Not long after it publicly recognized the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese Communist Party declared war — a “people’s war” — against the epidemic. Since then it also appears to have declared war against any narrative it thinks challenges that endeavor.
The party’s persuasion efforts are sometimes dismissed as a rigidly ideological top-down affair or a clumsy spectacle, but the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has revealed just how agile China’s propaganda operations really are: They are interactive, and they readily engage with public opinion — the better to co-opt it.
This, however, is a risky strategy. The party’s sophisticated messaging also exposes it to greater demands and more criticism, from the Chinese public and internationally.
At home, one of the party’s predominant techniques has been to respond, yet only selectively, to people’s grievances with both symbolic gestures and practical policies.
Take the treatment of Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor turned whistle-blower who was reprimanded by the Wuhan police in early January for sounding the alarm about the novel coronavirus and then whose death, from Covid-19, sparked outrage online. After initially censoring discussions about Dr. Li’s plight, the authorities tried to appease the public, first by Source…