Amid rare anti-government protests in China in response to “zero covid” restrictions, soccer fans on social media have been quick to point out an unusual quality in World Cup broadcasts on state TV: They have featured scant footage of the crowd.
The World Cup, which draws more than half a billion viewers in China, comes at an awkward time for Beijing’s censorship apparatus, already in overdrive as protesters challenge Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature coronavirus policies. Fans have speculated that the government hopes to de-emphasize the unmasked spectators from around the world, gathered in Qatar, who have in large part moved on from coronavirus precautions, even as the virus continues to spread.
China’s ‘zero covid’ protests
China is battling a major wave of new coronavirus cases, driven in part by highly contagious variants and low rates of natural immunity. In an ongoing effort to stamp out the virus entirely, an approach largely abandoned elsewhere, China continues to keep its borders closed and enforce mask mandates, lockdowns and other increasingly unpopular restrictions.
Meanwhile, in Qatar, a different reality is evident, as fans celebrate their teams, seemingly without care for covid.
These disparate scenes pose a direct challenge to Xi’s power, said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley and the editor of China Digital Times, a bilingual news site.
Chinese officials “are telling people that outside of China people are dying massively, they can’t handle the virus” and “that what we are doing is the only correct way,” Xiao said. So when people see a different reality on display at the World Cup and compare it with their own situation, perhaps under lockdown, it can sow discontent, he said.
Although maskless spectators can still be seen in the CCTV coverage, which can be streamed only from Chinese IP addresses, the cameras appear to avoid lingering on spectators, noted Mark Dreyer, who runs the website China Sports Insider.
“I’m convinced that it’s covid related. They don’t want to emphasize that there are unmasked people there in a stadium because it’s ruining the facade that covid is killing everyone outside the country,” Dreyer said. “It’s completely pointless as far as I’m concerned, because you still see the wide shots. You still see that there are 50,000 or 60,000 people in the stadium.”
On Nov. 28, Dreyer tweeted: “I literally just spent the past two hours watching parallel feeds of the Brazil-Switzerland game and there were FORTY-TWO times where CCTV avoided showing crowd/fan close-ups. I saw ONE crowd close-up on CCTV (of former Brazilian players) at the start of the game.”
Dreyer said the cuts are probably made by CCTV editors in Doha who can choose in real time from dozens of different feeds of coaches or aerial shots to avoid showing close-up shots of fans. For the most part, these choices are subtle enough to be imperceptible to viewers.
But occasionally the editors appear to make mistakes. In a match between Brazil and Switzerland on Tuesday, Dreyer noted, the CCTV stream did not include a slow-motion replay of the only goal in the game and instead went with a high-angle shot of Brazil players as “tiny little dots on a pitch celebrating.” A comparison by The Washington Post of the CCTV feed with international providers confirmed the disparity.
On Chinese social media, side-by-side footage comparing World Cup coverage has circulated widely, fueling frustration and speculation.
“This time the CCTV broadcast images are often weird,” one user wrote on Weibo, a popular social media platform in China, according to a Wall Street Journal translation. “For example, slow-motion footage isn’t aired in full, the angles aren’t comprehensive, shots of empty scenery appear for no good reason. When they cut to long-distance and scenery shots, what are they trying to hide in reality? I’m just purely curious.”
Some viewers commented on the day-and-night difference between life in China vs. Qatar.
“None of the fans were wearing masks, and no one was asked to show a nucleic acid test certificate. Are we even living on the same planet as them? Can covid-19 not harm them?” one user asked on WeChat, a popular messaging app, before the account was suspended, according to China Digital Times.
Neither CCTV nor Chinese officials have spoken publicly about the coverage. CCTV did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
An article addressing public frustration in one Communist Party newspaper on Tuesday cited the relative absence of face coverings at the World Cup — but said masks were still needed in China in part because of the country’s comparatively low number of hospital beds, the website What’s on Weibo reported.
China’s state broadcaster has a long history of censoring political signs, statements and individuals, including in international sports, deemed dangerous to the ruling Communist Party.
Last year, China blocked access to current and archived Boston Celtics games after a player accused the Chinese government of “cultural genocide” in Tibet. The year before, the NBA issued a public apology to China after a Houston Rockets player spoke in favor of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and Beijing banned streams of the team’s games in response.
The World Cup holds particular significance for the Chinese public, because it was among the first competitions people watched as the country opened up to the international community in the 1980s, Xiao said.
This year, as millions of people in China remain stuck inside and under surveillance, the games have hammered home the “gap between China and the rest of the world,” he said. “In that context, anything will trigger Chinese people to react.”
Christian Shepherd and Pei-Lin Wu contributed to this report.
A previous version of this article referred to Xiao Qiang, a Berkeley researcher, as Qiang on second reference. The article has been updated to reflect that Xiao is his family name.