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Coronavirus Weakens China’s Powerful Propaganda Machine

Exhausted medical workers with faces lined from hours of wearing goggles and surgical masks. Women with shaved heads, a gesture of devotion. Retirees who donate their life savings anonymously in government offices.

Beijing is tapping its old propaganda playbook as it battles the relentless coronavirus outbreak, the biggest challenge to its legitimacy in decades. State media is filling smartphones and airwaves with images and tales of unity and sacrifice aimed at uniting the people behind Beijing’s rule. It even briefly offered up cartoon mascots named Jiangshan Jiao and Hongqi Man, characters meant to stir patriotic feelings among the young during the crisis.

The problem for China’s leaders: This time, it isn’t working so well.

Online, people are openly criticizing state media. They have harshly condemned stories of individual sacrifice when front-line medical personnel still lack basic supplies like masks. They shouted down Jiangshan Jiao and Hongqi Man. They have heaped scorn on images of the women with shaved heads, asking whether the women were pressured to do it and wondering why similar images of men weren’t appearing.

One critical blog post was titled “News Coverage Should Stop Turning a Funeral Into a Wedding.”

Daisy Zhao, 23, a Beijing resident, said she once trusted the official media. Now she fumes over the reports that labeled eight medical workers who tried to warn about the coronavirus threat as rumormongers. Images and videos of their public reprimand have been widely shared online.

“The official media,” Ms. Zhao said, “has lost a lot of credibility.”

China’s propaganda machine, an increasingly sophisticated operation that has helped the Communist Party stay in power for decades, is facing one of its biggest challenges.

The government was slow to disclose the threat of the coronavirus and worked to suppress the voices of those who tried to warn the country. In doing so, it undermined its implicit deal with its people, in which they trade away their individual rights for the promise of security.

To tame public outrage, Beijing is determined to create a “good public opinion environment.” It has sent hundreds of state-sponsored journalists to Wuhan and elsewhere to churn out heart-tugging stories about the front-line doctors and nurses and the selfless support from the Chinese public.

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China Is Censoring Coronavirus Stories. These Citizens Are Fighting Back.

Information about the coronavirus outbreak is not immune from Chinese censors. But more and more citizens are dodging censorship by creating a digital archive of deleted posts. They told us how.

Voices like these from Chinese citizens are very rare. People who are willing to speak out about the government’s attempts to control news about the deadly coronavirus. They asked to remain anonymous, because what they’re doing could put them and their families at great risk. But these people are part of a new wave of Chinese citizens, fighting to get the message out in a country that aggressively censors information. Accounts or messages like these calling for free speech are quickly scrubbed from the internet. Or videos like this, showing people frustrated about life under lockdown. [clanging] Posted online one day, but gone the next. But the crisis over the coronavirus is changing the landscape, for now at least. Everyday citizens are preserving and reposting information the government doesn’t want out there. Experts say this kind of digital resistance is happening at a scale they’ve never seen before. Social media networks like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China. But internet savvy people use techniques that allow them to repost censored content to these platforms, while staying under the radar of authorities. They’re creating a visual archive by preserving videos like this one, showing overwhelmed hospitals. [screaming] And they’re reposting people’s personal stories. Some are also turning to less obvious platforms, including GitHub, which is a site mostly used by coders. Another taboo Chinese citizens are pushing back on? They’re making open and widespread calls for freedom of speech. These were triggered by the death of Dr. Li Wenliang. He was an early whistleblower who warned about the virus, and was punished by officials for speaking out. He died in early February from the coronavirus. Right after his death, the hashtag “I want freedom of speech” started to trend on Weibo, a Chinese social media site. Then, it was quickly censored by the government. Dr. Li’s become an icon in the online fight for freedom of speech between censors and citizens. So, who’s winning? For now, citizens are staying a step ahead of the authorities. But a renewed government crackdown could test the strength of this digital resistance.

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Information about the coronavirus outbreak is not immune from Chinese censors. But more and more citizens are dodging censorship by creating a digital archive of deleted posts. They told us how.

China’s propaganda spinners have some tough competition. Chinese people have seen images of a young woman crying “Mom! Mom!” as her mother’s body was driven away. They’ve seen a woman banging a homemade gong from her balcony while begging for a hospital bed. They’ve seen an exhausted nurse breaking down and howling.

And they have all seen the face of Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to warn China about the very virus that killed him.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • Answers to your most common questions:

    Updated Feb. 26, 2020

    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. has warned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan, Italy and Iran. The agency also has advised against all non-essential travel to South Korea and China.
    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      The World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world is not ready for a major outbreak.

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