General Secretary Xi Jinping this week made his first visit to Wuhan since the covid-19 outbreak upended all corners of Chinese society. Xi’s trip was designed to reassure the public that their government has the virus contained — and things will get back to normal.

But China’s propaganda apparatus has been in high gear since January. What is the official playbook, and has the propaganda been effective?

Focus on success — and heroism

Studies show modern authoritarian governments increasingly turn to information manipulation, rather than relying on ideological indoctrination or physical repression to maintain rule. They do this to generate an image of competence and increase public support. One useful tactic is to associate good news with the government and shift blame for bad news.

Consistent with this perspective, China’s propaganda efforts focused on the decisive measures to control the epidemic. A few commercially oriented outlets like Caixin published investigative pieces, but official media such as the China Central Television, People’s Daily and their social media accounts have been blanketing the country with features about the Communist Party leadership’s efforts commanding the “people’s war” against the virus. Other propaganda focused on new policies and regulations and allocation of resources, the steady improvement of the situation across the country and the advantages of China’s political system in dealing with crises like this.

Here’s what Chinese official media did not cover: whether China’s authoritarian system induced officials to prioritize social order and pleasing higher-ups over openly confronting an inconvenient disease; how the early warning system failed to alert Beijing health authorities; the role of the top leadership in the initial delays in responding; and how the lack of free flow of information, including the silencing of doctors like Li Wenliang, contributed to the spread of the virus. China’s state media treats the epidemic as a purely natural disaster, but how the government deals with a disaster can reveal its quality.

News outlets and the Internet are also flooded with stories about the heroism and sacrifices of front line doctors and nurses, volunteers and delivery couriers, to “showcase the unity of the Chinese people.” The heroism is real, but inundating the public with these stories 24/7 also helped shift people’s attention away from questions about government accountability.

In a touching speech about the coronavirus outbreak, a high school teacher asked students “not to replace questioning with praises,” and “not to regard winter as the beginning of spring.” But that is exactly what China’s state propaganda has done: turn a disaster into an opportunity to celebrate achievements rather than an occasion to reflect on failures.

Encourage attention on other countries

Recent studies also show people often use information about other countries’ performance to judge their own government. International benchmarking is happening during the coronavirus crisis, too.

The inadequacy of responses in a few foreign countries has fueled gloating among some Chinese Internet users — and the comment that these countries do not even know how to “copy homework,” or learn from China’s successful experiences. Much of this discussion seemed to originate from private commentators, but major state media agencies like Xinhua also reposted social media essays lamenting perceived foreign failures and arguing that the world should thank China for its sacrifices.

This suggests China’s state media at least tacitly welcomed the spotlight on the failure of other countries in coping with covid-19.

Conspiracy theories that the United States, not China, might be the source of the coronavirus have also flourished online. Prior research suggests conspiracy theories are coping mechanisms for people who feel weak and powerless — which may well explain their popularity in this time of anxiety and uncertainty.

There is little evidence that the Chinese state actively pushed these anti-foreign narrative. Chinese police, in fact, detained one Internet user who made up a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was a U.S. genetic weapon. But conspiracy theories, as long as they do not suggest China’s government is to blame, generally help focus attention away from any errors in China’s response.

Has the propaganda blitz worked?

Some media messages make real arguments and provide actual information, and not just empty slogans. Coupled with the substantial progress in disease control on the ground, these are soft propaganda messages with some persuasive power rather than hard propaganda aimed at signaling government power.

This approach may have worked to some extent. Social media conversations and group chats I have observed, as well as my personal communications with people inside China, suggest many Chinese people are proud of the government’s capacity to suppress the virus and trust what it is doing. There is also anger, but it is directed more toward local governments in Wuhan municipality and Hubei province, where the epidemic originated, than toward China’s political system or the central government. People in China have not paid as much attention to the question of why the epidemic initially got out of control.

But heavy-handed propaganda that is out of touch with reality may have backfired, in line with recent research on this topic. Here is an example: Major Chinese state news outlets on Feb. 26 announced the publication of Daguo Zhan “Yi” (a title that means a great power’s battle with an epidemic), a book advised by the Central Publicity Department and State Council Information Office. Purportedly, this book demonstrates Xi’s extraordinary compassion, vision and skills in fighting the coronavirus, and the remarkable superiority of the Chinese political system under the leadership of the Communist Party. Within days, the book was pulled from all major Chinese e-commerce platforms, apparently due to the significant negative online reactions to the premature celebration of victory and unabashed self-aggrandization.

Chinese social media also pushed back when Wuhan’s new party secretary said the city should carry out “gratitude education” and thank the general secretary and the Communist Party. Many commentators, including influential Wuhan-based writer Fang Fang, demanded instead the government show remorse for the deaths and thank the victims’ families for their tolerance. The government later pulled down the original remarks from news sites — and Xi also specifically said the party thanks Wuhan people during his visit. Propaganda has its limits.

Haifeng Huang is an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Merced. His research focuses on the politics of information flow and opinion formation, including international information exposure, propaganda, rumor and fake news, and media freedom.

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