Maria Repnikova is an Assistant Professor of Global Communication at Georgia State University. She is a scholar of China’s political communication, including critical journalism, propaganda, and most recently China’s soft power campaigns in Ethiopia. Dr. Repnikova is the author of Media Politics in China: Improvising Power Under Authoritarianism (Cambridge University Press 2017), which was awarded the best book of the year prize by The International Journal of Press/Politics in 2019. Her articles have appeared in New Media & Society, Journalism, China Quarterly, and Comparative Politics amongst other venues. She has also written widely for international media, such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy. Dr. Repnikova holds a doctorate in Politics from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.
The following interview is part of a YCW series on the different aspects of China’s COVID-19 response. It has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Young China Watchers (YCW): What is China’s state media narrative surrounding COVID-19? And how has it developed over time?
Maria Repnikova (MR): About a month into COVID-19, it was about crisis management, which is how the Chinese government tends to cover crises; they allow a little bit of steam to vent, and then after a few weeks they tend to capture the media space—“capture public opinion” as they call it—and start to enforce or channel their own messages.
The government’s message at the beginning was about saving people in Wuhan and fixing this crisis domestically. There were many pictures of newly built, large hospital facilities and many reports about medical checks, closing off the city, and the launch of new safety precautions.
That narrative lasted for about a few weeks or so, but then once the pandemic spread globally, the message has largely shifted towards “China is the savior, the model example of how to handle this crisis” and “as a global actor is the most responsible at this time in comparison to the less active and largely irresponsible U.S.”. This narrative has permeated much of the domestic coverage in China as well and the extent to which domestic media has covered China’s global role in this pandemic was a bit suprising.
Right now it’s a bit of a mixed phase. Much of the narrative is still about China aiding the world, but some of the discourse is also defensive vis-à-vis the attacks coming from the White House. We see so much messaging that is going against American criticism and arguing that China has been wrongly accused, it’s a victim, it’s done things right, and so forth.
YCW: You’ve mentioned this already – China pushing a similar narrative at home as well as what it’s doing abroad. Are there any differences depending on the audience?
MR: They’re not actually as blatantly different as one might expect. In this case, I saw a lot of cross-fertilization of messaging happening domestically and internationally. A theme that I discussed in my second piece for the New York Times was about the use of the heroes, citizen voices, and experts to justify the Chinese official narrative. You’ll see that reports about China’s management of the pandemic domestically are being told through the voices of doctors, frontline workers, and citizens, not so much the government itself. Those voices and stories were carried over to the global audience. There’s a lot of interesting bottom-up messaging as well that’s coming from Chinese actors to the global audience suggesting that “We’ve learned something important here, we want to help you.”
“There’s a lot of interesting bottom-up messaging as well that’s coming from Chinese actors to the global audience to suggest that ‘We’ve learned something important here, we want to help you.’”
Then there’s the use of Western experts to justify the Chinese response. World Health Organization (WHO) voices, experts, and scientists saying that China has done well—those messages are being channeled back into the domestic space, because that helps legitimize Chinese state activities to show that “This is not just us, it’s the international community that also says we’ve done well.” So we see some similar patterns as far as the techniques of messaging.
When it comes to the actual content, I think the global audience certainly receives a lot more of what China is doing in the world, and the domestic audience maybe sees a lot more domestic-related content of how China is overcoming the pandemic: fixing the economy, everything being under control, securing the nation from unruly foreigners, and so forth. So obviously more domestic-oriented content, but we do see the international role of China is actually very popular amongst Chinese netizens.
YCW: How (and by whom) is social media being utilized to spread China’s COVID-19 narrative?
MR: The social media story is very messy, and I think the Western audience or some of the journalists try to simplify it by saying “This is a state sponsored campaign, the state has become very aggressive.” There is a strand of Chinese diplomatic communication, represented by Zhao Lijian and some of his colleagues, that has been a lot more confident and offensive in defending China’s interests on social media and in press conferences, and that’s part of the state narrative. But we’re not sure yet whether this is going to be mainstream practice or it’s just a minority of voices that are going to channel a more confident narrative about China.
There’s also a lot of bottom-up cyber-nationalism that’s happening as well, people who are just willingly defending China’s interests, and that’s been going on for a long time prior to COVID-19. On that topic, there’s a really good book by Professor Han Rongbin at the University of Georgia, Contesting Cyberspace in China: Online Expression and Authoritarian Resilience, in which he discusses the differences between “voluntary fifty-centers” and “paid fifty-centers,” people who are just willingly spreading messages versus being paid for it. I think we’re seeing both in this crisis.
Many people also underestimate the gaming aspect of cyber-nationalism. For many of these individuals it may be a way of passing time or entertainment, and not always purely political. That’s not very different from trolls who support President Trump or other populist governments, so it’s not really unique to China. It’s just the scale of it is much larger.
YCW: How does China’s official narrative contrast with stories being published by Chinese outlets known for more investigative journalism (like Caixin, Caijing, Southern Weekly, Jiemian, etc.)?
MR: Back in February, it was really interesting to observe this reporting coming out because many commentators suggested that this type of journalism was dead under President Xi. But it turns out that a lot of the skills that Chinese journalists honed over the years actually survived the restrictions, and a lot of media covered this crisis extensively—not just the few that were initially recognized, but there were at least ten news outlets that were covering it in an in-depth manner.
“… it turns out that a lot of the skills that Chinese journalists honed over the years actually survived the restrictions, and a lot of media covered this crisis extensively…”
They covered the governance failures that were part of this crisis, so it’s not just the so-called unexpected disaster, but also freedom of speech, the doctors who were silenced, defending their voices and finding out why the coverup was happening to begin with, and holding those local officials accountable. It was also about aid delivery, like the Red Cross of China, which is a very complex organization that has been accused of a lot of corruption over the years. Many reports focused on its lack of transparency and lack of timely delivery of packages that were sent by citizens.
More recently, when people started picking up the ashes of their loved ones, the other issue that came out was that whole idea of how do you mourn the death of your loved ones? Obviously, this mourning process was very constricted. In some cases, one had to be accompanied by several officials to pick up the ashes of relatives, you weren’t supposed to express too much emotion, and it was difficult to bury relatives. Some of these really heartfelt articles came out about the difficulty of processing this event and how it’s not “over” for many people. That was another angle that these more critical outlets have taken.
YCW: Western media has seized on cases where citizen journalists – Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi, and Li Zehua – have been “disappeared”. What is their role? What do they focus on in their coverage, and how are their takes different?
MR: Their role was breaking the news of the everyday of this crisis, and their stories were picked up by those more alternative media outlets. Citizen journalists are the ones who are first to uncover some of these events, and most of them were on the ground and they were presenting the challenges of being on lockdown in Wuhan and the kind of things we were seeing—the burying of bodies, the bags of bodies being carried out one after another—that really alerted people to the immensity of this crisis.
Citizen journalists shared all kinds of stories. For example, somebody being locked in for no reason just because authorities were worried he might spread the disease, and just the everyday treatment, the everyday color of it which creates a lot of emotion and grief and also anger. Many of these stories have been then further developed by traditional, mainstream media. These citizen journalists are just taking the video camera, going into a hospital, and recording whatever they’re seeing, interviewing some doctors or interviewing or following patients. It’s more aggressive, more immediate storytelling.
YCW: Taking these alternative sources into account, how effective has China’s state media narrative been?
MR: It’s always tricky to say what’s effective. If it means people supporting the Party or people believing the message, it seems like the idea of China as a savior or the global leader combined with the fact that the pandemic has gotten so much worse in the United States—which is China’s main rival and is always presented as the comparative point to China throughout these reports—I think that has really shifted the discussion within China.
With the positive news of China’s relative success in handling the pandemic layering over the earlier negative news of premature deaths and cover-ups, it’s almost like people are drowning in information. I think the message of China as a responsible global stakeholder has been popular amongst the mainstream public. It doesn’t mean that others don’t have questions or that they will not continue to ask questions, or that they will not grieve privately, but I think that publicly we will see a lot less questioning for the time being.
YCW: Do you think this pandemic will have a permanent impact on the tone or framing of Chinese state media going forward? And what about on the operating space for investigative reporters and citizen journalists?
MR: It’s a little hard to say how it will transform that space, because after each crisis there’s some transformation, but there’s also continuity. After each major event I’ve studied, there’s always some critical investigative reporting that appeared for a short period, that was then submerged by a lot of positive reporting and censored. Later on, this narrative of state strength and national unity emerges. I see these patterns over and over, from the Hu Jintao period to Xi Jinping, so I don’t envision this sequence changing anytime soon.
At the same time, this crisis has really demonstrated the fusion of external and domestic persuasion and the importance of China’s global messaging for domestic legitimacy. I think we will see more of this pattern as future crises unfold.
“This crisis has really demonstrated the fusion of external and domestic persuasion and the importance of China’s global messaging for domestic legitimacy.”
YCW: Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you think bears mentioning?
MR: There is not a lot of attention paid to the various voices within the system in China who have taken risks to report on events. Most recently, a lot of the discussion has been about the fact that if Western media is no longer in China or cannot cover things, there will be no more real news from China. But there is some neo-imperial frame to that. I think there is still important news coming out of China that is being produced by Chinese journalists themselves. Of course, Western media does an amazing job. But I think given the restrictions on them, we have to be even more attuned to what’s happening internally, both on social media and in the fragile yet resilient traditional media space.
YCW: What are your recommendations for further reading on this topic or on China in general?
MR: 1. Contesting Cyberspace in China: Online Expression and Authoritarian Resilience by Han Rongbin
2. Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell
3. Tales of Hope, Tales of Bitterness: Chinese Road Builders in Ethiopia by Miriam Driessen
— Interview by Joshua Cartwright