank-and-file members of the mass surveillance team in the new era,” it said.

“We get our orders and we move out, fearing no hardship, only selfless dedication,” the directive said.

It requires all Communist Party political and legal affairs committees at regional and provincial level to implement the new propaganda requirements, as well as cracking down on “illegal and criminal acts that hinder epidemic prevention and control work.”

‘Singing and tears’

Propaganda work should include “moving stories about the noble deeds of … staunch defenders against the epidemic,” it said, calling for more human interest stories and emotional episodes to paint “a vivid picture of loyalty, selflessness, dedication, singing and tears.”

Content should make targeted use of major social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat, it said, showing “vivid details, personal feelings and touching stories.”

In tandem with Chen’s arrival in Wuhan to take charge of stability maintenance, the party’s central propaganda department has sent more than 300 journalists to Hubei, of which Wuhan is the provincial capital.

They have been tasked with producing propaganda illustrating the disease prevention and control effort from the front line, it said in a statement on Feb. 4.

A video was posted soon after to social media showing Health Times deputy editor Zhao Anping and reporter Zhang He setting off like heroes to report on the epidemic, as colleagues held up a red banner against a soundtrack of rousing music.

Zhang has since poured out a slew of positive stories including news about Wuhan’s huge grain and oil reserves, more than 1,000 new beds in a hastily constructed cabin hospital for coronavirus patients, and stories about patients who have recovered from the COVID-19 coronavirus.

There was scant mention of flooding at the new hospital after the area was hit by high winds, however. Meanwhile, critical reports and commentary have been disappearing rapidly from China’s tightly controlled internet.

Cutting edge opinion blog Dajia was deleted by social media giant Tencent on Feb. 19 and all of its archive removed from the internet after it criticized state media’s coverage of the coronavirus epidemic, which it said was irresponsible and dangerously misleading.

The offending article, penned by veteran Chinese journalist Chen Jibing, had garnered hundreds of comments critical of the lack of press freedom under the Chinese Communist Party.

Vanishing freedom of speech

Dajia’s editor-in-chief Jia Jia told RFA in a recent interview that he had taken the news calmly.

“I was cooking when people told me the news, and I remained very calm,” Jia said. “I finished eating, washed the wok, and sat down. Then I started thinking about it.”

“I can’t really feel optimistic or pessimistic,” he said. “I am an old man, and we journalists are used to this sort of thing.”

He said that since President Xi took power in 2012 and starting an ever-widening crackdown on social media content, freedom of speech has disappeared in China.

“The biggest problem of all is the media,” Jia said. “The epidemic is so serious, and the last Dajia article was titled ‘Is there a link between freedom of speech and the public health of a country?”

“Wouldn’t you say that was a huge problem?”

Jia said the government is also using existing censorship mechanisms to delete private groups on WeChat and to delete the accounts of anyone posting unapproved content about the coronavirus.

Wuhan-based journalist Ao Li said many of her friends on WeChat have had their accounts deleted.

“I had a lot of unanswered messages in the past few days, but when I came to reply to them one by one, I found that a lot of my old friends had had their accounts deleted,” she said.

“Our country is sick, and I don’t just mean the epidemic,” she wrote via a messaging app.

“No news is being allowed to be reported at all out of Hubei and Wuhan,” Ao said. “[Journalists] aren’t allowed to do what [the authorities] call negative reporting.”

“Caixin is still in business, but this whole [censorship] thing is beyond excessive,” she said.

She said some journalists are still recording what they see and hear in Wuhan, but there is scant hope that it will ever appear in any publication in China.

“This is what it’s like reporting in China. You can get it all on record, but when you can use it?” she said with a sigh.

A Beijing resident who gave only a nickname Sander said his Weibo account had been deleted after he retweeted a post calling on the government to apologize to late whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, who died of coronavirus on Feb. 6.

“My account was gone, with no warning,” he said. “My friends told me to keep quiet.”