Tales of individual acts of bravery, heroism, sacrifice and patriotism have been making the rounds recently on Chinese news sites and social media channels, and like the story of a female medical workers air hugging her daughter from across a safety zone while her young daughter watches on in tears. many of them have been translated into English to reach a wider international audience. Another video I saw showed a female doctor writing a letter to her parents from Hubei province, (presumably) her voice-over reading out the letter in languid, sorrowful tones while traditional music played over images of family photos interspersed with sweeping vistas of China's beautiful natural landscapes and snapshots of time-lapse scenes from thriving cities. In another news article on xxx
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As someone who has spent the past three years studying the CCP's use of propaganda, the purpose of such stories is clear, and goes beyond the simple "the CCP is just distracting us from the bigger problem" explanation. Of course, distraction is part of the story. Distraction from the lack of transparency of top-level decisions concerning the containment of the outbreak, for instance. Or distraction from the waves of criticism the CCP has been receiving online regarding incidents such as the death of doctor Li Wenliang, one of the eight whistleblowers who tried to warn of the outbreak before being labelled a 'rumourmonger' by the party. However, beyond merely pulling attention away from the negative aspects of the COVID-19, these pieces serve a larger, more practical purpose as a political tool wielded by the CCP.
At this point it's probably worth pointing out that the Chinese government controls all media outlets either directly through ownership, or indirectly through heavy censorship rules. Many of these Chinese publications have English language equivalents, such as Xinhua and People's Daily, but you've probably also seen a few CCP outlets operating as if they were merely pro-Chinese international news sites such as Global Times. So its safe to say that these videos are simultaneous - if not coordinated - attempts by the Chinese government and their supporters to send out an overtly positive message during this time of crisis. But apart from boosting morale, what is the deeper meaning behind these stories and what exactly are they meant to achieve?
Part of their goal is to encourage good behaviour and acts of morality among the Chinese populace. When I showed my Chinese friend, Dong Yan (pseudonym), the video of the medical worker air-hugging her daughter, he recognised it immediately. "Did you see this on Xinhua news?" he asked. He was right - I had seen it on their Twitter timeline, whereas he had seen it on Chinese social media. The CCP is deploying these videos on both national and international fronts, it would seem, but for different reasons. While international image during a time of crisis is important, propaganda in China has a much more active role: "This is 道德论述，模范造型," he tells me, which roughly translates to "a moral discourse and a model for emulation." The idea of ordinary people acting as models for the nation is not a new one. The CCP has been using labour heroes since it launched its first Five-Year Plan way back in 1953. Some of these models have even reached national fame, like Wang Jingxi, who's name is still used in CCP propaganda to this day. The labour heroes of COVID-19 illustrate the attitude and actions that other citizens are to copy during this difficult time. They continue to not only work hard, but to make personal sacrifices, serving as paragons of morality that each member of society should strive to emulate in their daily lives.
These pieces also act as a sort of damage control, helping to bolster the party's image, as well as restore confidence in a flailing economy.
Government credibility and legitimacy have both come under fire following the party's slow initial response to the outbreak and myriad PR disasters that have followed. Entire cities have been shut down, with some people left stranded with nowhere to stay and no way to get home. In Yunnan a man has committed murder to escape a checkpoint, and some twenty-two villagers from Hubei province have been hospitalised after ingesting disinfectant tablets administered by local health professionals. In general, there is a sense of panic spreading, especially the longer the crisis drags on and the less freedom and control people have over their movements and interactions. This is coupled with increasingly authoritarian measures that are being rolled out by the government and major companies, such as QR codes to monitor people's health and restrict their movements, and constant monitoring of staff working from home via live-streams and work diaries. This is all on top of the hourly updates on infection rates and death tolls from both within the nation and internationally. These videos are a sort of beacon of hope - if people are pushing through, still doing their duty to the nation, then there's nothing to fear, there are brave men and women out there who will make the necessary sacrifices until the nation gets back to normal.
Essentially, what these stories demonstrate is that the brave men and women on display in these stories do not represent individuals, but the national spirit as a whole, and are thus beacons of patriotism. But the Chinese people are not sick and tired of them, despite how often they are bombarded with such imagery. "I think its very common," Dong explains, "it evokes emotion sometimes, I think, in a difficult time especially."
These propaganda pieces don't always strike the right chord however. The CCP was criticised by netizens for its use of a video showing female health workers crying while having their heads shaved to promote the selfless acts of front line medical workers in the worst-hit areas for propaganda purposes. Many netizens complained that the women looked genuinely distressed, and some suggested that they may have even been forced to shave their heads, which is not strictly necessary even for those working in the heart of the crisis. "I felt angry when I saw it," said Dong "No respect for women, as usual." In this case, the government had gone too far in promoting its image, becoming a sort of "play-act" (做戏). For western audiences, this sort of material acts almost as a parody of itself, reaching emotional heights that would be unacceptable. It helps that we're also privy to truths that Chinese citizens are not about the realities of living in a locked-down city.
But in China, it's a different story. For those with no access to information outside of CCP controlled avenues, government and videos showing their fellow patriots working their best to contain the spread will have to suffice, and they will have to continue to hope that it is not all in vain.