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This photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping was released on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, as part of a state-run media campaign 'showcasing the unity of the Chinese people in the face of the virus.'

Pang Xinglei/Xinhua via AP

Stung by public criticism as the Wuhan virus outbreak continues to claim lives, Chinese authorities have reinvigorated the state hero-making machine, with official media promoting stories of sacrifice, dedication and love in arduous times.

A hard-working nurse kisses her boyfriend through glass. An infection control co-ordinator works non-stop for two weeks. A poor septuagenarian villager donates money to epidemic control. A soldier borrows a pickup truck to save money while gathering supplies. A doctor volunteers to travel to the epicentre of the outbreak, Wuhan, emulating her mother, a physician who responded to the SARS crisis almost two decades ago. Quarantined patients with mild symptoms gyrate and pump arms in an open hospital ward. “Nothing can stop them from dancing!” state media reports.

The stories illustrate an entire country engaged in a fight against the virus, which has now killed more than 1,000 in China and infected more than 42,000.

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But China’s state-run broadcasters, newspapers and digital news providers are also responding to a mandate from President Xi Jinping, who last week led a meeting of Communist Party elites that called for “telling the moving stories of how those on the front line are preventing and fighting the virus” and “showcasing the unity of the Chinese people in the face of the virus.” The central propaganda authority said it would dispatch 300 journalists to the front lines in Hubei province.

Days later, however, the country was shaken by the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan who was muzzled by police for warning colleagues about the emergence of a new SARS-like virus just as local authorities were trying to suppress the initial signs of an outbreak. A national outpouring of grief on Friday cemented Dr. Li’s status as a hero who spoke truth to power and a martyr who lost his life after a bungled initial response to the epidemic.

But in the days that followed, Chinese state-run media have offered a panoply of new, authorized heroes, flooding news outlets with inspiring tales of service and selflessness against a viral menace.

The spread of the virus to every province and region of China means “you have a situation where China obviously is in a crisis,” said Christian Goebel, a scholar at the University of Vienna who studies the interaction between the Chinese government and public complaints. Now, propaganda workers are “turning it around to say: Well, we are all heroes and we are all doing what we can to weather this crisis. And by applying such a narrative, you also manage to gloss over the problems that are there.”

Employees of Wuhan MY CAR Technology Investment Group deliver disinfectant to Central China Normal University. The employees, from China’s western Xinjiang region, have been held up by China’s state media as an example of generosity during the virus outbreak.


What we know so far about the coronavirus outbreak

The Communist Party has since the days of Mao Zedong praised model workers. It’s “a propaganda technique that goes right back to the earliest days of the party,” said Kingsley Edney, a specialist in Chinese propaganda and ideology at the University of Leeds. The intent is to “place more emphasis on what you can do to solve your problems rather than looking to place blame on the party or the authorities for not doing enough.”

At the same time, authorities have taken an increasingly dim view of the independent reporting that flourished in the early days of the crisis, when citizen journalists posted videos showing bodies piled up in hospitals and the ill struggling, sometimes in vain, to get medical care. More recently, censorship directives have ordered news outlets to carry only officially sanctioned reports, while independent voices such as lawyer and journalist Chen Qiushi have been silenced – in his case, by being quarantined.

Although Beijing has promised to be transparent about reporting on the virus, few scenes of human desperation and overtaxed resources have appeared in state media.

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Instead, they have carried stories of extraordinary individual tenacity.

One reported excerpts from the diary of Zhao Qing, a nurse dispatched from Shanxi province to Hubei, who wrote: “I really love this land, China. My compatriots are in trouble, and I cannot refuse.” Another extolled Zhou Yumei, a sanitation leader in Anhui province who diligently cleared garbage and disinfected trash bins even though her spouse was recovering from surgery, her mother-in-law recently died and her son was preparing for his wedding. “This is a war without gunpowder,” the state media account said.

Yet another described Qiu Kongwen, a retired Zhejiang doctor who picked up his seven-kilogram medical bag to make rounds in a rural area, walking 15 kilometres of mountainous roads to check on local villagers. “I am a Communist Party member. The more critical the time, the heavier our responsibility,” Dr. Qiu said, according to state media accounts.

Still, if such accounts serve the purposes of the state, they also bring to light contributions that have sustained social function at a time when Chinese authorities have placed tens of millions of people under lockdowns that amount to medical house arrest.

Take the three employees of a Wuhan company, a provider of specialty foods such as beef jerky and nuts from the northwestern Xinjiang region, who noticed a student at Wuhan University saying online that he was down to one pack of instant noodles. “With the school under lockdown, the canteen also stopped work out of concern that an infected cook could infect large numbers of students,” said Rousuli Xue Kaireti, chief executive of the investment firm that owns the Wuhan company. “Students said they couldn’t cook food in their dorms and there was nothing to eat. Many universities in Wuhan had similar problems. So we decided to help.”

They began by delivering food, but have since brought jugs of disinfectant, masks and protective suits to students unable to leave campus and secure their own supplies. They have now helped more than 8,300 people at 22 schools.

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Ailixiati unknowingly came into contact with an infected person while making deliveries. “I was super scared and went once an hour to the front gate at the place where I live to let them take my temperature,” he said. He did not fall ill. “But even after that, I never thought about quitting,” he said.

Mr. Ailixiati is Uyghur, part of Xinjiang’s largely Muslim minority, and his contributions as an outsider in Wuhan have been lauded in a series of state media reports. He has stayed in Wuhan even as his wife remains in Xinjiang, preparing to give birth to their first child.

But he dismissed the laurels sent his way.

“We are nothing but deliverymen,” he said.

Still, he could see the good in the media exposure.

“China needs positive energy,” he said. “We watch the news every day and see the attention and concerns from abroad. This is a time, I feel, when Chinese people are even more unified than before.”

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With reporting by Alexandra Li

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