In early January 2020, doctor and “whistleblower” Li Wenliang was found guilty of warning colleagues about a mysterious increase in cases of SARS-like pneumonia. Questioned by the police and reprimanded for ‘spreading rumours’, Li signed a document renouncing further speech and went back to work - only to catch the coronavirus he had been charged with fabricating. A few days later, he died where he worked at Wuhan Central Hospital, plugged into a ventilator. Chinese “netizens” erupted in an outpouring of grief and fury rarely seen inside China’s walled-garden social media. Demands for free speech, an open internet and government accountability flooded Weibo in the hours after Li’s death as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors struggled to keep up with the torrent of “politically incorrect” posts swamping the platform. Why, then, do many commentators believe the coronavirus pandemic has only cemented CCP rule at home and among Chinese communities abroad?
By Feb. 6th, Dr, Li had become a focal point for the entire nation - already branded ‘hero of the people,’ a livestream broadcasting his condition that night was watched by over 17 million. At 9:30 in the evening, party publications The People’s Daily, Global Times and Beijing News all reported that the doctor’s vitals had dropped and pronounced him dead. In the incensed outpouring of emotion that followed, many publications amended their stories, reporting that he had not died, but was still in ‘critical condition’ and ‘receiving treatment’. Censors pounced on the ensuing confusion to delete posts from those critical few hours. Support for Li, criticism of the government and angry cries from people stuck in their homes all disappeared as the night wore on.
Later, when Wuhan Central officially announced Li’s passing at 2:58 the following morning, many presumed the staggered information to be yet another CCP manipulation: ‘if they just announced the death directly, public fury would have been much greater - they wanted to convert that fury into hope for a miracle,’ wrote one commentator. Even still, comment after comment amassed beneath Li’s final post on Weibo (the current count reads 836,434 individual messages). ‘China needs hundreds of thousands of Li Wenliangs…’ reads the most upvoted. Just below, another commenter was disturbed by the China reflected in Li’s experience: ‘in future, if a doctor discovers a new infection, they’re going to be even more terrified and less likely to take it public.’ The hash tag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech rose to the very top of Weibo as its users challenged decades-old political taboos. ‘Please give us the “freedom of expression” and “press freedom” written into our constitution,’ wrote one user. ‘I can’t take speaking secretively any longer. I don’t want disappearing conversations any more,’ said another. ‘Close my account, I don’t care.’
Sarah Cook of Freedom House described the criticism as ‘widespread and consistent,’ but urged caution - it remained ‘unclear’ whether or not all this fury would constitute a ‘turning point’.
At first, her caution appeared unwarranted. Online and social medias continued to run with heartbroken cries and demands for accountability. Among the crowd were numbers of government officials and prominent businesspeople, all clamouring with anger at the unfair treatment of Li and other “whistleblowers”. Grief soon splintered into political manoeuvre. At such an unprecedented juncture, many believed there was an opportunity to be seized.
A public letter was published on the internet. Signed by many top academics, it was addressed to the National People’s Congress and requested that February 6 be designated ‘national freedom of speech day’. The letter went on to charge that anywhere ‘without freedom of expression is without safety’ and followed up with five position points: ‘1: We firmly oppose placing political safety in prime position: this is the selfish objective of an elite group. 2: We firmly oppose social media companies forcibly closing individual accounts or collective groups on their platforms. 3: We firmly oppose the ‘maintenance of stability’ ideology and mode of rule currently predominant in this country. 4: We firmly oppose the repurposing of national disasters into self-eulogy - malfeasant officials must be held accountable. 5: We firmly oppose political regression and support the work of Deng Xiaoping in abolishing lifetime tenure for leading [party] cadres.’
Though the Party ignored this letter, it is estimated to have been viewed by fifty million or more internet users in China. A few weeks later, when Beijing tried to suppress an interview with one of Li Wenliang’s colleagues at Wuhan Central, a second round of widespread resistance swept across the mainland. Initially published by China’s People Magazine, the interview contained Doctor Ai Fen’s recollection of events at Wuhan Central on December 30, 2019. Lab results had come back showing a ‘SARS coronavirus’ infection, she told the interviewer: ‘I was so scared I broke out in a cold sweat. This was something fearful’. Going on to recount ‘fierce’ criticism suffered after reporting the discovery to her superiors, Ai Fen’s interview was immediately targeted for censorship by the central government. Before it could vanish, versions in Italian, Hebrew, Japanese, Braille, Morse code, emoji, sign language and even Klingon were published through Wechat’s blogging system to skirt automatic censorship algorithms trained to recognise material in Mandarin. One enterprising coder even wrote a Python script for compiling the text into a word document when run. Yet another of Beijing’s attempts at public opinion control had resulted in insubordination.
Retired editor of the China Youth Daily Li Datong weighed in: ‘This time, the CCP’s control of free speech has directly damaged the lives and interests of normal people. Everybody knows, if the truth isn’t spoken, this kind of disaster is just going to happen.’ Tenney Huang, reporter for a CCP-owned publication, told the NYT: ‘everyone’s aggrieved, stuck in an oppressive situation, free expression is our way of fighting back.’ Stationed in Wuhan himself, he said many journalists took to reporting through social media as news censorship became more and more ‘rampant’. ‘Facts are like firewood,’ he added, ‘the more you pile on, the greater the force is when a spark finally sets it alight.’
Yet facts have been stacking up against Beijing for decades and their great power is yet to go up in smoke. The truth is, Chinese public opinion remains for the most part unshakably conservative. Many believe that CCP rule has restored ‘great power dignity’ (大國尊嚴 dagou zunyan) to China, returning the people to a position of grandeur and international visibility unknown since the early Qing some 3-400 years ago. Mixed with a curriculum and ‘national story’ that actively promotes ethnic nationalism, dissent in China is quashed both in the open and in its cradle.
Tu Long (name changed) of Wuhan spent a lot of time thinking about this during China’s long lockdown: ‘When they evicted the “low-end population” (低端人口 diduan renkou) from Beijing, I said to myself, I’m a hard worker, I’m not “low-end,” they won’t evict me. When they put labour camps in Xinjiang, I thought to myself “I’m not a minority, I don’t have any religious beliefs, I won’t be sent there.” I had great sympathy for the treatment of Hong Kongers, but I felt I wouldn’t go onto the streets, I wouldn’t protest, so it had nothing to do with me. This time it’s all happened in my home - there are people around me who’ve caught this disease and others who’ve died, so I just can’t go on bearing it any more.’ He finished his confession: ‘The majority of Chinese, including me, are not innocent. Because we’ve stood by and watched them do evil, and of course there are many actively helping them do evil.’ It doesn’t take much imagination to see this pattern of thought reflected throughout a wider population all suddenly stuck in “house arrest”. The potential severity of a pandemic in progress broke through layers of social conditioning to pierce the “cherishing of life / fear of death” (惜命 ximing) said to be strongest among Chinese than any other people on earth. As fear leaked into the bloodstream, it mixed with anger at good doctors dying, institutional cover-ups and the government suppressing free speech to create the raging bonfire of Feb. 6 and beyond.
For Beijing, then, it was all or nothing. Either claw back the people or watch flames tear through the endless stack of ‘facts’ beneath their feet. Falungong’s Minghui media were accurate in their analysis of CCP strategy in early March: ‘[Beijing desires] 1. to divert the domestic population’s attention; 2. to take the opportunity to extol themselves, their method of rule and ability to control the pandemic (including their so-called “institutional advantage”). 3. to shirk responsibility, to frame America as the source of the virus and heavily engage in anti-US narratives.’ Minghui’s next prediction that such schemes were raising alarms across the world and ‘more mainland Chinese’ were ‘awakening’ proved less prophetic.
Early attempts by the CCP to claw back discourse control were indeed much “too soon”. On January 26, the party-controlled Global Times ran a story on the amazement of ‘netizens across the globe’ at a video of rapid construction work at Wuhan Huoshenshan Field Hospital. A common trick for the propaganda department in recent years, reports covering foreigners gawping at Chinese construction speeds and national strength are two- a-penny in official media. Yet in late January, the Global Times’ article was struck by a collective denouncement from netizens all over China. At this historic low-point for faith in government, the public were not buying. When party secretary Xi Jinping met WHO director general Tedros Adhanom days later, he told the press that he was ‘personally directing and personally arranging’ the Covid response. Given that Xi hadn’t ‘personally’ visited Hubei (the province of which Wuhan is capital) since the outbreak began, his wording was widely mocked across China. Within hours, the word “personally” was designated “sensitive” on all major social networking platforms and became subject to algorithmic filtering.
January 28 was to be Xi’s last public appearance until Feb. 10. The reason for his disappearance from the public eye will perhaps forever remain a mystery, but as the Initium reported, he returned with messaging entirely revamped. Before, his public position had been ‘we can definitely win this battle to prevent and control the outbreak. Now he announced to the media: ‘we can attain total victory in the fight to control this pandemic’. Just two days later, party media found an angle of attack: outside Hubei, infection rates had dropped for eight days in a row. Party media created an abbreviation - ‘8-straight-drops’ - and set about widely publicising the new data.
As the notion of ‘total victory’ picked up speed, issues of immediate attention began splintering the attention of people across China - from a shaved medical worker to a troupe of virtual news hosts with Maoist names; from the death of Liufan to the release of a convict from Wuhan. These and other events in quick succession caused emotional burnout of a kind no doubt familiar to many in recent years. There comes a point where you no longer have any outrage to give.
This narrative overload happened to strike just as the coronavirus was picking up speed abroad. Party media began leading public feeling in an attempt to recover that ‘great power dignity’ so punctured by COVID-19. A mocking narrative of foreigners who ‘want freedom but not their lives’ grew apace with the virus’ spread in Italy. The US, meanwhile, was censured for stigmatising China and ‘attaching geographic significance to a stateless virus’. Korea was mocked for putting its faith in ‘Hallelujah’ over preventative measures and the slogan of months to come was born: ‘copy our homework’. Making an initial appearance in January, the slogan was coined to impel the Hubei provincial government to take radical action like neighbouring provinces Henan and Jiangsu. Its shift outwards happened when the Xinhua network published A Great Nation’s Epidemic Fight (大國戰疫 dàguó zhànyì) on February 26. This was the CCP’s pandemic manifesto - written to export Chinese success in combatting viral spread. Official media followed up with a litany of articles questioning ‘how hard can it possibly be to just "copy our homework"?’ Before long, the three words had become shorthand for CCP success in the face of democratic weakness, carrying the triple implications of great power dignity, foreign stupidity and Chinese exceptionalism.
By February 23, the virus was in retreat across China and Xi Jinping held a speech for 170,000 provincial cadres to extol these values: ‘the success of our preventative measures have once again demonstrated the clear superiority of communist party leadership and socialism with Chinese characteristics’. By Mar. 12, editor of the Global Times Hu Xijin felt bold enough to venture that ‘China was whistleblower for the world’. On Mar. 16, the People’s Daily ran with ‘Overtaken!’ as a headline for their report that overseas COVID-19 cases had now surpassed total domestic positives. At that point, the US had declared a state of emergency and France was ‘at war’ with the virus. Boris Johnson declared his intention to rely on ‘herd immunity’ as the NHS neared collapse and Beijing began sending ‘surplus’ medical supplies to the epicentres of disaster. The China-based Taiwanese comedian Huang An perhaps best expressed the growing feeling among PRC citizens in his Weibo post: ‘China is now the safest country in the world.’
By early March, reality had shifted far enough in the favour of party media that propaganda began almost writing itself. On March 11, Tedros Adhanom delivered the killing blow to disrupted confidence in CCP rule. ‘If other countries did the same as China, they could control this pandemic… China’s work in preventing the spread of the virus has won a window period for the rest of the world, we must use this period well,’ he said. Through consistent refusal to condemn Beijing’s mistakes and supply of pro-China soundbites to the media, the WHO provided much ammunition for party media to present an effective narrative.
Then came the returnees. As the pandemic continued to worsen around the world, overseas Chinese began flooding back to “the motherland”. At first they came in a dribble and went quietly into hotels designated for quarantine. Before long, the dribble had become a flow had become a rush had become a panicked tsunami. With domestic transmission mostly eliminated, these returnees became the only source of new cases for most provinces and the ugliest side of hyper-nationalist ideology bubbled to the surface. Not even endorsed by party media, caricatures of ‘dirty traitors’ began to filter through the blogs and social media accounts of extremist elements in citizen media. These ‘Han traitors,’ bloggers accused, had ‘abandoned the motherland’ for foreign countries and were ‘now bringing diseases [as they] come crying back’. Some even called for citizen reentry to be banned. Extremists notwithstanding, this flood of returnees and the $20,000 tickets they were buying was enough evidence for many that China had taken the lead.
It is not difficult, then, to see why the coronavirus pandemic has cemented CCP rule. Today - as yesterday and the day before - China’s central news agency (CCTV) reports focus on the disastrous situation in North America. A feature on October 19 showed graphs for case numbers and total dead while an anchor gave analysis: ‘for the American government, politics is more important than the health of its people.’ Going on to point out reductions in US testing, the narrator surmised that it could only be ‘to reduce visible case numbers ahead of the election next month.’ Behind the audio, footage of Americans plugged into ventilators in an ICU played out on screen. As American researcher Zak Dychtwald expressed to Deutsche Welle: ‘a narrative perspective getting stronger and stronger is: “It’s us against them.” In China, people think “we have won.”’
As acceptance of this narrative grows across the country, Xi Jinping and the CCP have showered themselves with the one thing they most crave: legitimacy. In a country without civil expression, the leadership live in fear because they never have and never will attain true legitimacy. Everything they do - from suppressing free speech to the mass incarceration of ethnic minorities - is motivated by this mortal terror. Through their ethno-nationalist education system and the construction of “great power dignity”, their “legitimacy” lives in a reality constructed between they and the people. The COVID-19 crisis proved that if any element in the unspoken contract between these two parties should break, the CCP are in danger of losing irreversible grip on the power they are so insatiably fond of maintaining.
Just two weeks before national day celebrations began on Oct. 1, the city of Ruili in Yunnan went into rigid lockdown once again. All citizens had to remain indoors and all shops had to close. Almost 200,000 residents were to be tested and no end date was given for when this new lockdown might conclude. Why? Because two Myanmar citizens had tested positive when crossing the border nearby. ‘Is this extreme?’ asked Deutsche Welle. Not if you ask the people of China - because this is how China won. Lauded by an international organisation, relied on by the Old World, trouncing the US in pandemic control and already rebuilding the strength of their economy, China appears to have achieved ‘total victory’ - if more to its own citizens than the rest of the world.