Ms. Repnikova is the author of “Media Politics in China: Improvising Power Under Authoritarianism.”
April 16, 2020
Not long after it publicly recognized the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese Communist Party declared war — a “people’s war” — against the epidemic. Since then it also appears to have declared war against any narrative it thinks challenges that endeavor.
The party’s persuasion efforts are sometimes dismissed as a rigidly ideological top-down affair or a clumsy spectacle, but the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has revealed just how agile China’s propaganda operations really are: They are interactive, and they readily engage with public opinion — the better to co-opt it.
This, however, is a risky strategy. The party’s sophisticated messaging also exposes it to greater demands and more criticism, from the Chinese public and internationally.
At home, one of the party’s predominant techniques has been to respond, yet only selectively, to people’s grievances with both symbolic gestures and practical policies.
Take the treatment of Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor turned whistle-blower who was reprimanded by the Wuhan police in early January for sounding the alarm about the novel coronavirus and then whose death, from Covid-19, sparked outrage online. After initially censoring discussions about Dr. Li’s plight, the authorities tried to appease the public, first by firing provincial officials for mishandling the outbreak and later by exonerating Dr. Li and issuing an official apology to his family.
On the other hand, calls for free expression by Chinese academics and the general public have been left unanswered. As with other national crises, local officials have been made to take the fall for mishandling the epidemic at first; no questioning of central-level decisions can be tolerated. The property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was placed under investigation recently for writing an essay pointedly blaming President Xi Jinping. This followed the silencing of other prominent critics: the law professor Xu Zhangrun and the legal expert Xu Zhiyong.
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