By David Bandurski

Czech writer Milan Kundera once wrote: “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass.” Facing the enormous task of controlling and directing public opinion in the midst of widespread anger over the handling of the coronavirus epidemic, and serious questions about the priorities of the leadership, China’s Party-state media have turned to a tried-and-true formula: turning on the kitsch.

Kundera, as scholar Robert Solomon writes, is “concerned with a particular kind of political propaganda that intentionally eclipses harsh realities with emotion and uses sweet sentiments to preclude criticism.” This exploitation of human emotion, which strips it of the immediacy of felt experience and abstracts it as collective pathos, is an ancient art practiced by dictators. “In politics,” writes Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, “most dictators have attempted to reinforce their authority with the help of kitsch propaganda.”

In this week’s People’s Daily we can find a consummate piece of kitsch propaganda given a position of prominence right below the masthead. The article, “Heroic City, Heroic People,” is an emotional hymn dedicated to front-line medical workers, officials and ordinary people. But the real objective of the article is to underscore the Chinese Communist Party as the enabler of miraculous human feats.

This is classic propaganda kitsch, and Kundera’s tears flow from the very first lines.

“Doctor, please keep further away from me.”

This statement from a [coronavirus] patient in Wuhan reddened the eyes of the doctor, and it brings tears to the eyes of countless people.

Even as Chinese medical workers from the epicentre of the crisis in Wuhan issued a call in one of the world’s most respected medical journals, The Lancet, for urgent assistance from colleagues around the world as they face physical and psychological exhaustion, the Party’s flagship newspaper transforms misery and desperation into tear-inducing sacrifice. Look, for example, at its description of Peng Yinhua, a 29 year-old doctor who died on February 20:

…29 year-old Peng Yinhua, a doctor in the Division of Pulmonary Care and Critical Medicine at the First People’s Hospital in Wuhan’s Jiangxia District, had originally prepared for a wedding with his wife on February 1. When the epidemic came, he threw himself onto the front lines. When the patients were greatest in number, this meant working two days and two nights straight, taking responsibility for as many as 40 patients. But who could imagine that this charge into battle would lead to his eternal departure…

In this passage, the very human Peng seems not to die with real humanity, but rather to fade, as though he is exiting the stage in a drama.

And of course kitsch propaganda must anneal the softness of personal tragedy into the hard steel of sacrifice. So we are told that “more than 40,000 medical staff from 29 provinces, autonomous regions and cities… were deployed to assist Hubei and Wuhan,” that they “entered the battle as soon as possible, racing against time, testing their strength against the demon of disease, all to continue the relay of life!”

“In the history of the world’s fight against epidemic disease, to gather 40,000 medical personnel in one city over a few short days – this is to generate a miracle!”

But kitsch propaganda can backfire in the face of a public that is digitally connected, and far more savvy than in the past about the tropes used by the state-run media.

Earlier this month, internet users responded with irritation to a video posted by the official Gansu Daily newspaper that showed nurses weeping as their heads were shaved before their deployment to treat patients in Hubei province. The video described the female nurses as “most beautiful warriors,” and made emotional fodder of their sacrifice.

Frontline female medics having their heads shaved in Gansu. Photo: Gansu Daily screenshot.

As reported by Quartz, a writer named Chen Mashu remarked in a WeChat post since removed by authorities: “The coverage made me think: Why does our media always like to use the sacrifices females make as a tool for propaganda? …for women who don’t cut their hair, aren’t pregnant and are healthy, do they not deserve to be mentioned?”

Chen clearly does not appreciate the finer points of kitsch.

[partial translation]

Heroic City, Heroic People: Dedicated to the People of Wuhan in the Midst of the Struggle for Epidemic Prevention and Control
People’s Daily, February 25, 2020

“Doctor, please deep further away from me.”

This statement from a [coronavirus] patient in Wuhan reddened the eyes of the doctor, and it brings tears to the eyes of countless people.

Keeping the doctor away is about the concern they might be infected, and it is the hope that “they can protect the lives of more Wuhan citizens.“

“A person holds up the sky, a heart warms a city . . . . “ Many people have left messages like this.

In this city, over these days, this kind of story has unfolded every day. This kind and respectable patient is just one of millions of ordinary people in this city.

An epidemic that suddenly came has changed this city, and it is changing the spirit of the people in this city.

This outbreak with such urgency, has made of the country one community (疫情催人急,家国共同体). Every day, white-clad and fearless warriors, the undaunted people’s police, community officials keeping watch day and night, all are fighting on the front lines; the people of this city come together as a city, keeping watch and rendering mutual aid, seeing the overall situation facing all, conscientiously cooperating with epidemic prevention and control [measures], showing perseverance and a stolid fighting spirit, all writing together a chapter of great unity!

Wuhan railway station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Arnie97.

We salute a heroic city, and a heroic people!

“Every second brings hope to more people!”

Were it not for this epidemic, the scene in Wuhan would be a different: Tourists weaving their way toward the Yellow Crane Tower, cars rushing across the Yangtze Bridge, busy scenes at the Hankou Station, laughter and applause rising from Chu River and Han Street, and bosses at the noodle shops along Hubu Lane greeting customers with a “Good Morning!”

Normal life has suddenly been interrupted by this epidemic.

On January 23, Wuhan’s streets were closed, and the city of Wuhan entered “wartime.”

This Virus is Dangerous, But Containment is Imminent

Citizens of Wuhan lining up outside of a drug store to buy masks during the novel coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Wikicommons.

The epidemic is a command, and our hospitals have become the battlefield!

Liu Zhiming (刘智明), head of Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan, rushed to the fire. From January 21, to January 23, Liu Zhiming worked three consecutive nights transforming the Wuchang Hospital into a designated hospital, transferring the 499 patients originally under care there within just two days, and making 500 beds available. Today, more and more patients are being discharged from the hospital, but Liu Zhiming’s life has been fixed at 51 years of age. [NOTE: Liu Zhiming passed away from the coronavirus on February 17.]

. . . . 29 year-old Peng Yinhua (彭银华), a doctor in the Division of Pulmonary Care and Critical Medicine at the First People’s Hospital in Wuhan’s Jiangxia District, had originally prepared for a wedding with his wife on February 1. When the epidemic came, he threw himself onto the front lines. When the patients were greatest in number, this meant working two days and two nights straight, taking responsibility for as many as 40 patients. But who could imagine that this charge into battle would lead to his eternal departure . . . . [NOTE: Peng Yinhua passed away on February 20.]

The epidemic sounded a rally call for all to face a test of life and death. From January 23, medical staff from all over the country and from the army rushed to Wuhan, and the scope of support expanded to the whole of Hubei province. More than 40,000 medical staff from 29 provinces, autonomous regions and cities, as well as from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and the entire military system were deployed to assist Hubei and Wuhan. They entered the battle as soon as possible, racing against time, testing their strength against the demon of disease, all to continue the relay of life!

In order to not impact the flow of their work, some doctors and nurses wore adult diapers. In order to save protective gear [which can only be worn once], some extended their shifts from 4 hours to 6 . . . . Their white outfits are war fatigues, and they are the most beautiful resisters, the most adorable people of the New Era!

In the history of the world’s fight against epidemic disease, to gather 40,000 medical personnel in one city over a few short days – this is to generate a miracle!

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David Bandurski

David is the co-director of the <a href="http://chinamediaproject.org/">China Media Project</a>, a research and fellowship program with the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. A frequent commentator on Chinese media, his writings have appeared in Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, Index on Censorship, the SCMP and others.