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State Narratives and the Virus: Why Messaging Matters

Feb 28, 2020

It is nearly a month into the coronavirus outbreak, and cities across China remain effective ghost towns. Outside of Wuhan, society is acclimating to a “new normal,” but many employees continue to work from home and universities remain indefinitely suspended. Those self-quarantined in apartment complexes wonder how soon normalcy will return to cities atrophying in civic isolation. Meanwhile, predictions and rumors about the virus’s progression circulate via WeChat groups, as state media tries to consolidate a narrative about the outbreak’s causes, management, and potential trajectories. 

How these narratives are shaped—and by whom—offers some insight into how the PRC might manage the virus's development over the next several months. Foreign analysts tend to view Chinese media as a censored black box, but taking state media seriously is important because it indicates which narratives the party chooses to emphasize, underplay, and control. 

The Evolution of the Virus 

In late December 2019, a steady number of Wuhan residents fell ill from an unidentified pneumonia. Despite growing concern amongst medical professionals—some of whom exhorted the government to take early action—the provincial Health Commission prohibited local authorities from releasing information about the virus's spread and treatment. In addition to under-reporting the actual number of cases, the city government maintained that the disease could not spread through human-to-human transmission. It punished early whistleblowers for speaking out. Officials made no mention of the virus during their annual high-level meeting in early January, the Lianghui, and sponsored a banquet that gathered over 40,000 families—in the epicenter of a metastasizing crisis. 

Then, the city shut down. At 2AM on January 23rd, the government announced a total quarantine. By 10AM, city entrances and public transportation completely closed, prompting millions to flee—if they could—within that eight-hour window. Later, Wuhan’s mayor admitted responsibility for the delayed reporting of the epidemic’s scale but pointed to limitations in the national law on infectious disease. Thus began the public tension between local and central narratives: the Supreme People’s Court rebuked local police for punishing early whistleblowers, grassroots criticism of the Wuhan government was allowed to proliferate online, and central authorities began to publicly punish and remove local officials accused of mismanagement. 

Analyzing the Narratives 

As the coronavirus dominates global news cycles, Chinese sources coalesce around three distinct narratives. First, citizens have intuitively reflected back on SARS in 2003, often drawing comparative evaluations of government (mis)management. Second, Beijing has deployed its familiar slogan-based rhetoric to rally mass support around its response measures. Third, the media draws a distinct line between the central government’s protection of the people and local mismanagement. 

SARS 2.0? 

Comparisons to the 2003 SARS epidemic, which killed 774 people and infected over 8,000, are obvious to those who experienced the outbreak or observed Beijing’s gross mishandling of its development. The epidemic was deeply exacerbated by government censorship and failure to accept outside assistance from the World Health Organization. While Beijing did take institutional measures to improve epidemic reporting and monitoring after SARS, many questioned to what extent censorship in the name of preserving “social stability” would thwart effective management. 

Moreover, 2020 China is also very different from 2003 China. In 2003, censorship mostly functioned by first filtering information through censors before publication. In 2020, over ten times more people have access to the internet than in 2003. The sheer number of viral social media posts that consistently report local conditions simply prevent SARS-style top-down censorship. Now, information is published from the bottom-up, then filtered. In this way, online media is more similar to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, wherein grassroots citizen journalism simply provided too much on-the-ground information to wholesale censor. 

So, the government has adapted its information control strategies. After an initial period of censorship, authorities decided to provide consistent updates on the virus’s spread. WeChat has created a health function that provides real-time updates of the number of confirmed cases, suspected cases, cured patients, and deaths. Graphs illustrate the virus’s trendlines, and users can access a rolling list of expert recommendations.

These functions indicate the government’s markedly different approach to monitoring the virus’s development—which is crucial, given that the coronavirus has already infected over ten times as many people as SARS. Simultaneously, the media has often relied on SARS’s legacy in its messaging. In Wuhan, a highly publicized hospital was constructed  in 10 days—filmed and broadcast in real time. The hospital is reminiscent of a repurposed PLA hospital in Beijing used to treat SARS patients in 2003, which stood as a very public, concrete signal of rapid governmental efforts. Additionally, Beijing sent Zhong Nanshan, a renowned doctor for his work during the 2003 SARS outbreak, to Wuhan as an ostensibly credible signal of their seriousness in handling the situation. Advertising a streamlined, improved process from the SARS days gives the government public evidence of its sustained commitment. 

Wuhan Jiayou! 

As the epidemic swelled, messages of support for those suffering in Wuhan flooded social media. Netizens posted pictures holding signs that read “Let’s Go Wuhan!”, and videos reveal scores of people shouting in solidarity from apartment balconies across Wuhan. Soon, official media co-opted this messaging: CCTV produced a video of Wuhan as the “hero city”, while state media emphasized solidarity amongst foreign governments and featured doctors working on the “front lines” of the epidemic.

Consistent in official reporting is the patriotic, almost militant rhetoric. Universities dispatch medical teams to the “front lines” of “battle”; masses are “mobilized” into action; and even mask manufacturing factories are joining in the “all out fight.”  

This type of slogan-based rhetoric is characteristic of CCP media. In the coronavirus context, however, patriotic media manufactures a rally-round-the-flag effect—a phenomenon originally used to describe increased popular support for American presidents during wartime, and which theorizes how external threats tend to bolster grassroots nationalism. To be sure, state media galvanizing solidarity for Wuhan is not necessarily nefarious. On the contrary, messages of support are essential for sustaining public morale during a harrowing crisis. However, it should not be overlooked that Beijing is adept at channeling conditions ripe for social chaos into support for Party efforts.  

In fact, this type of messaging reflects a familiar trope: the central government protecting the masses against local misdoings. That is the core of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, which adroitly eliminates local-level malpractice without challenging the party’s underlying legitimacy. Even more, the media has largely individualized the narrative to portray Xi himself as the protector of the people against local corruption. Similar to the logic of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, this narrative allows the government to shoulder some responsibility—and therefore diffuse social discontent—-without challenging the underlying bureaucratic and cultural mechanisms behind governance failures. Most recently, this narrative will be severely challenged by the death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan whistleblower who warned of the epidemic, was punished, and has recently become an online martyr for freedom of speech. 

While history has shown that public outcry can sometimes lead to policy reform, it seems unlikely that these newfound online calls for free speech will actually instigate significant structural changes. It is not just coordinated censorship, but more importantly a bureaucratic culture that systematically discourages doctors and officials from speaking out. Throughout, Beijing has remained adept at corralling widespread discontent into pro-government nationalism. This reflects the party’s ability to use public outcry as a feedback mechanism for gathering public opinion, while simultaneously controlling the narrative from a distance. 

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