The 14 women from northwest China cried silently as a group of men shaved off their long black hair, a precaution meant to help prevent infection before they treat patients inflicted with the deadly new coronavirus.
The nurses were featured in a video released over the weekend by the Gansu Daily, a media outlet affiliated with the provincial government.
While the report sought to highlight their sacrifice and bravery, it only generated anger on social media.
By Tuesday, an article titled “Stop Using Women’s Bodies as Propaganda Tools” had been viewed more than 100,000 times on the messaging app WeChat.
Users asked if the women had been forced to participate, and if the practice was even backed by science.
As criticism grew online, it was removed from Gansu Daily’s account on Weibo. The hospital where the women worked told local media that they had volunteered to shave their heads.
The backlash to the video embodies the growing levels of cynicism taking hold in China as outrage builds over a lack of transparency about the outbreak that’s claimed more than 1,800 lives. Beijing’s efforts to rally the nation with stories of upbeat patients and heroic front-line doctors are falling flat, with social-media users instead lashing out about harsh working conditions and insufficient measures taken to protect medical staff.
While China’s Great Firewall blocks access to internet sites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, more of its 1.4 billion citizens are turning to home-grown alternatives such as WeChat and Weibo to express their discontent. Over the past few weeks, posts on the platforms have quickly criticized state-run media accounts well before censors were able to make them disappear.
“China has entered a different time,” said Gu Su, a professor of philosophy and law at Nanjing University. “Covering positive stories while withholding the cruel facts won’t work as people can still access information from elsewhere. The propaganda department needs to reflect upon its approach.”
The virus has caught China’s leaders, and censors, flat-footed since it started proliferating in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak in central Hubei province.
Earlier this month, government censors allowed an outpouring of outrage and grief on social media after the death of Li Wenliang, a young doctor who had been sanctioned for issuing an early warning about the disease. Officials only stepped in hours later, removing the top-trending hashtag “I want freedom of speech” and other posts critical of the government.
“Letting people mourn about the doctor’s death serves as a pressure valve to let off steam,” said Lynette Ong, an associate professor in political science at the University of Toronto where she studies social control in China. “Still, the most sensitive posts asking for freedom of speech were censored.”
After Li’s death, President Xi Jinping’s administration has sought to reclaim the narrative. It fired top officials in Hubei and released a speech showing Xi was in charge earlier than previously known.
Even several days before that, Xi told China’s seven most powerful leaders that they needed to promote “touching stories from the front line of the virus fight,” unleashing a wave of heart wrenching anecdotes across state-run media. More than 300 local journalists were dispatched to Hubei to “provide strong public support” for the government’s tasks, according to a bureau director in the Communist Party’s Central Publicity Department.
Local media have since hailed stories of individuals who’ve stepped up to battle the virus, from Wuhan to the thousand-year-old city Luoyang and even the southern metropolis Guangzhou city. They’ve told tales of pregnant nurses continuing to tend to patients, a doctor who returned to the front lines after both his parents succumbed to the virus, and a community worker who remained at his post monitoring temperatures even as his wife prepared to give birth.
But the reality on the ground is undermining those efforts. Most citizens in China are facing some kind of restriction on daily life as officials try to contain the virus, including some 60 million under lockdown in Hubei. And the government’s attempts to influence public sentiment are breeding even more resentment.
‘This propaganda is such a failure’
The plight of medical workers has been particularly sensitive. In Wuhan, more than 1,100 medical staff have been infected with the virus, making up 64% of hospital workers infected nationally. One doctor told the local media they were using tape to hold their protective suits together and plastic bags as shoe covers.
The tale of a nurse in Wuhan who returned to work ten days after suffering a miscarriage was one that sparked outrage on China’s social media. Under one post about the story, users left comments including “please stop advertising inhumanity” and “this propaganda is such a failure.”
Over the weekend, a story promoted by local media in Shaanxi, a central province bordering Hubei, was widely mocked after it quoted a pair of 20-day old twins asking about the whereabouts of their mother, a nurse working with infected patients. The news agency later apologized for confusing the infants’ “comments” with details from another story.
China has also started using stage-managed events to portray the government as in control of the situation, and to push a narrative that the outbreak is reaching a turning point.
In Beijing, foreign journalists were invited last week to interview recovered patients and their doctors. In Shanghai, officials on Monday conducted a 45-minute briefing at the city’s main coronavirus hospital, which has a brand-new ward outfitted with nearly 100 beds and advanced facilities.
“The disease is not that scary,” said one patient in Beijing who gave her surname as Li. “If you are infected, you must believe in the country, the hospital, the doctor. They will definitely cure you.”
These staged press events are designed to stop people from asking whether the lockdown made things worse and why newly build hospitals are not fully operational, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
“By allowing some criticism and focusing on human stories, they are keeping people from discussing more systemic issues,” Tsang said. “Given the scale of the challenge, public sentiment could be much, much worse.”