BEIJING – China’s government is purging unpopular local officials and commandeering heroic stories of doctors on the frontline as it tries to shield itself from public rage over the handling of the deadly coronavirus epidemic.
Facing the biggest challenge of his presidency, Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has cast the crisis as a “people’s war” and state media have gone into overdrive to regain control of public opinion.
Images of doctors and nurses in masks and full protective suits, leaving their families behind to care for patients, have dominated the airwaves.
Government censors, meanwhile, have made rare exceptions to allow for criticism online — but mostly when directed at local officials accused of negligence in central Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
One comment that was allowed to circulate on the Twitter-like Weibo platform declared that “scores should be settled against all the officials in Wuhan after the crisis,” which has claimed more than 1,600 lives and infected over 68,000 people.
An investigation into health inspectors in neighboring Hunan province who had leaked residents’ personal information also became a trending search on the platform.
On Thursday, the political chiefs of Hubei and Wuhan were sacked and replaced with Xi loyalists with security backgrounds. The province’s top two health officials were also fired.
Senior Beijing law enforcement official Chen Yixin was also appointed to manage local efforts against the epidemic.
Every part of Beijing’s messaging is designed to “deflect from the center: failings at the local level, the heroism of medical staff, the resilience and unity of the Chinese people in the face of great difficulties,” Jonathan Sullivan, a China expert from the University of Nottingham, said.
In Hubei, local Red Cross leaders had also come under fire on Weibo for allegedly mismanaging donations of masks and other medical supplies.
Authorities reacted quickly, sacking the local Red Cross vice president Zhang Qin for dereliction of duty.
China must “dare to criticize” those who fail to carry out official orders, and dereliction of duty “shall be punished according to discipline and law,” Xi said in a Feb. 3 speech published by state media Saturday.
“Vividly describe touching deeds on the epidemic control and prevention frontline,” Xi also urged.
“Let positive energy fill the cyberspace from start to end.”
The death of Li Wenliang, a whistleblowing doctor punished in January by Wuhan police for sending text messages about the illness, prompted a national outpouring of grief and anger that Beijing was quick to redirect toward local officials.
The 34-year-old, who died after contracting the virus from a patient, was mourned on Weibo but his death also triggered calls for freedom of speech and the downfall of the Communist Party.
Within hours, however, hashtags and posts related to free speech disappeared from the platform.
Two open letters, including one signed by 10 professors in Wuhan, were circulated on social media days later but were quickly removed by censors.
At the same time, the central government announced that it would send a team to Wuhan to investigate how Li’s case had been handled.
State media and officials sought to paint Li as a hero who was part of a “joint” battle against the epidemic.
Chinese ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming denied in a BBC interview that “Chinese authorities” had punished Li, emphasizing it was local authorities who had done so.
“Let’s win battle against novel coronavirus for deceased Doctor Li,” the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, urged readers.
Other individuals have also been singled out by state media and government representatives as heroes, usually for making massive individual sacrifices.
State news agency Xinhua highlighted on Tuesday 87-year-old Ni Suying, a woman from Chongqing in the southwest, who had donated 30 years savings to help fight the epidemic.
“Salute to these angels!#EverydayHero,” reads a tweet by the People’s Daily showing nurses with marks and sores on their faces left by the masks they have worn during hours of duty.
The focus on individual sacrifice “obscures the state’s failure to discharge its duty to provide public safety,” Ling Li, a lecturer in Chinese politics at the University of Vienna, said.
Tear-jerking “hero” stories distract from a “rational understanding of the causal link between the mess of a crisis and the origin of the crisis,” Li said.
But there are signs the tolerance for public criticism of officials is beginning to end.
Multiple people took to Weibo last week to complain that they had been permanently locked out of their WeChat accounts for allegedly spreading misinformation, after posting about the epidemic in the popular social media app.
The officials brought in to replace the sacked Hubei leaders have strong backgrounds in security, “hinting at the emphasis on maintaining stability,” Sullivan said.
At the start, “the flow of information coming out from citizens and Chinese journalists was too abundant to contain,” Sullivan said.
Now, “an element of narrative control has been re-established,” he said.
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