Under the mask

China ups propaganda effort amid outbreak


When 20 year-old Huang Zhibo entered the talent show All For One in 2018, his chosen catchphrase was “to become a different version of myself”. Sadly for the would-be pop idol, it has not turned out to be the version he envisaged when he came ninth on the show.

Huang was recently arrested for a scam selling facemasks (he took the cash but never delivered). In a lengthy Sina Weibo post, his sister tried to defend his actions, but he hasn’t earned much public sympathy and his short-lived career looks to be over (Huang had been managed by talent agency Yuehua Entertainment, which has now terminated his contract).

Of course, Huang is not the only scammer who has tried to take advantage of China’s coronavirus crisis, which has infected more than 80,000 since the end of last year and claimed more than 3,000 lives.

Over the past couple of weeks, Kangbaixin, one of Beijing’s larger pharmacy chains has been in the firing line after its founder and chairman Li Dong was arrested for personally sourcing and then selling 580,000 counterfeit masks through his stores in the capital.

The masks had the branding of New York-listed 3M on them. But they were not produced by the American firm. They did not meet the standards of typical triple-layer surgical masks, which are designed to: absorb coughs and sneezes (inner layer); filter out particles (middle layer); and repel other people’s coughs (outer layer).

Social media commentators have been brief but to the point in their condemnation. “He must be severely punished and not allowed to run pharmacies again,” demanded one.

“Firing squad execution,” wrote another referring to the harshest penalty that China can mete out.

Towards the end of February, the Ministry of Public Safety announced that the government had seized 31 million counterfeit facemasks and arrested 1,560 people as part of 688 cases being investigated by the police.

The Nikkei Asian Review also reported that 35 million counterfeit masks have been seized in Jiangsu province alone.

The government has been happy to highlight the police’s diligence in cracking down on such fraudsters. More surprisingly – albeit on only a few occasions – it has been allowing some criticism to get through of the government itself.

For instance, state media relayed footage of vice premier Sun Chunlan’s visit this month to stricken Wuhan to the shouts of “fake, fake, it’s all fake” ringing out from tenants in the apartments above her. Their anger related to a staged delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables that local government officials had orchestrated to coincide with Sun’s inspection trip to the quarantined apartment blocks.

There was also disparagement online at an attempt in Wuhan to get local people to thank the central government for its handling of the outbreak. In comments published last Saturday the city’s most senior official said “we must through various channels carry out gratitude education among citizens of the whole city so that they thank the Communist Party”. This didn’t go down too well with netizens: The Guardian reported that the “raging criticism” online over this message even led the Changjiang Daily to remove the original article from its website.

This backlash may be one reason why the government has missed the publication date for foreign language versions of a book compiled by the Central Propaganda Department called A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combating COVID-19 in 2020. The Economist reports that the domestic version has vanished from the online catalogue of the People’s Publishing House too. It suggests rewrites are now in order: toning down upbeat rhetoric that some domestic social media commentators have also heavily criticised.

A far more effective public relations exercise came in the form of another visit to Wuhan – this time by President Xi Jinping. He visited Hubei’s capital on Tuesday – a sign the government feels the situation has stabilised in the city. He expressed his condolences to the families of those who had died and offered his thanks to local residents and front-line medical workers for their efforts. In his case, the TV footage aired by state broadcaster CCTV showed him being cheered by citizens from their apartment balconies.

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