“We have won the great battle against Covid!”
“History will remember those who contributed!”
“Extinguish every outbreak!”
These are among the many battle-style slogans that Beijing has unleashed to rally support around its top-down, zero-tolerance coronavirus policies.
China is now one of the last places on earth trying to eliminate Covid-19, and the Communist Party has relied heavily on propaganda to justify increasingly long lockdowns and burdensome testing requirements that can sometimes lead to three tests a week.
The barrage of messages — online and on television, loudspeakers and social platforms — has become so overbearing that some citizens say it has drowned out their frustrations, downplayed the reality of the country’s tough coronavirus rules and, occasionally, bordered on the absurd.
By Day 8 of a citywide lockdown in Shanghai this spring, Jason Xue had no more food left in his fridge. Yet when he clicked on the government’s social media account, he noticed that a top city official had vowed to “make every possible endeavor” to address food shortages.
Government assistance didn’t show up until four weeks later, Mr. Xue said.
“I was extremely angry, panicked and despairing,” said Mr. Xue, who works for a financial communications firm. He eventually turned to neighbors for help. “The propaganda was resolute and decisive, but it was different from the reality that we didn’t even know whether we could have the next meal.”
Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has made controlling the virus a “top political priority.” Thousands of state media outlets and social media accounts have echoed Beijing’s “zero Covid” policy and praised the sacrifice of workers trying to control Covid-19.
Propaganda has long been one of the Chinese Communist Party’s favored tools for social control. But in the Covid era, the government’s use of it has been on overdrive. By some estimates, at least 120 Covid-related propaganda phrases have been created since the beginning of the pandemic.
When certain terms risked upsetting large numbers of people, officials simply came up with new ones. The authorities, for example, have swapped the word “lockdown” with “static management,” “silence” or “working from home” when referring to certain Covid protocols.
“Words shouldn’t be used that way,” Xiao Qiang, the founder of a California-based website that documents Chinese censorship, said in a phone interview. “The government embellished policies with political rhetoric, aiming to mitigate fallout.”
The authorities now avoid words like “lockdown” because they want people to continue to obey stringent coronavirus measures without panic or resistance, Mr. Xiao added. Officials made the policy language “ambiguous and awkward,” he said, which has contributed to confusion and frustration.
When people tried to run away from quarantine buildings during an earthquake in Sichuan Province this year, epidemic workers were caught on camera blocking them from seeking safety.
Videos of the episode were posted online and quickly deleted by censors, who said people should “at least bring masks before escaping from buildings,” even when an earthquake is “highly destructive.”
For some, the video was a reminder of how the government had used the pandemic to tighten its grip on their private lives, telling them when they can leave their apartments, what kind of food they can buy and what hospitals they can enter.
Kong Lingwanyu, a 22-year-old marketing intern in Shanghai, was upset that officials used the phrase “unless necessary” when describing restrictions around things like leaving the home, dining out or gathering with others.
Ms. Kong said a local official responsible for carrying out coronavirus policies had told her that she should not “buy unnecessary food.” She said she asked the official what standards the government used to determine what kind of food was necessary.
“Who are you to decide the ‘necessity’ for others?” she said. “It’s totally absurd and nonsense.”
On state television, Beijing’s “nine storm fortification actions” around the pandemic are frequently repeated to keep people in line with Covid policies. The nine actions are: neighborhood lockdowns, mass testing, contact tracing, disinfection, quarantine centers, increased health care capacity, traditional Chinese medicine, screening of neighborhoods and prevention of local transmission.
Yang Xiao, a 33-year-old cinematographer in Shanghai who was confined to his apartment for two months during a lockdown this year, had grown tired of them all.
“With the Covid control, propaganda and state power expanded and occupied all aspects of our life,” he said in a phone interview. Day after day, Mr. Yang heard loudspeakers in his neighborhood repeatedly broadcasting a notice for P.C.R. testing. He said the announcements had disturbed his sleep at night and woke him up at dawn.
“Our life was dictated and disciplined by propaganda and state power,” he said.
To communicate his frustrations, Mr. Yang selected 600 common Chinese propaganda phrases, such as “core awareness,” “obey the overall situation” and “the supremacy of nationhood.” He gave each phrase a number and then put the numbers into Google’s Random Generator, a program that scrambles data.
He ended up with senseless phrases such as “detect citizens’ life and death line,” “strictly implement functions” and “specialize overall plans without slack.” Then he used a voice program to read the phrases aloud and played the audio on a loudspeaker in his neighborhood.
No one seemed to notice the five minutes of computer-generated nonsense.
When Mr. Yang uploaded a video of the scene online, however, more than 1.3 million people viewed it. Many praised the way he used government language as satire. Chinese propaganda was “too absurd to be criticized using logic,” Mr. Yang said. “I simulated the discourse like a mirror, reflecting its own absurdity.”
Spoofing Chinese propaganda:
His video was taken down by censors.
Mr. Yang added that he hoped to inspire others to speak out against China’s Covid policies and its use of propaganda in the pandemic. He wasn’t the only Shanghai resident to rebel when the city was locked down.
In June, dozens of residents protested against the police and Covid control workers who installed chain-link fences around neighborhood apartments. When a protester was shoved into a police car and taken away, one man shouted: “Freedom! Equality! Justice! Rule of law!” Those words would be familiar to most Chinese citizens: They are commonly cited by state media as core socialist values under Mr. Xi.