Chinese Censors Delete Meme Mocking COVID-19 Deaths in India

Some Chinese journalists say totalitarian control over public speech has led to a loss of human feeling and morality.
2021-05-04
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Chinese Censors Delete Meme Mocking COVID-19 Deaths in India An image showing a Chinese rocket burner next to the cremation pyres of India's COVID-19 victims, with the caption: "Lighting a fire in China vs. lighting a fire in India," that was published by a Weibo account belonging to the CCP's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, but later censored after an outcry.
CCP's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission

Censors in China have deleted a post from an account backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that drew a mocking comparison between the fires under a Chinese rocket and mass cremations of COVID-19 victims in India.

The meme-like image showed a Chinese rocket burner next to the cremation pyres of victims, with the caption: "Lighting a fire in China vs. lighting a fire in India."

The post, which appeared shortly after CCP leader Xi Jinping sent his condeolences to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi over the COVID-19 deaths, was published by a Weibo account belonging to the CCP's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and caused an outcry among Chinese internet commenters, who said it was inappropriate and lacking in empathy.

The commission is the political command center behind Chinese law enforcement agencies including the state security police and regular public security bureaus nationwide.

Journalists in China said the meme had ironically taken advantage of the press freedom that has seen the human cost of the COVID-19 crisis in India hit global headlines, and which the CCP refuses to allow its own tightly controlled press.

Outspoken veteran journalist Gao Yu said that the government had done its utmost to silence journalists and citizen journalists trying to report out of the central Chinese city of Wuhan at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and yet it was ridiculing a similar disaster as it befell India.

"India may be full of crematoriums, but [we know this] precisely because of the freedom of the press that they enjoy there, and because citizen journalists are allowed to report on this, and tell the whole world about it," Gao told RFA.

"It's actually a kind of humanitarian manifesto on behalf of the victims, and it shows that truth-telling is being used in news reporting to show concern for them, as a [call for] humanitarian care," she said.

Totalitarian control of media

Authorities detained and jailed a number of people for reporting unofficially on the unfolding of the coronavirus pandemic in the central city of Wuhan in the early months of 2020.

Changes to media regulations three years ago required any organization publishing news or current affairs-related content to hold a license from the country's media regulator, and new rules on citizen journalism recently extended the full implementation of that rule to include both regular citizens and journalists posting on their private accounts to evade censorship.

Fellow journalist Ji Xuguang said that totalitarian state control over the Chinese media had led to a public sphere devoid of morality.

"The entire Chinese media now operates politically, and that political contexts means they can't see the big picture when it comes to events, and they can't be honest about the phenomena they are reporting on," Ji Xuguang.

"In such an environment, any form of discourse is going to violate human morality," he said.

"As the fourth estate, the media should offer checks and balances to state power, but here in China they are too busy singing the praises of the so-called new era of rejuvenation," Ji said.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of nationalistic tabloid the Global Times, said in an op-ed article on World Press Freedom Day on Monday that press freedom is a concept that relies on entirely Western notions of governance, and isn't applicable to developing countries.

"Press freedom is entirely defined under the Western political system framework, neglecting the social reality of many developing countries," Hu wrote.

"As most Western countries encounter rising problems in governance, the world's view about Western-style press freedom will gradually change," he said.

"[Western] media outlets have now completely turned into a tool for Western political elites to fan geopolitical competition or rivalry," Hu wrote.

"Some radicals in the West have weaponized the concept of press freedom in a bid to [muddy] the water and meet their geopolitical goals," he wrote, echoing a common claim in Beijing that criticism of China's lack of press freedom is a hostile attempt to undermine the CCP's grip on power.

All 'CCP mouthpieces' now

In response, Gao Yu reeled off a list of relatively independent and cutting-edge media outlets in China that have been axed or neutralized since Xi took power in 2012, including the Southern Media group newspapers and political magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu.

"I think that pretty much all Chinese media are now CCP mouthpieces," Gao said. "Even Hong Kong is being drawn in to [our system]."

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several citizen journalists who went to Wuhan in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak to report from the front line, have "disappeared," been detained or jailed.

On Dec. 28, 2020, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years' imprisonment by the Pudong District People's Court, which found her guilty of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge frequently used to target critics of the government.

She was accused of "posting false information" on overseas social media platforms Twitter and YouTube, and for giving interviews to foreign news organizations.

Meanwhile, Chen Mei and Cai Wei, who tried to preserved censored COVID information, are still in detention, CHRD said.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported in December that authoritarian governments had stepped up arrests of journalists for covering the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Amid the pandemic, governments delayed trials, restricted visitors, and disregarded the increased health risk in prison; at least two journalists died after contracting the disease in custody," the group said in a report published on Dec. 15, 2020.

China was among the world's biggest jailers of journalists in 2020, continuing a pattern of total state control over the media begun under Xi, with more than 100 journalists and bloggers currently behind bars, according to the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Reported by Yi Bing for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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