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Dhaka Tribune

China’s coronavirus cover-up

How censorship and propaganda obstructed the truth

Update : 08 Mar 2020, 06:11 PM

China’s political leaders will be hoping that when concerns about the coronavirus eventually start to recede, memories about the state’s failings early on in the outbreak will also fade. They will be particularly keen for people to forget the anger many felt after the death from Covid-19 of Dr Li Wenliang, the doctor censured for trying to warn colleagues about the outbreak.

Dr Li had told fellow medical professionals about the new virus in a chat group on December 30. He was accused of “rumour-mongering” and officials either ignored or played down the risks well into January. The censorship in this period also reflects increasingly tight control over information in China.

Curtailing media freedoms

The deterioration in the media’s limited freedoms under Xi Jinping was underlined by a visit he made to media organizations in 2016, declaring that, “all Party media have the surname Party,” and demanding loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

There have been a series of quality investigative reports, notably by the business publication Caixin, since the authorities fully acknowledged the virus. 

Online, there has been a succession of measures to limit speech the party deems a threat. These include laws that mean the threat of jail for anyone found guilty of spreading “rumours.” In an authoritarian regime, stopping rumours limits people’s ability to raise concerns and potentially discover the truth. A point made only too clearly by Dr Li’s case.

Between 2013 and 2018, over 100 leaked instructions concerned problems about the environment, food safety, health, education, natural disasters, and major accidents. The actual number is likely to far exceed this.

For example, after an explosion at a petrochemical factory, media organizations were told to censor “negative commentary related to petrochemical projects.” And after parents protested about tainted vaccines, the media were instructed that only information provided by official sources could be used on front pages.

State media play a key role in the CCP’s efforts to set the agenda online.

Around 4.5% of all People Daily’s Weibo posts between 2013 and 2015 were about the environment, but by 2018 had fallen to as low as 1%. Similarly, around 8%-10% of all posts by the newspaper were about disasters and major accidents between 2013 and 2015, but this figure fell to below 4% in the following three years.

The party wants people to focus instead on topics it thinks will enhance its legitimacy. The number of posts by People’s Daily focusing on nationalism had doubled to 12% of the total by 2018.

Citizen journalism fights back

As well as investigative reports on the outbreak in parts of the media, some Chinese individuals have also gone to great lengths to communicate information about the virus and conditions in Wuhan. However, the authorities have been steadily silencing significant critical voices and stepping up their efforts to censor other content they deem particularly unhelpful.

This same propaganda effort is in evidence now. As the China Media Project’s David Bandurski notes, media coverage in China is increasingly seeking to portray the Chinese Communist Party “as the enabler of miraculous human feats” battling the virus.

After Dr Li’s death, CCP leaders sought to blame local officials for admonishing him. However, the actions taken against Dr Li were fully consistent with the Party’s approach to controlling information under Xi Jinping.

It is impossible to know how many people have died, or might die in future, because people have decided to self-censor, rather than risk punishment for spreading rumours, or because the authorities have sought to avoid information reaching the public. The coronavirus outbreak highlights the risks of a system that puts social stability and ruling party legitimacy above the public interest. 

Paul Gardner is a PhD Candidate in Chinese Studies and Political Communication, University of Glasgow. This article originally appeared in The Conversation UK and has been reprinted under special arrangement.

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