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How Beijing Turned China’s Covid-19 Tragedy to Its Advantage

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One year ago this week, the Chinese Communist Party was on the verge of its biggest crisis in decades. The coronavirus had brought the city of Wuhan to a halt. In the following days, the government’s efforts to conceal the pandemic would become public, sparking an online backlash of the kind the Chinese internet hadn’t seen in years.

Then, as the blows landed faster than the Chinese propaganda machine seemingly could handle, a number of liberal-minded Chinese began to think the unthinkable. Perhaps this tragedy would impel the Chinese people to push back. After decades of thought control and worsening censorship, perhaps this was the moment that the world’s largest and most powerful propaganda machine would crack.

It wasn’t.

A year later, the party’s control of the narrative has become absolute. In Beijing’s telling, Wuhan stands not as a testament to China’s weaknesses but to its strengths. Memories of the horrors of last year seem to be fading, at least judging by what’s online. Even moderate dissent gets shouted down.

People in China should be bowing their heads this week in memory of those who suffered and died. Instead, the China internet is afire over the scandal of a Chinese actress and her surrogate babies, a tabloid controversy egged on by Chinese propaganda.

Anyone looking for lessons about China in the coming years needs to understand the consequences of what happened in 2020. The tragedy showed Beijing has the ability to control what people in China see, hear and think to a degree that surpasses even what pessimists believed. During the next crisis — whether it be disaster, war or financial crisis — the party has shown it has the tools to rally the people, no matter how ham-handedly Beijing deals with it.

This week I looked through my Chinese social media timelines and screenshots from a year ago. I was shocked by how many posts, articles, photos and videos have been removed. I was also surprised to remember the sense of hope at that moment despite intense anger and grief.

The shift was especially palpable the night that Dr. Li Wenliang, who was silenced after warning of the outbreak in late 2019, died of the virus.

That night, numerous Chinese people waged what amounted to an online revolt. They posted videos of the “Les Misérables” song “Do You Hear the People Sing?” They shared one of Dr. Li’s quotes repeatedly: “A healthy society should not have just one voice.”

Even one of China’s propaganda directives warned that Dr. Li’s death was an “unprecedented challenge.” Young people told me that the official news media had lost credibility.

One of my followers on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, apologized for attacking me before. I used to think that people like you were evil, he wrote. Now, he added, I know that we were fooled.

A middle-age intellectual told me that he expected the population of liberal-minded Chinese people — those who want greater freedom from Beijing’s controls — to expand from his estimate of 5 percent to 10 percent of the total population to 30 percent to 40 percent.

As these hopes rose, others tried to tamp down enthusiasm. One political scientist guessed the share of liberal-minded Chinese internet users would shrink, not grow. In three months, she predicted, the Chinese public would be celebrating the glorious victory over the outbreak under the leadership of the great Communist government.

Unfortunately, she was correct.

To reclaim the narrative in the early days of the pandemic, as my colleagues have reported, the Chinese government began a tremendous behind-the-scene effort to make sure that the censors took control at even the most local level. They listened and read just about everything people posted. Then the censors either addressed the problems or silenced the dissenters. Chinese officials say the police investigated or otherwise dealt with more than 17,000 people who they said had fabricated or spread fake pandemic-related information.

After 11 weeks, the lockdown in Wuhan ended. By the summer, a photo of a crowded Wuhan swimming pool appeared on the home pages of many websites around the world. China emerged as a success story while the infection cases and death tolls in the United States and many other Western countries skyrocketed. The contrast made the effectiveness of the party’s strong hand an easy sell.

The Chinese Communist Party has a long history of controlling history. In the United States, historical narratives shift and compete, leading to arguments and sometimes even violence, but constantly illuminating new perspectives and bringing greater understanding of what underpins the national identity. In China, by contrast, the government has successfully taught its people that the country is nearly ungovernable unless a strong hand controls the narrative.

The Communist Party has strict narratives about its most serious mistakes, including the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Immediately after the Cultural Revolution, the so-called scar literature — memoir-style novels by those who suffered during that troubled time — became a popular genre. The party quickly realized the danger of letting the public share its individual traumas and banned the books.

Under Xi Jinping, the party has become even less tolerant of unorthodox historical ideas. In 2016, Yanhuang Chunqiu, a monthly history magazine in which moderate-minded retired officials published articles, was forced to surrender its editorial power to the authorities.

The narrative about the current pandemic is no exception. Journalists, writers and bloggers whose portrayals of the outbreak differ from the official version have been jailed, disappeared or silenced.

Fang Fang, a Wuhan-based novelist, became the most vilified figure on the Chinese internet in 2020. Her crime? Documenting her lockdown experiences in an apolitical account in an online diary.

People online call her a liar, a traitor, a villain and an imperialist dog. They accuse her of maligning the government and causing the Chinese people to lose face in the world by publishing an English translation of her diary in the United States. One man called on the government to investigate her for the crime of subverting the state power. One high-ranking medical scientist chastised her for lacking patriotic emotions.

No publisher is willing or able to publish her works in China. The social media posts and articles that support her are often censored. A few people who spoke up for her publicly were punished, including a literature professor in Wuhan who lost her Communist Party membership and her right to teach.

“I think Fang Fang wrote about what happened,” said Amy Ye, the organizer of a volunteer group for disabled people in Wuhan. “In fact, I don’t think she included the most serious situations. Her diary is very moderate. I don’t understand why even something like that couldn’t be tolerated.”

This demand for a single narrative carries risks. It silences those who might warn the government before it does something foolish, like stumble into a conflict or interfere with China’s economic growth machine.

It also conceals the true feelings of the Chinese people. On the street, in person, most Chinese will be happy to tell you what’s on their minds, perhaps in exhaustive details. But China became a more opaque place in 2020. Online censorship became even harsher. Few Chinese people are willing to take the risks of speaking to Western news media. Beijing expelled many American journalists.

This single narrative also means that people who don’t fit into it risk getting left behind.

Ms. Ye, the Wuhan volunteer group organizer, doesn’t believe that Wuhan could claim a victory over the pandemic. “My whole world has changed, and it will probably never go back to what it used to be,” she said.

She’s still struggling with depression and the fear of getting out of her apartment. An outgoing person before the pandemic, she has attended only one social gathering since the end of the lockdown in April.

“All of a sudden we were locked up at home for many days. So many people passed away. But nobody was held accountable,” she said. “I would probably feel better if someone could apologize that they didn’t do their job.”

“I can’t forget the pain,” she said. “It’s engraved in my bones and my heart.”

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