Coronavirus is the new battleground for Chinese nationalism

“Xi orders military to contribute to winning the battle against the epidemic,” reads the title of an article on Xinhua’s news website in big bold font.

Today, the Chinese Communist Party is no longer fighting a revolutionary war against the capitalist bourgeoisie. But the language of “struggle” is being deployed against a new enemy that China must unify against, coronavirus.

A lyrical video produced by Xinhua, now widely shared across both Thai and Chinese social media, portrays Chinese medics as the new “heroes” of Communist China. Set to a background of grandiose classical music, the video portrays teams of medics being greeted at the Wuhan airport by the Chinese national guard, who shout “Wuhan, jia you (keep fighting)! China, jia you!”

Other medics are greeted by a grateful, mask-clad public, some by gleeful schoolchildren. Shouts of “Jia you! Jia you!” reverberate through the video, which closes with an old woman greeting a new group of medics in Hubei with a rippling, gigantic red flag.

Elsewhere, deeply poignant pictures have come to characterize the crisis: an airport medic helping a small child put on her mask, another medic pressing his forehead against the tear-stained face of his wife before leaving for Wuhan.

These images seem to exist in a disparate universe from English-language reports of the outbreak. In France, reporting on Coronavirus has sparked deep anti-Chinese hostility, while the Washington Post and the New York Times report that the Coronavirus outbreak is an embarrassment for the Chinese government – one that has exposed the flaws in authoritarian rule.

Reports by the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera stress the growing death toll and the international panic as China struggles to control the disease. Yet, what appears a gaping fissure in the CCP armor is, according to the CCP, its moment of national unity.

This speaks to the growing fissure between Chinese and Western information spheres – with the Chinese sphere expanding its influence globally. In 2018, Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, predicted the “bifurcation [of the internet] into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America.” It seems like the age of two internets is already here.

Similarity to SARS

This is not the first campaign of military metaphors the CCP has waged against an infectious disease, nor the first war used as a means of promoting unity.

In the SARS epidemic, the government also mobilized nationalist sentiment using similar symbolism. A five-episode documentary called The Battle of Guiwei, broadcast in July 2003, ended with a triumphant celebration of the Chinese nation’s collective fight against the ‘enemy’ and a tribute to its brave healthcare warriors.

The CCP’s use of military metaphor has deep roots in its own history, founded as it was by a Red Army that had to claw its way out of both a Chinese civil war and a global ideological war.

SARS posters mirrored images from Maoist propaganda posters during the Great Leap Forward, with mask-wearing medics raising their fists in expressions of proletarian power. One poster reads: “Trust the Government, Trust the Party; the SARS virus will ultimately be eliminated.”

However, the metaphor of the virus as an enemy can be manipulated to mean many things. In 2002, the SARS epidemic coincided with the Taiwanese referendum for independence. Intensely strained cross-strait relations manifest themselves in articles that painted Taiwan as the victim of a Chinese viral enemy, having been “attacked by SARS coming from China.”

A 2007 study compared the pro-independence Taiwanese newspaper The Liberty Times and The People’s Daily in China, and found that while the incidence of ‘SARS as war’ metaphors were both high, they represented very different ‘wars’ and very different notions of ‘enemy.’

The situation bears deep resemblance to the one that China now finds itself. Many in Hong Kong have used the coronavirus outbreak to address deep-rooted anger among pro-democracy Hong Kongers at the pro-China government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Difference from SARS

Yet, China has learned a lot from the SARS epidemic – most importantly, that news spreads as quickly as infectious disease, and the “battle” is not just with the disease, but also for the hearts and minds of a fearful nation.

While some criticized the Chinese government for withholding information on Coronavirus, Xi Jinping has moved swiftly to bring the CCP into line.  In a meeting with the WHO, Xi said: “The epidemic is a devil. We will not let it hide.”

Nor will the party leader let the news be hidden. Organizations and CCP officials spreading false information about coronavirus would be severely published, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

This is emblematic of a broader turn in Chinese government policy from restricting the spread of bad news towards a policy of actively promoting positive news. The Chinese government has been alleged of hiring as many as two million people to secretly assume pseudonyms on social media. A review of 50,000 of these posts – known as “50c party” posts – showed that the goal of the campaign is restricted to making pro-party posts, and that they do not at all engage with party skeptics.

As the “battle” in Wuhan continues, so does the onslaught of positive articles about China’s Coronavirus epidemic: the fact that its universities are developing coronavirus vaccines, that the government been able to keep up a supply of daily necessities amid the outbreak, that the government is allocating billions of yuan for coronavirus control.

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping continues to exhort the military to, in the words of Xinhua news,  “keep its mission firmly in mind and shoulder responsibility to make contributions to winning the battle against the novel coronavirus epidemic.” If the military stays in line, and the people stay united, the communist story of victory against the odds will once again be repeated.

Although it remains to be seen how coronavirus may be “fought”, what is clear is that the Chinese government intends to emerge the victor – not just against the virus, but in the court of Chinese public opinion.

(Photo Credit: Chinese State Media)

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