Chinese social media in the age of COVID-19

By Zhang Miao

NANJING, China — As of February 20, I had not left my home for the better part of a month. As I reflect on that period, I think about panic, city shutdowns and new rules restricting even local travel. Residents were forced to stay home and often turned to social media to obtain necessary news. Compared to the SARS outbreak in 2003, the rapid development of internet media has prompted the government to adopt more efficient and transparent measures against COVID-19.

The progression of COVID-19 from January 16th to February 14th in China
Source: Caijing Magazine (https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/o2N_ie_P-H7NzH5-hUC9yA)

Social media such as Weibo (similar to Twitter), WeChat and TikTok, complicate how the public learns about major events and how the government communicates important information. Social media is not as easy to censor, providing it relative freedom. As a public platform, anyone can voice their opinion on these accounts. 

During the early days of the outbreak, this is how the public primarily received updates. I, for example, first learned of the novel Coronavirus on January 19, when a friend’s message prompted me to search for information about the disease on Weibo. However, at that time, many people did not realize the severity. On the evening of January 23, Weibo reports on COVID-19 demonstrated that the situation was becoming serious. Lines at Wuhan’s Tongji Medical College of Huazhong University of Science and Technology lasted between two and five hours. At this point, official media wasn’t reporting information quickly. For example, it did not report that the virus could be transmitted directly between humans until January 20. 

The Hankou Hospital of Wuhan City was full of people in the fever diagnosis and infusion area.
Source: WeChat News (https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/ndwvfJTCHFaMynqSMuagXQ)

After more reports appeared on social media platforms, the Wuhan government was forced to come forward and admit its mistakes. The mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, apologized and stated that he would resign. The central government sprung into action to investigate the situation, sending Vice Prime Minister Sun Chunlan, director of the Central Steering Group, to Wuhan. On February 5, the Wuhan government made the decision to establish, three new hospitals. 

Mobile Hospital of Wuhan Sports Center
Source: Baidu Images

On December 30, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, alerted colleagues via WeChat that a virus similar to SARS had appeared in Wuhan, but was still unidentified. By January 1, Li Wenliang had been charged with spreading rumors and received a warning from local police before being compelled to sign a statement of guilt on January 3. Doctor Li died on February 6 of the COVID-19 virus. Following his death, netizens expressed condolences over social media. Many argued that the government’s desire for “stability maintenance” caused Li’s death and contributed to the outbreak of COVID-19. Although some messages were deleted immediately, the government failed to impose comprehensive censorship, and news of Li Wenliang’s death eventually spread throughout the country. One WeChat user, Ms. Xu, wrote: “Everyone says that the internet has memory. Can the internet remember the disordered memory of tonight and the cause of the chaos?” The ‘Li Wenliang Incident’ led the Central government to dispatch an investigatory supervision team. Afterwards, issues like the Wuhan Red Cross corruption incident and the Huanggang Health Commission’s neglect of duty gradually came to light and led to the Central Government’s decision to replace the Hubei Provincial Party Secretary and Wuhan Municipal Party Secretary. The ‘Li Wenliang Incident’ was a moment when people were able to use social media to share ideas and express their own opinions. Eventually, these actions forced the government to take measures.

The doctor Li Wenliang
Source: Baidu Images

On March 11,  ‘Ren Wu,’ a WeChat official account  published an article — The Person Who Blew The Whistle. Affin, the director of the emergency department in Wuhan Central Hospital, received a virus test report for patients with an “unknown pneumonia” on December 30. She circled the word “SARS Coronavirus” in red and shared the picture of the test report with her college classmates. That night, the picture spread within WeChat groups of doctors in Wuhan. However, as the first person who spread the information of a virus similar to “SARS,” Affin was interviewed and censured by the hospital disciplinary committee. Subsequently, the hospital banned all doctors from spreading relevant information about Wuhan pneumonia through WeChat or SMS. Interest in ‘stability maintenance’ blocked early dissemination of COVID-19 information and led to large-scale outbreaks. As soon as the article was posted, many netizens began to repost and comment, arguing that government intervention prevented people from taking effective protective measures. Several hours later, this article was censored. Various versions of the article began to appear on WeChat, including a coded version, seal character version, Pinyin version, German version, English version and QR code version. Finally, the government gave up on censoring and allowed the article to be posted on March 13. In this instance, social media netizens resisted the censorship of the government, allowing the public to learn the truth. 

The digital age is transforming traditional state propaganda practices, enabling social media to compensate for the deficiencies of official media and make contributions to public information. Compared with SARS in 2003, when people could only receive news from television and newspapers, today’s internet mass media gives the public more efficient access to information. Further, government censors cannot keep up with individual social media accounts, allowing for more freedom in what netizens report, and requiring various layers of government to respond to problems. Although censorship continues on Chinese social media—articles with sensitive words are deleted or accounts suddenly disappear because of negative reports—social media does have a net benefit in spreading necessary information and encouraging a more transparent government. New forms of media outside the mainstream mediums show that a healthy society should not be limited to a single voice.

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