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Chinese netizens flip from anger to praise for virus response

Party restores image as opinion morphs and blame shifts away from Beijing

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, takes precautions against the coronavirus. Infections have topped 80,000 in China and 100,000 worldwide.   © Xinhua/Kyodo

TOKYO -- Chinese public opinion of Beijing's response to the new coronavirus has undergone a wild reversal in the weeks since the epidemic began, with online comments turning from bitter criticism into loud applause.

Many online posts during the early stages of the outbreak argued that the government had bungled efforts to control the spread of the virus, as the number of infections nationwide soared into the thousands. But in recent weeks, as cases climb in other countries, more internet comments laud Beijing's "effective" policy actions to rein in the epidemic.

China's government has long been accused of going to any length to control what the nation's online community says, and this turnabout has aided a regime that faced withering criticism after a doctor who tried to warn of the emerging threat died Feb. 7 from the infection.

The radical shift in online opinion is illustrated by reaction to a comment on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, posted Feb. 20 by Qiu Menghuang, a former host at state broadcaster China Central Television. Qiu suggested that China should apologize to the world.

"Without being panicky or arrogant, should we not just bow to the world while wearing face masks and say, 'Sorry for causing trouble to you?'" he said.

Qiu's comment was deleted after drawing a massive backlash, with biting verbal attacks from a legion of Chinese netizens.

"We have made all-out efforts to contain the spread of the virus that have been as ardent as to put the nation in danger," one response read. Other comments included "Who are you representing?" and "You should apologize to the Chinese people."

Some of these attacks apparently were inspired by a Feb. 27 statement from Zhong Nanshan, who heads China's specialist task force to combat the virus. Zhong acknowledged that the COVID-19 disease first appeared in China, but said that did not prove the new coronavirus itself originated in the country.

As a regular follower of China's cyberspace, looking to take the pulse of the public, this writer first noticed subtle changes in how people felt about the nation's fight against the coronavirus in mid-February.

Many previous posts had praised the whistleblower doctor from Wuhan -- the epicenter of the outbreak -- and denounced the local government's handling of the crisis.

When Japan reported its first confirmed cases of infection, some Chinese posters expressed sympathy, saying they felt sorry for Japan or urging their compatriots to refrain from traveling to Japan.

But online comments defending China's response to the epidemic began appearing soon after, stressing that the country is also a victim and should not bear the entire responsibility for the spreading outbreak.

A similar change in attitude emerged on Chinese news sites around the same time. The focus of news reporting shifted gradually from the situation in Wuhan and other major Chinese cities to the spread of infection in other countries including Japan, South Korea and Italy.

Many Chinese people now appear to think it is unfair to solely blame China for the global spread of the disease and that other countries have failed to protect themselves from the virus.

This sentiment was echoed in a Feb. 25 editorial in the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece. The editorial argued that some countries have a much greater risk of exporting the virus than China, apparently suggesting Japan, South Korea and some other nations with a growing number of confirmed cases. It called on other countries to mobilize all powers and resources to contain the epidemic.

As if in sync with this call, online comments began urging other countries to emulate China in fighting the outbreak.

"The homework that Chinese people have written is readily available to see, and you aren't capable of copying it?" said one widely circulated post, focusing attention on the perceived lukewarm response to the outbreak by Japan, South Korea and others.

Many Chinese posters said other countries should deploy the kind of draconian steps Beijing has taken, including its strict lockdown of areas such as Wuhan covering tens of millions of people.

Most recently, there has been a sharp increase in comments hailing the Communist Party's response to the outbreak and the regime's ability to deal with such a crisis.

"China has powerful organizations and the ability to mobilize people and execute measures," one says. "Only China can build a hospital in 10 days [as it did in Wuhan]," crows another. "The U.S. cannot stop the spread of the virus as China has done."

China's online public opinion has a history of swinging in response to changes in the country's political situation. Comments in Chinese cyberspace often are perfectly timed to coincide with important events.

Around spring 2019, comments favorable to Japan began to increase, improving public sentiment toward plans for a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Tokyo. The visit was set for next month, but has been postponed due to the epidemic.

These swings suggest that Beijing employs methods to influence online public comment, such as planting its own messages on the web and presenting them as independent opinion.

The recent comments could have been produced by the "50-cent party," a rumored loose online squad of tech-savvy operators loyal to the government who are paid to troll the internet to manipulate public opinion. When they find dissenting views, they leave anonymous comments designed to lead discussions in the direction favored by Beijing. The "50 cent" -- or 0.5 yuan (7 cents) -- in the name represents how much money they supposedly are paid for each comment.

However, the existence of such a group cannot be confirmed.

But the shift in Chinese public opinion over the coronavirus outbreak during the past month potentially offers insight into the Communist Party's strategy for refurbishing its image and protecting its reputation.

Until mid-February, the party acknowledged that its initial response to the outbreak was flawed. An angry public was permitted to post complaints and criticism within the limits of tolerance.

Any party strategy probably sought by late February to spin the crisis, touting the Xi government's battle against the epidemic as a testament to the superiority of China's authoritarian system supported by the Community Party's monopoly on power.

Such a propaganda campaign eventually might emphasize that bold leadership by Xi's administration helped China win the war against the virus. The epidemic delivered a political blow by forcing China to postpone the annual gathering of the National People's Congress, a parliamentary session that was to begin Thursday.

But reshaping the online conversation could show the party's ability to use the internet to create the appearance of broad public support for its policy decisions and actions.

One constant among the changing political comments, however, has been the numerous messages of sympathy and moral support for Japan and South Korea.

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