At China Media Project, David Bandurski examined the use of emotive “kitsch” propaganda amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, and its frequent recruitment of frontline medical workers as heroic warriors in the shared national battle. This continues a theme earlier struck over the late doctor and “rumormonger”-turned-whistleblower Li Wenliang.
In yesterday’s People’s Daily we can find a consummate piece of kitsch propaganda given position of prominence right below the masthead. The article, “Heroic City, Heroic People,” is an emotional hymn dedicated to front-line medical workers, officials and ordinary people. But the real objective of the article is to underscore the Chinese Communist Party as the enabler of miraculous human feats.
[…] And of course kitsch propaganda must anneal the softness of personal tragedy into the hard steel of sacrifice. So we are told that “more than 40,000 medical staff from 29 provinces, autonomous regions and cities . . . . were deployed to assist Hubei and Wuhan,” that they “entered the battle as soon as possible, racing against time, testing their strength against the demon of disease, all to continue the relay of life!”
“In the history of the world’s fight against epidemic disease, to gather 40,000 medical personnel in one city over a few short days – this is to generate a miracle!”
But kitsch propaganda can backfire in the face of a public that is digitally connected, and far more savvy than in the past about the tropes used by the state-run media. Earlier this month, internet users responded with irritation to a video posted by the official Gansu Daily newspaper that showed nurses weeping as their heads were shaved before their deployment to treat patients in Hubei province. The video described the female nurses as “most beautiful warriors,” and made emotional fodder of their sacrifice. [Source]
The New York Times’ Li Yuan further explored the backlash over this and other propaganda missteps:
Online, people are openly criticizing state media. They have harshly condemned stories of individual sacrifice when front-line medical personnel still lack basic supplies like masks. They shouted down Jiangshan Jiao and Hongqi Man [a pair of mascots launched by the Communist Youth League]. They have heaped scorn on images of the women with shaved heads, asking whether the women were pressured to do it and wondering why similar images of men weren’t appearing.
[…] To tame public outrage, Beijing is determined to create a “good public opinion environment.” It has sent hundreds of state-sponsored journalists to Wuhan and elsewhere to churn out heart-tugging stories about the front-line doctors and nurses and the selfless support from the Chinese public.
[…] Some are blatantly unbelievable. One newspaper in the city of Xi’an apologized after it posted an article claiming that a nurse’s newborn twins asked their father where their mother was, saying it was an editing mistake. Another newspaper wrote that after a nurse went to the front line, her husband, who had been in a vegetative state since 2014, would smile whenever her name was mentioned “as if he knew that his wife was engaged in a great endeavor.” That story was later deleted.
In China, admiration of the front-line medical workers is widespread and sincere. But the state media’s coverage does not show the reality that many of those workers lack protective gear. Over 3,000 of them have been infected. [Source]
In a set of poems translated at CDT last week, Wei Shuiyin, a nurse working in Wuhan against the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, bluntly shrugged off the official praise being lavished on her colleagues following Xi Jinping’s call for “touching stories from the front line of the virus fight.” “The slogans are yours/The praise is yours/The propaganda, the model workers, all yours,” she wrote. “I am merely performing my duties/Acting on a healer’s conscience […] Please, don’t decorate me in garlands/Don’t give me applause […] Media, journalists/Please don’t disturb me again.” The poems also tell of exhaustion, hunger, stress, and equipment shortages.
The Elephant Digest newsletter told the saga, in the voice of Jiangshanjiao herself, of the two Youth League mascots’ memetic ancestry, brief careers, and subsequent reappropriation as “an icon, not for youth nationalism, but for feminism and gender equality.”
The overwhelming negative reception was truly surprising for my creator. When you look back from today, from a rational, clear-headed perspective such as mine, the failure of our launch was inevitable because of its timing. It was, and still is, a fragile and difficult time for the Chinese people. By the time of my launch, everyone was already deeply frustrated by the series of propaganda events that happened during this epidemic-fighting season. In the words of Chinese netizens, there were already so many cases of “car crashes” (翻车), aka propaganda that backfired into extreme public outrage.
Let me give you a few examples.
[…] In a documentary produced by CCTV, a Wuhan-based nurse Zhao Yu was praised for working during her last month of pregnancy despite “strong opposition from family members”. On February 12th, Wuhan’s local newspaper reported a young nurse who returned to work 10 days after her miscarriage. Yes, it’s the same old propaganda trick, using the sacrifice of ordinary individuals to strengthen solidarity. Unfortunately, they all backfired this time. Both stories received mass criticism from netizens, to the extent that the authority had to start censorship in order to cool down public opinion.
[…] Following the shaving incident, netizens soon dug out another gender-related case. An interview with a female doctor was broadcast twice in a day by CCTV news with a slight editorial change in between: in the morning segment, the doctor said on camera that she was under heavy pain because she was on her period. (She used the word “生理期”, a nothing but sensible term) In the afternoon news when the segment was re-broadcast, her mention of her period was completely erased, as if period was something inappropriate to be mentioned on national news. Having spotted the difference, quick-reacting netizens made a clip combining the two interviews, and the clip soon went viral on social media. [Source]
Amid the lionization of medical workers and eye-catching “grand gestures” like the lightning-paced but otherwise complicated construction of new hospitals, the reality on the ground appears grim. At ChinaFile on Monday, Tracy Wen Liu wrote that “eight doctors and nurses at five hospitals I have been in touch with over the past week describe precarious conditions in which basic supplies are still inadequate,” a picture starkly at odds with official assurances. Despite Li Wenliang’s rehabilitation, moreover, many are still facing threats of punishment for sharing information.
Amid quickly changing news about the trajectory of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, on February 20, the Chinese government body overseeing the response to the epidemic announced that medical supplies adequate to combating the spread of the disease were now “generally guaranteed.” China Daily tweeted the news with the headline, “Shortage of Medical Supplies in Hubei Ends.” I have spent the past month trying to organize shipments of donations of medical gear to hospitals in Hubei, and while the doctors, nurses, and their family members I have contacted say the situation has improved, they continue to report shortages of supplies, concerns about further infections among medical workers and skepticism about official numbers of infections.
[…] A doctor at a hospital in Shiyan, another city in Hubei province, sent me a document circulated to employees at her hospital last week warning hospital employees and their family members that sharing information about the coronavirus situation in their hospital could result in firing, loss of their status as civil servants, or expulsion from the Chinese Community Party.
[…] Altogether, over the past month, I have talked to 31 medical workers in 11 hospitals in Wuhan and nearby regions. Many of them have sent me photographs to illustrate the conditions under which they are working. The images showed some doctors reduced to making protective suits out of raincoats and garbage bags, and fashioning goggles out of plastic folders. Three doctors (who work at three different hospitals in Wuhan) told me in late January that they wore diapers at work because protective clothing was in such short supply and they would have needed to change it after a trip to the bathroom.
[…] To try to better understand the situation, on January 30 I messaged two volunteers working for the Red Cross in Wuhan. They described both lack of adequate staffing and what sounded like looting. [Source]
These accounts and others like them received apparent corroboration on Monday when international medical journal The Lancet published a plea for help attributed to two nurses in Wuhan. The letter claimed that “the conditions and environment here in Wuhan are more difficult and extreme than we could ever have imagined,” and that “in addition to the physical exhaustion, we are also suffering psychologically.” Related content was quickly censored on Chinese social media. On Thursday, The Lancet retracted the letter, having been “informed by the authors of this Correspondence that the account described therein was not a first-hand account, as the authors had claimed, and that they wished to withdraw the piece.” Shanghai-based Sixth Tone had already reported questions about the nurses’ roles, noting that the authors had become unreachable, and quoting claims from other medical personnel that the situation had improved. Nevertheless, suspicion lingers over the retraction given the inevitability of official pressure on the two authors, and skepticism over whether The Lancet would have published the letter without verifying its authors’ roles, or the authors would have shared easily falsifiable claims in a high-profile international venue under their real names at a time of extreme political sensitivity.
This happened to me three times or so in Chinese media: you’d receive a whistleblower account or heartbreaking story and then two days later get a note supposedly from them saying “actually I was wrong and very sorry please don’t publish”. https://t.co/ifAtJw1chx
— James Palmer (@BeijingPalmer) February 27, 2020
At The Washington Post on Wednesday, meanwhile, Emily Rauhala reported on China’s failure to provide the World Health Organization with data on the number of infected medical personnel, which stood at around 1,700 as of February 14. (Nevertheless, the WHO “has continued to heap praise on Beijing,” Rauhala notes, citing one particularly effusive example.)
In response to questions from The Washington Post, the WHO said it has repeatedly asked Chinese officials for “disaggregated” data — meaning specific figures broken out from the overall numbers — that could shed light on hospital transmission and help assess the level of risk front-line workers face.
[…] The comment, in a Saturday email to The Post, was one of the first instances that the U.N. health agency had directly addressed shortcomings in China’s reporting or handling of the coronavirus crisis.
[…] It is not clear whether political sensitivities have shaped China’s reporting on sick doctors and other health-care professionals. It is possible that data gaps simply reflect the challenge of gathering information in the middle of a crisis, experts said.
[…] “China has learned at least one lesson from SARS. They’re cooperating with WHO just enough to stave off accusations that they are not cooperating,” said Mara Pillinger, an associate in global health policy and governance at Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. [Source]