Social media used to supervise official outbreak responses

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A security guard stands outside Jinli Ancient Street in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern Sichuan province, on Jan. 30, 2020. (Image credit: TechNode/Eliza Gkritsi)

Criticism has spread on Chinese social media over how officials are handling of the coronavirus outbreak, even prompting personnel changes within the government and other institutions.

Why it matters: The outbreak of a dangerous respiratory virus in China has exposed poor management and slow responses on the part of local-level governments.

  • Local governments are finding that “more citizens are involved in supervision together with the central government,” said Alison Zhao, researcher at the University of Chicago on China’s political economy. Citizens are more sensitive to abuse of privilege and inefficiency than the Party center, Zhao added.

“People are hypersensitive about officials’ reactions these days.”

—Alison Zhao

Details: Netizens have pilloried local officials in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, on social media platforms.

  • Photos of a local government car that picked up medical supplies from a Red Cross warehouse went viral on social media on Saturday. Many questioned why the government hadn’t distributed the much-needed supplies, according to Chinese media reports that have since been taken down.
  • The Hubei chapter of the Red Cross of China issued an explanation to one incident involving donated masks, saying that the donations had incorrect paperwork and that the masks in question were not suitable for use by medical staff on the front line of the virus outbreak.
  • State media announced on Sunday China’s vice-premier Wang Qishan would become the honorary chairman for the Red Cross of China, signaling that the central government was keeping an eye on the organization. As the former head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Wang led an anti-corruption campaign to enforce Party discipline and is seen as President Xi Jinping’s right hand.
  • Local governments are keen to demonstrate their efficiency in implementing quarantine measures. Videos of village and county efforts to be the best at quarantine circulated on social media. Some local officials ordered (in Chinese) concrete blocks be heaved into roads, and trees felled.
  • The local government in Henan, a province in central China, won praise online for its quick mobilization of officials in spreading information and enforcing precautionary measures.
  • Hashtags which translate to “Henan’s hardcore” and “Copy your homework here” trended on microblogging platform Weibo. Users shared screen captures on social media of local government public health awareness text messages to citizens, and photos of temperature checks on highways.
  • It prompted one user to comment, “Can Heilongjiang province learn from this—everything they do is bad.”

Context: Regular performance metrics for officials emphasize local economic performance and environmental protection. But the coronavirus has for now upended those metrics and become the primary ruler against which they are measured.