How Chinese media have – and haven’t – covered widespread protests against zero-Covid

Chinese media have largely ignored widespread protests across the country, with prominent state newspaper front pages instead choosing to focus on Taiwan’s local elections, a Chinese-built solar plant in Qatar and the rising number of Chinese women choosing to get tanned in beauty salons.

Protests flared across Chinese cities over the weekend, with calls for political freedoms and an end to Covid lockdowns.

Some demonstrators have even demanded the resignation of China’s president, Xi Jinping, in a wave of civil disobedience that has been unprecedented in mainland China over the past decade.

However, none of that was evident on the front pages of some of the country’s most prominent newspapers, or on broadcast channels on Monday. After a night of unrest, CCTV spent most of the morning covering the announcement of the planned launch of the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft to China’s space station on Tuesday. The English language Global Times’ main headline focused on the weekend’s local elections in Taiwan, while Shanghai media reported on the latest industrial revenue figures.

The country’s efforts to contain Covid were, however, heavily featured across the news, analysis and editorial pages of the country’s papers.

Promises to fine-tune the zero-Covid strategy to limit the disruption caused by lockdowns featured in a number of media outlets on Monday, in what some analysts interpreted as a subtle nod to the protests. Multiple outlets, including Communist party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, ran editorials urging “unswerving adherence” to the zero-Covid policies, which they said was the only correct path.

A front page story on the Global Times warned of “an extremely challenging winter” as the country “fine tunes” its Covid measures.

Acknowledging some problems in China’s response, the report urged readers to think beyond the two “polarized yet erroneous tendencies” to infection control: “either a complete lockdown or a ‘lying flat’, meaning no pandemic precautions at all.”

The outlook, though, remains gloomy, as the paper reports that, “compared with the past two years, China is facing a much tougher battle against the virus”. The authors of the article quote an unnamed expert who warns that authorities may have to take “excessive measures”.

The supposed need for these measures is demonstrated in a comment piece published by news agency Xinhua.

“China has pulled out all the stops to put the people and their lives above everything else, managing to keep the death rates and the number of serious cases low,” the opinion article reads.

“Without those resolute measures, the consequence could be disastrous for a country with 1.4 billion people, including 267 million aged 60 or above and more than 250 million children.”

Starting from November 28, Urumqi, capital of Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, will resume urban public transport including railways, civil aviation, buses and taxis gradually, in line with epidemic prevention and control requirement.

— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) November 27, 2022

In what could be read as a rare criticism of China’s health system, the article quotes a pharmaceuticals analyst as saying that a full reopening of China may “threaten a health system that currently has far fewer ICU beds than those of other developed countries”.

The catalyst for this weekend’s public anger was a deadly fire in a building in the western city of Urumqi last week, which was reported to be under Covid restrictions.

State newspaper China Daily reported a statement from a government official that Covid restrictions weren’t, in fact, related to the fire deaths.

While acknowledging public anger over the fire, the report quoted an unnamed local official as claiming without evidence that videos circulating online showing sealed up doors were filmed elsewhere and “put together with footage of the accident with ill intention”.

Other state media also covered the decision to lift some Covid restrictions in Urumqi on Monday, without mentioning public anger over the fire.

Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin

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