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Talking Out of Both Sides of the Face Mask: Propaganda and Practice in the Age of Coronavirus

February 14, 2020

As the grip of the coronavirus continues to tighten, local governments are at the forefront of efforts to implement ever-stricter regulations aimed at stopping the epidemic in its tracks. Just this week, for example, the Zhangwan District of Shiyan City in Hubei Province issued a notice on implementing “wartime management and control” of the entire district to begin at midnight on February 12 (see excerpts of HRIC translation below and full text here). These extreme measures include sealing off entrances and exits of all buildings and prohibiting residents to enter or exit all buildings. Except for official vehicles, no vehicles will be allowed to enter or exit building areas. Residents’ basic necessities are to be supplied at intervals and prices determined by neighborhood committees.

That very same day, CCTV broadcast a news item called “Life will continue, and construction will continue,” showing several residents taking walks in a park without masks on.

The incongruence is striking. On the one hand, residents are imprisoned in their homes, and local government officials are implementing wartime restrictions—sealing doors, blocking roads, intercepting parcels, and imposing fines and punishments. On the other, central media paints a rosy picture of citizens enjoying leisurely walks and more generally of life continuing as though such massive disruptions were not taking place.

Of course, this is a strategy the Chinese government is adept at: Creating and deploying two narratives, one for external propaganda and the other for actual implementation. By all accounts, government officials at all levels of government knew the ugly truth of what is unfolding for some time, but chose to withhold much of it from the public—even going so far as to   summon and issue warnings against those few brave medical workers who sought to warn friends and family about the rise of the virus. But once this was revealed, and particularly after one of these  medical staff, Dr. Li Wenliang, passed away as a result of the disease he warned friends about, public anger has soared to unprecedented levels.

In response, the central government was quick to make scapegoats of a few officials in Wuhan, using a tried-and-true strategy to squarely blame local government actors and absolve those at the top. At the same time, the central government also sought to try and coopt the sacrifice of Dr. Li and sideline competing public narratives.  This, too, is a political strategy that the Chinese Party-state has used early and often: Blocking, censoring, or discrediting any but officially sanctioned media reports. The end result is that ordinary people are deprived of their fundamental rights to access of information, while government propaganda actively seeks to mislead or misdirect public attention.

In the case of the coronavirus, however, notable official missteps may mean that this strategy may not work as well as it has in the past. First, the draconian measures being forced upon nearly all citizens belie the government’s message that anything resembling ordinary life may continue. In addition to the Zhangwan District provisions, for example, the Standing Committee of the Guangzhou Municipal People’s Congress issued a “Decision” on February 11 to allow the municipal and district governments of Guangzhou to conduct “emergency requisitioning” of houses, facilities, and materials “when such requisition is necessary”—a phrase left ominously undefined in the directive.

 Second, the authorities’ mishandling of the death of Dr. Li Wenliang—initially by having state media grotesquely posture for hours that he still lived, and then by launching an intense online censorship effort when millions of citizens voiced their outrage online—has inspired rather than discouraged broad swathes of the public to assert their right to freedom of information and expression. This time, it seems, sacrificing a few local officials and broadcasting a few propaganda videos may simply not be enough to rekindle the trust of Chinese citizens in their government, or otherwise reconcile them to what is to come in the grim months ahead.

Emergency Notice from Zhangwan District on Implementing Districtwide Wartime Management and Control

The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Epidemic Prevention Command Division of Zhangwan District, Shiyan City, Hubei Province

February 12, 2020

[English translation by HRIC]

Strict isolation of households and group prevention and group treatment are scientific measures to prevent pneumonia stemming from novel coronavirus infection, and a pressing requirement for safeguarding the health and lives of the people and masses. In order to reduce the movement of people, force the exposure of the source of the infection, curb the spread of the epidemic, and avoid long-term [resource] consumption, in accordance with relevant laws and regulations such as the Public Security Administration Punishment Law, the Law on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, and the Regulations on the Urgent Handling of Public Health Emergencies, [we] hereby announce the following matters concerning the emergency implementation of wartime management and control in the Zhangwan jurisdiction:

1. All buildings will implement full sealing-off management. All residents who are not medical personnel, medical supplies practitioners, anti-epidemic government personnel, or practitioners [involved in the supply of] basic needs of the people including water, electricity, oil, and gas; communications networks; and food and vegetables will not be allowed to enter or exit buildings.

2. All neighborhoods, courtyards, and residential points shall be strictly sealed and controlled. All vehicles that are not epidemic prevention vehicles, official vehicles, medical personnel vehicles, and trucks, or specialized vehicles including ambulances, fire trucks, rescue vehicles, and police vehicles, are prohibited from entering and exiting [buildings].

. . .

See full text of translation.

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