China’s Political Discourse April 2022: Struggling Against the Epidemic in “Magic City”
By China Media Project
The major event in news and public opinion in China in April 2022 was without question the fight against Covid-19 in the country’s largest metropolis, Shanghai, which has continued also through May. For many Chinese, Shanghai has long stood as a symbol of China’s economic vitality and cosmopolitan spirit, and the city has held a magnetic attraction for many in search of wealth and excitement. This spirit has earned Shanghai the nickname “Magic City,” which traces back to the Japanese writer Shōfu Muramatsu, who in 1924 published his novel Demon City (魔都), or Mato, depicting the dark underside of what was then a glitzy, vibrant colonial port. The appellation was eventually popularized in China using the more flattering sense of “magic” for the first character of the novel’s title.
But as lockdowns took hold in Shanghai in April 2022, frustration mounted among city residents, and the failings, and sometimes cruelties, of China’s “zero Covid” approach became a focus of widespread concern across social media platforms. Shanghai’s magic seemed to be wearing off.
Focus Topic: Shanghai’s Hard Lockdown
After the lockdown of Shanghai on March 28, Chinese social media platforms became a stage on which cruel, unfortunate and unexpected events stemming from harsh lockdown policies were constantly played out. Infants and young children infected with Covid were forcibly separated from their parents in order to achieve the goal of zero covid at the community level (社会面清零), meaning no new positive infections for three consecutive days under closed-loop management (非闭环管理).
Senior citizens even with mild symptoms were shipped off to so-called "mobile cabin hospitals" (方舱医院), temporary field hospitals where they could be monitored, but where conditions and care were often wanting, leaving them further exposed. Basic life necessities donated by Chinese across the country to support the people of Shanghai could not be delivered into the hands of those who desperately needed them as shortages grew serious – often owing to severe restrictions on entering cities and neighborhoods. In some cases, producers of inferior or non-urgent products managed to make government-issued lists of enterprises whose supplies would be expedited.
Moreover, as the medical resources of the city swayed heavily toward the goal of Covid prevention and control, patients with acute illnesses were unable to receive timely treatment, resulting in some related deaths. Taken collectively, and reported across social media in a steady hail of unfortunate tidings, these incidents drained away the trust and support many Shanghai citizens had previously felt for the government’s epidemic prevention and control measures.
April witnessed a spike in Covid infections in Shanghai, and the numbers rose and fell over several weeks. The number of local positive cases reached a single day peak of 27,605 on April 13. But by month's end the number of infections had fallen.
The Battle for the “Ding Ding”
At the start of the lockdown in the city things were relatively calm. While Shanghai residents were not pleased with the lockdown, they maintained a spirit of confidence – and even a sense of humor.
The following cartoon, posted to social media, makes light of the huge demand for vegetables and other basic supplies in Shanghai in early April. It depicts a white-collar worker enthusiastically reaching for a pair of cabbages set under a makeshift trap. The text across the top reads: “How to Trap a Shanghai Resident.”
On the evening of March 31, the Shanghai Sixth People's Hospital invited criticism and mockery by issuing a publicity release called, "’The Battle for the Ding Ding’ Under the Covid Epidemic" (新冠疫情笼罩下的”丁丁保卫战”). The release explained that the hospital had urgently found several leading specialists from outside the city to help treat a foreign patient suffering from prolonged erection – the word “ding ding” (丁丁) being an affectionate word for the male genitalia.
Needless to say, this was not the time. Fury and frustration were rising online among local residents who could not receive timely medical treatment for a range of potentially life-threatening conditions. In one case on April 23, Zhou Shengni (周盛妮), a nurse at Shanghai Oriental Hospital, suffered an asthma attack and sought urgent help at several local hospitals, including Shanghai Oriental, which had been temporarily closed due to the lockdown. Unable to find urgently needed intervention, Zhou died.
Against the backdrop of such incidents, the release about "The Battle for the Ding Ding" fanned the flames of discontent among netizens. The release was subsequently deleted by the hospital, but not before it had spawned a wave of animosity and good humor. One internet user commenting on the question-and-answer platform Zhihu (知乎) poked fun at the publicity release by mimicking official discourse about the need for public alertness to the conspiracies allegedly fomented by foreign elements in the discourse of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), saying that the erectile treatment for the unnamed foreigner was in fact a “surgical strike” against the rise of the West.
The hospital later clarified in a public statement that it was routine practice for various hospital departments to publicize patient treatments in a rotating manner. The treatment of the patient in question – his nationality never revealed – had taken place on March 2, when the epidemic situation remained under control in the city. The release had been issued on March 31, just as the local rise in cases had occurred.
April Surprises: An Audio Relay Eludes the Censors
On April 2, a recording of a phone call between a Shanghai CDC expert and a member of the public was hotly circulated on the Internet. Subsequently, the expert was confirmed to be Zhu Weiping (朱谓萍), director of the Infectious Disease Control Department of the Pudong District CDC. She talked about the distortion of the health cloud data and the problems of the centralized isolation sites in Shanghai, saying that there is no need for people with mild and asymptomatic infections to isolate, and that "the wards are very tight, there is no room in the isolation sites, and there are no 120 [emergency hotline] vehicles." Our professional institutions are forced to breaking point," she added, and "no one listens to what the professionals say." Most damningly, perhaps, she said, "This disease has now become a political disease."
Zhu Weiping's frank remarks punctured right through the predicament facing experts and professionals, whose opinions were not being heeded in the course of epidemic prevention and control. The veteran columnist Song Zhibiao (宋志标), previously a commentary writer for Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, wrote in his WeChat public account "Old News Review" (旧闻评论) that the chaos in Shanghai was connected to a large extent to the failure of policy logic to integrate with scientific logic (政策逻辑不能融洽科学逻辑).
In the midst of the Shanghai epidemic, one focus of public opinion was the tens of thousands of asymptomatic infections diagnosed daily. In a conversation with a popular science writer, Zhu Weiping said that many people who were infected presented with what were manageable symptoms similar to those associated with mild flu cases, including low fevers and weak coughs. According to diagnostic criteria applied in Shanghai, Zhu explained, "asymptomatic" meant that there was no diagnostic data from lung imaging, a definition that would not occur to most people without relevant expertise.
As this pair of recordings drew widespread attention on platforms like WeChat, censors responded by deleting them. However, users fought back with flurries of new posts, managing to share the audio in creative ways that eluded censors, even if just for a time. This relay of audio posts and reposts recalled the wave of online opposition in 2020 to the deletion of a magazine interview with a Wuhan doctor that exposed the cover-up in December 2019 of information about the virus that would soon become known as Covid-19.
Shanghai Supermarkets on the Nightly News
On April 16, the official "Xinwen Lianbo" (新闻联播) nightly newscast on China Central Television, the country's state-run broadcaster, ran a report about how the Shanghai government was ensuring there was no shortage of supplies in the city in the midst of the "zero Covid" lockdown.
The news segment showed footage of a supermarket brimming with fresh produce and other goods, the aisles bustling with customers. This contrasted sharply with the experiences of Shanghai residents, who were already struggling to find the most basic necessities, and accusations flew online about the staging of the scene in the news segment. On April 17, the Propaganda Department of the Shanghai Municipal CCP Committee responded that the image had been provided by the Jinshan District Integrated Media Center (金山区融媒体中心), and that it reflected the real situation of the supermarket in that district as of April 15.
Looking closely, observant internet users found that the shelves in the background on the news segment were all empty.
“Voices of April”
On April 22, a video called "Voices of April," which paired simple aerial footage of Shanghai with a collage of audio exchanges exposing the horrors and frustrations of lockdown in the city (including the above-mentioned with Zhu Weiping), went viral on Weibo, WeChat and other social media platforms.
The video opened with two bits of audio from government press conferences in Shanghai. In the first, from March 15, the spokesperson could be heard to say: “For the moment, we are not under lockdown in Shanghai, and right now there is no need for lockdown.” In the next audio segment, dated March 26, the spokesperson says that Shanghai cannot close down because it has a crucial role not just in the lives of the Shanghai people but for the society and economy of the whole country. These voices are followed by a sequence of audio segments shared online between April 1 and 12, each of them deeply moving in various ways. Taken together, they are a powerful testament to the difficulties, and also the failures, of Shanghai’s lockdown.
As the number of shares of the "Voices of April" video skyrocketed, social media platforms rushed to remove the video, which spurred the sudden emergence of a huge volume of new versions.
Soon the creator of the video revealed through their personal WeChat public account "Strawberry Fields Forever" (永远的草莓园) that they had decided to delete the video because it had been disseminated faster and wider than they had anticipated – and because interpretations of the video and its intent, they said, had grown out of control.
Focusing public concerns online over events in Shanghai and the limitations of China’s “zero Covid” policy, “Voices of April” was a watershed moment in Chinese public opinion, particularly under the far more stringent information controls of the Xi era. Along with the other examples cited above, the video and its online reaction were salient reminders that Chinese are not mere passive consumers of information, but are prepared to challenge the official narrative as well as censorship measures to uphold their interests.
Other flashpoints concerning the lockdown in Shanghai included:
On March 22, an exchange student with cancer returning home to China for treatment was stuck in quarantine and unable to receive treatment, drawing anger online over the allocation of medical resources.
On March 30, the video of a “120” emergency response doctor in an ambulance refusing to roll down his window and lend a defibrillator (AED) for a dying patient was shared widely and sparked controversy. The elderly man requiring urgent assistance passed away that day.
Patients requiring hemodialysis had their treatment cycles disrupted by lockdown policies, again raising questions about medical resource allocation and the wisdom of “zero Covid.”
The evening of April 2, a video taken at an infant isolation center in Shanghai was widely shared on social media, showing children of different age groups huddled together and crying. At a press conference the same day, an official from the Shanghai Women's Federation did not deny the authenticity of the video. Another volunteer nurse said the video showed a temporary waiting area before children were transferred to new isolation areas.
In mid-April and late April the WeChat public account "Tundra" (苔原) compiled two sets of jokes about the lockdown called "Shanghai Epidemic Jokes" (上海疫情笑话) and "Shanghai Epidemic Jokes 2.0" (上海疫情笑话2.0) that were imitations of old jokes about the Soviet Union. The articles are no longer available inside China, but have been archived at China Digital Times.
On April 11, the Taiwanese economist Lang Xianping (郎咸平) wrote on Weibo that his 98 year-old mother had died as a result of kidney failure because she had been forced to wait for the results of a nucleic acid test before receiving urgent medical attention.
On April 12th, the Shanghai satellite broadcaster Dragon Television announced that it would postpone the broadcast of a special evening gala program called "A City Becoming One, Protecting Shanghai with One Heart" (众志成城 同心守沪), a propaganda segment lauding the local Covid response that had been originally planned for the next day. The announcement came after the scheduling of the program received a wave of criticism from internet users who felt the celebration was insensitive and premature.
On April 14th, a video showing multiple cabin hospitals with leaking roofs went viral on social media.
On April 14th, the WeChat public account "Maya" (摩耶夫人) published a post called "The Patience of the Shanghai People Has Reached Its Limit" (上海人的忍耐已经到了极限), which quickly received more than 100,000 reads and 100,000 likes. A comment at the end of the article read, "If this article is deleted, the person who deleted it will die a horrible death." This comment alone was liked more than 700,000 times. The article was not deleted, but WeChat eventually restricted it from the sharing function.
On April 14, Alibaba's vice-president of technology, Jia Yangqing (贾扬清), announced in a Facebook post that he had escaped the lockdown from Shanghai's Pudong International Airport overnight, making it to California.
Throughout the month of April, there was increased chatter on social media platforms of “runology” (润学), a neologism that refers to the study of various methods of immigrating, or “running.”
On April 17, the WeChat public account "DXY" (丁香医生), an online community for physicians and healthcare professionals, published a post called, "Don't Eat Lianhua Qingfei to Prevent Covid" (不要吃连花清瘟预防新冠), which noted that a well-known traditional medicine brand, which was being distributed to many city residents, was ineffective in preventing Covid-19. Some news reports estimated that 50-million-yuan worth of Lianhua Qingfei products, more than 3 million boxes, were dispatched to Shanghai by the manufacturer.
On April 23rd, a notice from authorities in the Pudong New Area demanded that residents go into "hard isolation" (硬隔离). In a number of neighborhoods, steel fences were used to seal entrances, ensuring that no one could enter or leave.
April Surprises: Nucleic acid tests are a measure of slavishness and courage, not of infection
On April 19, Wang Sicong (王思聪), the son of Chinese business mogul Wang Jianlin (王健林) of Dalian Wanda Group, wrote in his WeChat friend group that daily nucleic acid tests are not really about positives or negatives, but rather are about the extent of one’s enslavement or courage. From this day forward, he pledged, he would not leave his home to do the tests.
Shortly after, Wang Sicong made a post to Weibo in which he questioned the efficacy of Lianhua Qingwen (连花清瘟), a patented traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) produced by Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical that had been trucked into Shanghai under lockdown with preference over food and other essential materials. Nearly eight million boxes of Lianhua Qingwen capsules were reportedly sent to Shanghai residents to help fight Omicron, even as top health experts publicly questioned the treatment’s effectiveness. On April 27, Wang’s account was shut down by the authorities, and there were unconfirmed rumors that he had been detained by police.
Red-Coded Forever, the Hat Never Removed
On April 12, the neighborhood committee in Ruixin (瑞鑫居委会) in Shanghai’s Hongkou District issued a “warm reminder” (温馨提示) emphasizing that residents who needed to be transferred to isolation sites according to the Covid provisions would be "red-coded forever, the hat never removed” (永远红码，永不摘帽) if they resisted transfer. This overt threat, clearly exceeding the neighborhood committees powers, kicked up a fury in the community and online.
The term “taking off the cap,” or zhaimao (摘帽), dates back to the Cultural Revolution and the period of political struggle in China, and essentially means removing the political stigma stemming from having been the victim of public denunciations, or “struggle sessions.” The use of this term in relation to China’s system of health codes added an unmistakable layer of political stigmatization, implying that those who resisted policies would be forever branded as infected people, able only to live lives in isolation. The “warm reminder” also cautioned residents that the buildings in which those who resisted lived would be sealed off continuously, so that the entire community would have no hope of release as a result of the individual actions of some.
The Hot and the Cold
About the Scale:
According to the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016, based on a historical analysis of keywords appearing in the China Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, we define a six-tier system of discourse intensity based on the total number of appearances of a given discourse term on a per article basis for the full year in the paper. The scale is as follows:
In 2021, CMP adjusted its classification method for CCP discourse, determining the intensity (热度) of Party terminologies according to the absolute number of articles including those terms in the People's Daily newspaper. Previously, CMP used a proportional method, which looked at the number of articles including a particular catchphrase (提法) as a ratio of total articles in the newspaper over a given period. Our monthly classification standard, based on the six-level scale created in 2016, is as follows:
In April 2022, there were two fewer terms in Tier 1 on the CMP scale, with both “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心) and “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) dropping one level to Tier 2. These drops were not necessarily significant, and we can note that all of the terms in the so-called “442 formula,” a formulation meant to consolidate Xi Jinping’s personal power as the leader of the CCP, were in Tier 2 for the month. These include the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), “Four Confidences” (四个自信) and “Two Protections” (两个维护). At the same time, we should also note that reporting of the Politburo meeting held on April 29, 2022, the third reported in the People’s Daily this year, did not mention the “442 formula.”
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of April 2022 and how they rated on our scale:
Monthly Hot Words: The “Two Establishes”
Ahead of the CCP’s 20th National Congress, to be held in the fall this year, the China Media Project is tracking use at the provincial level of the phrase “Two Establishes” (两个确立). First emerging in the wake of the six plenary session of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, held in November 2021, this new four-character phrase essentially 1) establishes Xi Jinping as the unquestionable “core” leader of the CCP, and 2) establishes Xi Jinping’s ideas as the bedrock of the future under what the CCP has termed the “New Era,” a CCP historiography that envisions China as being in the midst of a grand new period of development marking its restoration as a full global power. At base the phrase is a claim to the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, and a challenge to any who might oppose him.
In April 2022, Guangxi, Tianjin and Tibet were the top three local provincial party newspapers in terms of the number of articles using the "Two Establishes" phrase. Shanxi, which maintained a position in the top three during the first three months of 2022, ranked 15th in April. Guangxi, which ranked further down during the first quarter in terms of mentions of the phrase, jumped into the top three in April as a result of a publicity boom stemming from the one-year anniversary of Xi Jinping's "important speech" during an inspection tour of Guangxi on April 27, 2021. At the same time, images of pocket editions of a book issued in Guangxi for the study of the spirit of General Secretary Xi's “important speech” were shared widely on social media, and criticized for their resemblance to Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book.”
The following map shows the frequency of articles including the phrase “Two Establishes” in provincial-level Party newspapers in April 2022.
The Centrality Index
Xi Jinping remained firmly at the top of both the CMP scale and the list of leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) in April 2022. Premier Li Keqiang (李克强), who in March 2022 rose to Tier 2, ever so slightly closing the gap with Xi, returned to Tier 3, dropping from his high corresponding to the annual National People’s Congress. The remaining PSC members were arrayed across tiers 3-6.
Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang (李强), who managed an appearance in Tier 4 for March, returned to the bottom of the CMP scale in Tier 6 in April, the same level he held in January-February. Li Qiang appeared in just one article in the People's Daily for the month, corresponding to a visit to Shanghai by Sun Chunlan (孙春兰), the vice-premier, that emphasized the fight against Covid-19. The article mentioned only that Li Qiang attended related activities in Shanghai.
In April 2022, the frequencies of foreign leaders in the People’s Daily showed a general decline. Topping the list was US President Joe Biden, who appeared in five articles for the month. Reports on Biden included one neutral report on bilateral military relations and the need to “keep communication channels open, manage risks, and promote the construction of a crisis communication mechanism,” and three negative reports about the US having “primary responsibility for the war in Ukraine,” about the fundamentally racist nature of American society, and about rising anxieties in the US stemming from inflation. Two of the three above-mentioned negative reports were presented in the newspaper in an “In-Depth Observation” (深度观察) column.
Aside from Biden, who was in Tier 5 for the month, all other foreign leaders were in the cold Tier 6. Putin appeared in just one article in April 2022, about a talk via video link on April 15 between NPC Standing Committee Chairman Li Zhanshu (栗战书) and Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of Russia’s upper parliament (reported also by Russia’s TASS agency). The People’s Daily article mentioned the “development of cooperation between Russia and China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping and President Putin.”
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky (泽连斯基), continued his dry spell in the People’s Daily, which seems to have conscientiously ignored mention of the leader’s name since January 5 this year (See CMP analysis in “President Who?”).
Worthy of note in People’s Daily coverage of foreign leaders in April was a positive feature on April 15 about the steps taken by Kim Jong-un (金正恩) to improve the lives of the people of North Korea, including the introduction of cooperative vegetable farms.