China’s Covid-19 narrative is proving hard to change after years of one-sided propaganda
- In the capital of northern Hebei province, confusion and panic spread among some local residents after authorities relaxed requirements for mandatory PCR testing
- How quickly the country can return to ‘normal’ life partly depends on the public’s response to rising infections
China has painted itself into a corner over its coronavirus control narrative by repeatedly saying it has to stick to zero-Covid to protect the population.
For the rest of the world that has turned the page on Covid-19, including China’s neighbours and countries that had tried hard to maintain a zero-Covid stance, China’s insistence on strict testing and quarantine looks stubborn and self-defeating. Few foreign states would envy China’s current status.
At home, Covid-19 propaganda – which often played up the threat of Omicron to justify draconian control measures – created unexpected hurdles when China finally tried to live with the virus. In Shijiazhuang, the capital of northern Hebei province, confusion and panic spread among some local residents after authorities relaxed requirements for mandatory PCR testing.
In fact, as early as May the World Health Organization warned that China’s massive regular PCR testing was “unsustainable”, but Beijing strongly defended its approach and convinced the public that universal PCR testing was not only effective but necessary in curbing the virus. So, after a week of relaxed testing, Shijiazhuang had to reimpose mandatory universal PCR testing to assure residents that it was doing its best to keep the virus at bay.
It is an indication of the awkward situation now facing authorities across China. The old playbook of whole-area lockdowns, mass quarantines and frequent universal PCR testing is too costly to sustain. In the face of Omicron, such measures have also proved ineffective. The future direction for China is to learn to live with the virus, and the new guidelines unveiled this month confirm that Beijing also recognises that reality.
However, every step China now takes to coexist with the virus, such as ending mandatory PCR tests, will fly in the face of its own words. The logic is simple: if the state has been insisting that the measures are necessary to protect peoples’ health, then how can the measures be abruptly recalled?
A key missing piece of information is that the state never informed its people that Covid-19 had evolved into variants that were much milder, but more contagious. The Chinese government rarely highlighted the important difference between the virus from the early Wuhan days and the later variants. If Chinese were told six months ago that humans can coexist with Covid-19 and that the country has to search for a way out, the current relaxations would have gone smoother.
Instead, China doubled down a one-sided propaganda campaign to enhance perceptions that the virus was “a deadly threat to everyone”, offering advice to “stay away from the virus whatever the cost”. These perceptions are so deeply entrenched that it will be a big challenge to undo them.
As China tiptoes towards “living with the virus”, one inevitable challenge will be how to cope with a surge of new infections. How quickly the country can return to “normal” life partly depends on the public’s response to rising infections. If every infected individual, regardless of symptoms, queues up at hospitals demanding inpatient treatment out of fear and panic, the result will be a nightmare scenario that overwhelms China’s healthcare system.
However, if the public can be convinced that the virus is not deadly and there’s no need for hospitalisation except for a few extreme cases, China could manage a wave of new outbreaks and continue its track record of minimising deaths.
The good news is that more voices talking about the mildness of the virus have been heard from Chinese media in recent weeks, but in general China’s overall narrative of zero-Covid is still impeding the country’s pivot towards normality.