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Chinese President Xi Jinping and residents of Wuhan: The city's inhabitants are not ready to cheer their leader's handling of the crisis they are suffering through. (Nikkei montage; source photos from Xinhua/Kyodo and Reuters) 
China up close

Campaign to 'thank' Xi Jinping flatly rejected by Wuhan citizens

Communist Party's propaganda efforts powerless in face of coronavirus anger

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping entered the city of Wuhan on Tuesday for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak, eager to show the world that the country had turned a corner in its battle with the new virus.

Yet, despite the sharp reduction in new cases, Wuhan was buzzing for a separate reason.

Citizens were furious over a speech given four days prior by Wang Zhonglin, the city's newly appointed Chinese Communist Party chief. In a speech to senior local officials, Wang, a loyal ally of the president, called for a "gratitude education campaign," under which Wuhan citizens would be taught to express their thanks to Xi and the party for their efforts in tackling the illness.

Wang was attempting to create a favorable atmosphere and lay the groundwork for Xi's upcoming inspection tour; he did not expect the massive outpouring of anger and frustration toward the proposal.

There were so many critical online posts that censorship authorities did not have enough hands on deck to delete them all. "We are still in the midst of the battle against the deadly virus," some of the voices said. "People are dying every day," said others. "Food prices are continuing to rise," netizens wrote.

Fearing that if he pushed ahead with the gratitude campaign the criticism could be squarely directed at his boss, Wang quickly shelved the plan. Instead, he decided on a safer option, a campaign to express gratitude to Wuhan citizens for their contributions, enduring the hardship of a lockdown that was imposed on Jan. 23.

President Xi points out vegetables on sale on the side of a street in Wuhan on March 10.   © Xinhua/ Kyodo

Wang arrived in Wuhan in February as Xi's choice to replace Ma Guoqiang, who was dismissed for his failed initial response to the coronavirus.

But Wang's excessive loyalty to Xi, symbolized by the ill-planned political campaign, rubbed Wuhan's 11 million citizens the wrong way.

One of the leading critics of the campaign was Wuhan-based author Fang Fang, a 64-year-old whose real name is Wang Fang. "The government should put an end to its arrogance and humbly express gratitude to its master -- the millions of people in Wuhan," she wrote in her widely followed online diary about life in the locked-down metropolis.

Her diary, which is uploaded to Chinese social media on a daily basis, has affected the sleeping habits of many Chinese. Followers stay up late to read her posts before they are deleted by authorities in the early morning. She is said to have a 1 million-strong following.

Sometime late Monday night or early Tuesday morning she uploaded a post saying that if anybody were to take responsibility for the handling of the coronavirus, "the party secretary and the director of the Central Hospital of Wuhan should be the first to go."

That hospital is where whistleblower ophthalmologist Li Wenliang worked. The young doctor, one of the first to raise concern about the mysterious illness, was punished for transmitting the information at the end of last year. He himself later caught the virus and died, becoming a martyr among Chinese citizens.

Fang, like Li, graduated from the prestigious Wuhan University.

Adding to the tragedy, another eye doctor at the hospital died on Sunday, bringing the total number of doctors who have succumbed to the virus there to four. More doctors are said to be in serious condition at the hospital.

Fang angrily urged the hospital executives to atone for their sins by stepping down.

"The battle against the coronavirus will continue without you," she wrote to the secretary and director. "Nobody will be troubled if you're gone."

That she writes so candidly and courageously, in tones similar to editorials in major international newspapers, is remarkable in a country that curtails free speech.

Fang's diary posts are sometimes deleted by censorship authorities due to their frankness. But under the current circumstances, knowing that her venting is representative of the common sentiment, the government is not bold enough to ban her blog outright.

And thus the midnight owls stay up to consume her writing, in the few hours that authorities allow for free speech.

At around the same time as the botched gratitude education campaign, another incident was taking place on a Wuhan street.

Citizens cooped up indoors desperately yelled out at a group of central government leaders walking under a cluster of housing complexes. "It's fake, it's fake, everything is fake," they shouted, referring to the briefing that local officials were presenting to one guest in particular, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan.

Sun, a female member of the powerful Politburo, was being shown around a residential area in Wuhan that had been cleaned up before the visit and made to appear as if plenty of food was being delivered to the residents.

"We are being made to buy expensive foods!" residents shouted from upstairs.

Video of the incident went viral on social media and strangely enough was not fully deleted.

"The video was not deleted because it was rather useful for the central government," one veteran party member said. "By pointing out the lies, Wuhan citizens were appealing directly to the central government about local bureaucrats who were only attempting to save appearances. Seeking help from the central government, relying on its authority, is not bad for Beijing."

Vice Premier Sun Chunlan got an earful during her trip to Wuhan. At one point residents of a cluster of housing projects yelled out to her, "It's fake, it's fake, everything is fake."   © Xinhua/ AP

As the central government treads carefully, trying to manipulate public opinion while avoiding an outburst of anger, the limits of party propaganda are becoming clear.

A short while earlier, a book touting Chinese leadership's great achievements in fighting the virus was published.

"A Great Power's Battle Against Epidemic" demonstrates the "strategic foresight and outstanding leadership ability" of Xi, state-run China Central Television explained.

But in a matter of days, the book was pulled from bookstores across the land, after it faced a barrage of criticism for praising Xi even as the virus outbreak has yet to be brought under control.

The party is also trying its highhandedness abroad.

In early March, state-run Xinhua News Agency published, with fanfare, a commentary to the effect that "the world should thank China" for its contributions to the fight against the coronavirus. It claimed that China made huge sacrifices through its lockdowns and various measures, buying time for the world to react.

It is flatly wrong. The deadly virus spread around the world precisely because Chinese tourists unknowingly carried it with them, all while the horrifying reality of the epidemic was being kept under wraps in China.

China cannot attempt a gratitude education campaign on an international audience at a time when the U.S. as well as countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe struggle to contain the crisis, which has killed more than 4,300 people around the world.

All of Italy is on lockdown. In the U.S., the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Monday lost more than 2,000 points, its biggest one-day point fall on record.

A woman places food to dry outside on a laundry rack by the window of a building in Wuhan.   © Reuters

Why is Beijing pushing for global gratitude? The answer is simple.

The Chinese leadership is facing a governance crisis. It is not easy to see from the outside. At first glance, it seems that China has passed the peak of the coronavirus epidemic and restored calm. But whether Beijing's response to the crisis can stand the test of time and history remains to be seen.

Xi wants to declare victory in the "people's war" against the virus. For that he needs solid evidence, which partially explains why he went to Wuhan. Global recognition would also boost his cause.

The president has significantly consolidated power, but despite his stature he has not had an easy time achieving undisputed results, achievements that match the weight of the 3,000 lives lost so far in Hubei Province alone.

Walking on the streets of Wuhan, a month and a half after Premier Li Keqiang did, Xi must have felt the pain, suffering and darkness that reside in the hearts of the Wuhan people.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

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