How China’s propaganda machine erodes sympathy for the heroes of Wuhan’s epidemic response
The medical staff who risked — and sometimes lost — their lives on the front lines of Wuhan’s battle against the coronavirus are heroes. Unfortunately, they are stripped of their recognition by the constant barrage of “positive news” emanating from China’s propaganda machine, which makes it impossible for both outsiders and Chinese citizens to discern fact from fiction. China’s propaganda drive to humanize the efforts of the heroes in Wuhan is having the opposite effect on the global stage.
On March 20th I saw a Twitter post which highlighted different (and unfair) treatment that Chinese medical workers received on the Western internet.
The tweet compared Reddit user reactions to Italian doctors and Chinese doctors after 12+ hours of continuous work. Both the Italian and Chinese doctors looked extraordinarily fatigued, both had marks and bruises on their faces from wearing protective gear for hours on end, and both are unmistakably heroes.
User comments, however, reflect a night and day difference in how the Italian doctor was viewed compared to how the Chinese doctors were viewed. The Italian was praised as a hero, while the Chinese were labeled as propaganda tools. This difference in treatment was, as many things are these days, used as an example of the Western world’s unfailing racism towards Asian people.
While there may be an element of that in play, I wouldn’t say it’s an open and shut case of racism. Although a thought experiment can’t prove anything, for me the following is instructive: If the doctors in the bottom half of the picture were Korean or Japanese, would the commenters call them propaganda tools? I contend the answer would be “No.”
The commenters did not seem to be taking issue with the doctors’ race at all. They didn’t say anything nasty about Chinese people, they didn’t spam “CHINESE VIRUS” or “Don’t eat bats!” or some of the clearly ignorant stuff that’s been going around. They simply doubt the veracity of positive / feel-good news coming from China. Italy, and Korea or Japan for that matter, have free media and thus the images coming from these countries can be trusted as real, rather than staged propaganda.
In China, on the other hand, such examples are far too many to count.
For example, a worker in full hazmat gear so elated about getting off work that he skips joyously down the road, because, you know, walking just wouldn’t be sufficiently expressive. The following is from People’s Daily, one of the largest state media organizations in China.
Or a woman being instructed to cry (“kū”) by the cameraman in a video meant to illustrate the Chinese people’s appreciation for the medical workers in Wuhan.
Or a team of hospital workers dashing through a hospital lobby as they cart a patient off to the emergency room… before the cameraman yells “Ok Ok Ok! Cut!” at 7 seconds in.
Or… the “patient” from that valiant scene climbing up on the gurney before the dash to the ER begins.
For anyone who follows China and hangs out on the Chinese-speaking internet, it is common knowledge that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dispatches state media organizations to generate positive propaganda. In fact, in early February when the Chinese public were extremely disappointed with their government’s early response to the outbreak, the CCP dispatched over 300 journalists to Wuhan to tell “positive stories” from the epicenter of the outbreak. The above videos were all filmed after state journalists arrived in Wuhan — this is the kind of content you get when state media arrives in town.
Is this to say that the four women pictured at the top of this article are somehow faking it? No, good Lord no. The mask marks on their faces are obviously real. Between mid-January and mid-March, the medical workers in Wuhan went through hell and back more times than any of us can imagine.
The point I want to make is that when you have a country with full state control of the media, when you have openly dispatched 300+ reporters with the express purpose of telling “positive stories,” you lose credibility. Trump can’t make the New York Times or Wall Street Journal say nice things about him or about America. The CCP, on the other hand, can make Xinhua or Pengpai or People’s Daily sing its praises. Any and all information that comes out of China is taken — and rightly so — with a full shaker of salt. After all, it was this same media apparatus that told its country and the world that a novel coronavirus, known by some to be spreading in Wuhan since December 31st, exhibited no evidence of human to human transmission all the way through January 21st.
As long as there is no independent media in China, which is free to publish without fear of retribution, no heroic deed performed by ordinary Chinese citizens will get the praise or recognition it deserves. To lay the blame at the feet of racism, discrimination, or the white world’s double standards for Asian people would be missing the point.
Chinese state media seem to be realizing this point, as the Editor in Chief of the hyper-nationalistic Global Times, Hu Xijin, recently called for an end to the double standards applied to Chinese vs. other medical workers:
Even though the content of the two videos in Hu’s tweet are are roughly the same, people’s reactions to them are different.
Because I’m such a fan of thought experiments, I’m going to close with one.
Imagine that Russia Today or Sputnik published an article saying that Vladimir Putin has been chopping wood for 12 hours every day to help the Russian people heat their homes during winter. The article has a photo of severely blistered hands, apparently due to repeatedly swinging an all day every day. The article goes on to say that Putin is a hero to the Russian people, which explains his 96% approval rating.
Would you believe it? If you answer is “No” and someone called you RACIST!! against Russians, what would you want to say to that person?
I very much do consider the doctors of Wuhan to be heroes — the four women pictured above and the many others who got no such recognition. But if you see someone treating “reports” from China with a dose of skepticism, perhaps your first reaction should not be to call them a racist, even if your first instinct tells you to.
It’s unreasonable and unproductive to pin the blame entirely on Western racism for stripping heroic Chinese doctors of the praise they deserve. This distinction goes, at least in part, to the state-backed media outlets which demand to be their one and only steward. When you cry wolf too many times with obviously fake propaganda, unfortunately the real heroes get lost in the noise.
批评不自由，赞美无意义： Unless people are free to criticize, then their compliments have no meaning.
PS, don’t be a racist asshole, both on social media and in the real world.