/Harmoniously Denied: The Wider Implications of China’s Censorship on COVID-19

Harmoniously Denied: The Wider Implications of China’s Censorship on COVID-19

This localised disinformation has led to a seemingly paradoxical public reaction: Towards the end of January, when most major cities around China started to get anxious about the virus, Wuhan residents were generally still relaxed. During a late January online meeting with a UK-trained professor in Wuhan, he dismissed my concern over the epidemic as an over-reaction due to media speculations. A classic example of ‘risk amplification’, he exclaimed on the other side of the screen. Sure Wuhan had most of the 200 confirmed cases, but that was out of 11 million people in the city. He assured me that the ‘actual situation’ was really not that serious. This professor’s reaction echoes a doggerel widely circulated on WeChat, China’s leading social media app, just days preceding the lockdown: ‘People in Hankou (the district where COVID-19 was first found) are happily doing their Spring Festival shopping, rushing to dinners and parties…The whole world knows that Wuhan is cordoned off, only Wuhan doesn’t know it yet’. In fact, it was a Beijing newspaper rather than Wuhan media, that first questioned Wuhan authorities’ insistence on ‘social harmony’ at the cost of public ignorance. With the headline, ‘Wuhan’s calmness makes it impossible for the rest to remain calm’, the article compared the authorities’ attempts of harmonising a virus into political compliance to the absurdity of ‘running naked’ amid dangers. A couple of days after I spoke with the aforementioned professor, Wuhan went into lockdown.

I wonder in retrospect how many ordinary citizens in Wuhan felt they were misled into ‘running naked’ before the lockdown when they went about the town with their daily routines. I also wonder, for those Wuhan bureaucrats, did they also feel they were ‘running naked’ when they knew the data reported to them by hospitals and health authorities were airbrushed under their acquiescence if not direct support? When censorship is institutionalised, or rather effectively ‘constitutionalised’ in a governing system, facts quickly become artefacts when passed on through multiple layers of censoring and self-censoring.

Censorship and Societal Resilience

A key difference between democratic and non-democratic states in the response to COVID-19 does not hinge on lockdowns, but on what has been discussed and done to mitigate the various knock-on effects of lockdowns. For example, in the days following the UK’s lockdown in late March, discussion, and sometimes protests, on the welfare of different social groups filled mainstream news outlets: the impact of children with special needs, individuals in care homes, domestic violence, mental health and concerns for safety-nets for the self-employed. Of course many of these issues remain unresolved or only partially resolved, but this ‘explosion’ of public expression of concerns made many underlying social issues visible from the start.

In contrast, few such (pre-emptive) discussions on the social consequences of lockdown could be found in Chinese media. If one types in ‘domestic violence’ (家庭暴力) and ‘coronavirus pneumonia’ (新冠肺炎, the common way for Chinese media to refer to the COVID-19 pandemic) onto China’s search engine Baidu, the results are predominately news reports on the increase of domestic violence in the UK, US, Japan and other countries. Reports on domestic violence in China in the context of the pandemic were scarce. Of course, Baidu as the main Chinese search engine has long been criticised for manipulating research results, bowing to political and commercial pressure. Thus this might not be a fair representation of what has been discussed or done about domestic violence in China during the lockdown. But this perhaps further underlines my point. That is, social controversies within China are censored out of public sight, and thus out of public mind.

The true danger of political censorship, however, lies not simply in the absence of certain discussions, but in the nurturing of social acquiescence to this silence. For example, similar to other countries, medical staff were soon heralded as the contemporary ‘heroes’ in China. Images of the medical profession on posters paying tribute to them were predominantly male, yet published lists of medical staff volunteering to join the front line were largely female. I wrote a post on Chinese social media questioning this aspect of gender inequality. The response was mixed. While some commented that this was an ‘interesting point’, others disapproved of my ‘making a fuss’. One such criticism came from my own cousin, who, along with his wife, were front-line doctors. He believed that everyone was or should be preoccupied with fighting the disease. So why should I ‘distract’ this concentration with ‘the trivial matter of gender equality’? My cousin’s rationale echoes China’s development strategy over the last 40 years. That is, China has been exceptionally good at identifying one goal (e.g. fighting coronavirus) and concentrating the whole nation’s resources into achieving that goal (e.g. speedy reallocation of financial and human resources into the health system). Wider social discussions are considered as but a distraction. In fact, there is almost a ‘pragmatic’ argument for no discussion: even if issues were raised, given limited government resource and under-developed societal services, there is no capacity to address these problems anyway. So what’s the point of discussion?

When censorship starts to impact scientists’ decisions on what types of questions could be asked, when they could be asked and what should be avoided, the resulting scientific compliance may be at the cost of a lost realm of knowledge.

But how can a civil society grow if the social issues it may address are not allowed to be made visible or to be articulated in public in the first place? Among the COVID-19 tragedies that made world news from China were a 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who died at home when he was left without a career after his relatives were put under quarantine and a 6-year-old boy who was locked in with his deceased grandfather for several days due to a gap in community support. If the disabled are no longer living as the ‘invisible millions’ in China, and if civil society is free to examine and critique the shortfall of social support to left-behind children and the elderly, could things have resulted differently?

What COVID-19 exposed is not so much the weakness of China’s civil society, but rather how important it is for China to encourage a strong civil society and public reflection so as to recognise and address its diverse needs. But when a society gets used to a norm in which certain facts mustn’t be true, and certain discussions shouldn’t be permitted, then silence may turn into indifference. The sinister side of censorship is that this shrinks social recognition of which community interests requires respect and which values are worth protecting. As such, it precludes a society’s civil potential through a ‘harmonious denial’ of community needs and their importance.

Censorship and (Global) Science

Global concerns over China’s censorship of the pandemic have largely focused on its scientific consequences and can be grouped into two categories. They seem to be ‘schizophrenic’ but are related: On the one hand, there is skepticism over accepting China’s COVID-19 statistics for concerns that they are doctored to ‘save face’. On the other hand, the international community is simultaneously agonizing over the missed opportunities of engaging with Chinese data. That is, there are concerns that in a time when global research collaborationis most needed, China, the country that accounts for 36% of the world’s scientific papers in the life sciences, and has the largest volume of data on COVID-19, would turn into a secretive operation. This later worry seemed to be further confirmed by a 13 April CNN report, which exposed that China has tightened its censorship over the publication of coronavirus research. In short, these two seemingly paradoxical concerns can be summarized in one sentence: Do we really know what China knows?

These are legitimate concerns, although I have discussed elsewhere why, despite the perceived secrecy, the mainstream of China’s scientific community are advocates of transparency and openness. This is also reflected by the fact that during the first 2 months of the outbreak, more than 60% of the research papers were contributed by Chinese labs. But there is a need to highlight another commonly overlooked but equally important question on the relationship between China’s censorship and science: Does China really know what it needs to know?

Wuhan authorities’ initial decision to bypass the national reporting system, cited at the beginning of this piece, for fear of political admonishment on bringing up ‘bad news’ is just one example of how China may be the primary victim of its censorship. Censorship’s potential curtailing effect on its research capacity can be seen in the afore-mentioned tightening of governmental scrutiny of COVID-related research. This new Ministry of Education directive reported by CNN includes three items which can be summarized as follows: 1) Any paper that traces the origin of the virus are subject to extra stringent regulation and can only be submitted to journals after acquiring approval from the Ministry; 2) Any other academic research related to the virus can be submitted for publication after its academic value, timing of the publication, and appropriateness for domestic or foreign journals have been agreed on by respective university academic committees; and 3) Research should adhere to biosecurity regulations and publication on vaccine research should be avoid exaggeration.

The nationalist considerations are blatant in this censorship directive. Amid the ongoing blame game between US and China on who should be ‘responsible’ for the virus, the first item of the directive sends a strong signal to discourage the scientific community in China on conducting origin research. While there is an evident intention of ‘quality control’ so as to avoid national embarrassment of the recent faulty mask and test-kit scandals, this directive also imposes political oversight which ensures scientific projects are in harmony with government narratives. But it is not far-fetched to say it has implications for domestic scientific trajectories. Given the necessity for ministerial level approval, to what extent will this divert competent researchers into politically less sensitive topics or at least ask politically less sensitive questions? To what extent will the additional bureaucracy and institutional responsibilities discourage provincial, municipal and university level support for COVID-19 research?

When censorship starts to impact scientists’ decisions on what types of questions could be asked, when they could be asked and what should be avoided, the resulting scientific compliance may be at the cost of a lost realm of knowledge.

Concluding Words

Censorship plays a key role in the development of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the more profound damage of censorship perhaps lie not so much in what has been altered or removed, but what has been ‘harmoniously denied’ of existence in the first place. That is, facts not acknowledged, risks not calculated, problems not discussed and questions not asked. By the term ‘harmonious’, I refer both to the original censorship incentive of managing a ‘harmonious society’ and to more sinister effects of the collective mentality and the unconscious societal acquiescence to an authoritarian agenda.

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