This spring, with the cancellation of pandemic restrictions in most parts of the world, China became the last large country to maintain the zero tolerance to COVID-19. Its “Dynamic Zeroing Out” policy sought to eliminate the virus using extreme regional restrictions and lockdowns. After cases of the Omicron variant were detected, China’s largest city, Shanghai, locked 26 million residents out of their homes from March and didn’t unblock them until 1 June.
This article doesn’t intend to discuss the justification of the Zero-Covid policy itself, but rather to focus on how the suppression of free speech in authoritarian regimes leads to misinformation and further harm to citizens’ human rights.
Firstly, news coverage in China is almost entirely controlled by the state media and always contains only positive stories. As a result, all social issues that occurred during the lockdown received little attention from the official media, and the public was ultimately left to passively reap the results of the government’s brief explanations of issues. Most of the time, these negative issues were not mentioned directly by the government. According to Harvard researchers, the Chinese government posts 448 million comments on social media every year, precisely to distract the public from particular public events. As a result, it has led to a serious problem of misinformation. Unlike Disinformation, which is deceptive information that has been deliberately produced, misinformation refers to “false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead.”
Due to the restrictions on outdoor activities imposed by the blockade, Shanghai residents could only guess and spread the events they witnessed from their own windows on social media. Consequently, at that time the Chinese internet was then flooded daily with unverifiable rumors of various social problems caused by Shanghai’s lockdown, notably delays in medical treatment caused by unreasonable Covid testing requirements and hospital shutdowns. According to Hong Kong-based independent media outlet Initium, a total of 170 cases of death due to the government’s lockdown policy were reported on social media, of which over 80 were unverifiable. The complete blockade makes news reporting or fact-check impossible for journalists, and the expulsion of Western journalists who can only report on Shanghai from afar, increases the difficulty of transparent and objective investigations.
On the other hand, the CCP government has also made every effort to censor and block all reports and negative comments about the Zero-Covid policy and its secondary disasters through sensitive word detection and other technical means. For example, a video called “Voices of April” summarizing the timeline of the Shanghai epidemic was completely blocked, even after receiving 100m times of view. In addition to deaths due to unresonable policies, CCP also tried its best to delete any negative news that happened in Shanghai, which included sudden deaths of staff members from overwork, mass protests by residents, literary creations by university students in response to the epidemic, and even the hashtag #ShanghaiBuyingFood was withdrawn by the government. At the same time, the CCP government filled the public space with state media messages glorifying health care workers and defending Zero-Covid policy. In the two months since the Shanghai lockdown, the public internet space had completely lost its ability to monitor the government or expose societal issues, and had been reduced to tools for comprehensive ideological propaganda.
The absence of a marketplace of ideas dictated the widespread dissemination of misinformation, as the government had no intention of reporting the problems posed by irrational policies, and citizens’ spontaneous protest rallies were suppressed by the police. According to Freedom House’s assessment, China scored only 1 out of 16 on the Freedom of Expression and Belief scale. This means that the government closely monitors internet users’ discussions through intrusive security checks to ensure that their content complies with government content restrictions. Internet users also encounter account deletion, detention, and police interrogation for politically sensitive comments on social media platforms. For the most part, protesters are rarely given permission to assemble and are often punished for spontaneous demonstrations. In the exceptional moments caused by public health issues, Chinese autocracy has revealed its utter suppression of civil liberty and the government’s ability to enforce authoritarian rule.
It is important to note that the CCP government often stresses that the policy it implements is not a Zero-Covid Policy, but rather a “dynamic zeroing out” policy, i.e., a regional blockade of the places where Covid cases occur. Nevertheless, such an explanation is almost a play on words, since the Chinese government has always maintained its goal of zero social outbreak and has invested a lot of political capital in it. Meanwhile, the CCP government has often legitimized its pandemic policy on the grounds of China’s weak health care system. Yet in examining the actual number of deaths in the Shanghai epidemic, compared to the 490 deaths as of early May, at least 90 verifiable deaths were caused by failed grassroots governance, and the unverifiable number of deaths led by irrational policies could double this number.
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