By Jing Xuan Teng
Once dominated by doom and gloom coverage of the dangers of the virus and scenes of pandemic chaos abroad, China’s tightly controlled media has dramatically shifted tone as the country tentatively moves away from zero-COVID.
Long anchored to a hardline strategy of mass lockdowns, forced quarantine in centralized facilities and mass testing for millions, Beijing is dialling down curbs in the wake of nationwide protests calling for an end to lockdowns and greater political freedoms.
That policy shift has been accompanied by rapid changes in pandemic messaging in both state media and official statements—which now downplay the risk from the virus and blame local officials for over-zealous implementation of COVID lockdowns.
The prevalent Omicron strain is “not at all like last year’s Delta variant”, Guangzhou-based medicine professor Chong Yutian said in an article published by the Communist Party-run China Youth Daily.
“After infection with the Omicron variant, the vast majority will have no or light symptoms, and very few will go on to have severe symptoms, this is already widely known,” he assured readers.
“Don’t be overly terrified, but also take some precautions” against the virus, a story in the Beijing Youth Daily quoted recovered COVID patients telling readers.
And an analysis Friday by state-run newspaper People’s Daily quoted health experts supporting local government moves to allow patients to quarantine at home, which would be a marked departure from current rules.
“This is a kind of official propaganda preparing the people for more relaxation and giving the government some possibility to step down (from zero-COVID),” Hong Kong-based Chinese politics expert Willy Lam told AFP.
‘There will be punishment’
Experts say Beijing is laying the groundwork for a loosening of COVID rules —as well as putting in place convenient scapegoats to blame for the restrictions going too far.
The country’s top virus response body has already pointed to over-zealous local officials who had gone overboard with their virus measures, urging in a Q&A with the People’s Daily on Saturday that these people be “strictly held accountable.”
“There will be punishment of a lot of local officials,” Lam told AFP.
In one case announced by authorities on Saturday, a sub-district security official in Hunan province was expelled from the Communist Party and removed from his post for assaulting a local resident during a lockdown-related dispute.
COVID-testing companies are also emerging as a scapegoat, with state media in recent days publishing exposes of alleged violations by testing organizations.
“Nucleic acid companies will be the first to be sacrificed by the government,” Chinese political blogger Jing Zhao wrote on Twitter, under his pen name Michael Anti.
“Catching the bosses of these companies can solve two problems: the people wanting to find scapegoats, and (the fact that) abandoning nucleic acid tests and switching to less sensitive antigen tests is more in line with Omicron’s rules and can reduce some pressure on pandemic control,” he said.
‘Carrots and sticks’
And the state propaganda apparatus has already begun to portray pivots away from the zero-COVID policy as evidence of the Chinese government’s care for its people.
Local governments across the country said earlier this week that they would not require all people to take part in mass testing campaigns, allowing groups including the elderly and those who never leave their homes to skip testing — a minor step back from existing policy, but one repeatedly highlighted in state media headlines.
Xinhua news agency described the changes as proof “the government responds to what the people call for.”
The Chinese Communist Party “recognizes that the zero-COVID policy has put on the line a fundamental pillar of its legitimacy: its promise to provide a basic living standard for citizens”, Diana Fu, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told AFP.
She said the softening tone on COVID was part of the party’s traditional strategy of responding to protests “through a combination of carrots and sticks”.
“While the security apparatus has swung into motion in repressing protestors, local governments are also giving concessions in terms of easing COVID restrictions to let the pressure valve release.”