Facing severe global criticism over the outbreak and subsequent handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing’s attempt to steer the narrative with a propagandist, pandemic-themed TV drama seems to have misfired.
The state-sponsored series has been drawing Chinese netizen-flak for downplaying and denigrating the role of women in battling Covid-19 and for inadequate coverage of the struggles of frontline health workers.
The show entitled Heroes in Harm’s Way, which according to the official state line is aimed at showcasing “touching” human stories of heroism amidst the pandemic has instead created much angst since its first launch amongst the Chinese populace. The furor started over a minute-long scene from the pilot episode that aired on the state-run China Central Television. The short segment portrayed women as being unwilling to join the fight against Covid-19 and drew immediate ire upon broadcast. Tens of thousands of furious Chinese viewers took to China’s twitter-like platform, Weibo asking for the show to be taken off air. According to the New York Times, a hashtag about the segment had garnered over 140 million views on social media within days of its launch.
Whitewashing public memory
Alongside the sexism allegation, the clearly propagandist series produced by Shen Haixiong, a deputy minister of the Communist Party’s propaganda department is also being seen as an attempt by Beijing to whitewash public memory about its mishandling of the virus. Critics are also panning the show for trying to shift the focus of a disillusioned domestic audience from the state’s disastrous handling of the initial virus outbreak and change the narrative to a heroic fight of Chinese people against the virus. According to state-owned Chinese news agency ECNS, the series chronicles the “national fight against the Coronavirus pandemic” …demonstrating “…the spirit of unity and solidarity of the Chinese people.”
The near-spontaneous, immediate and instinctive online reproach of the series, suggest the state-run narrative has backfired. The fierce online backlash by an otherwise restrained populace of a highly controlled state, suggests widespread disillusionment with the current polity. While the hashtag #Boycott Heroes in Harm’s Way was taken off Weibo, another soon started and garnered over up over 2.2 billion views. According to Express.co.uk, a Weibo user posted: “This must be the correct collective memory they want to leave.” Another angry netizen wrote: “Please stop revising history and stop broadcasting the series.”
Watch: China’s TV Show praising pandemic handling faces backlash
There has been much global speculation about PRCs attempts to cover up and conceal the magnitude of the pandemic often even resulting in a harsh crackdown on its citizens desperately struggling amidst poor healthcare facilities. A Wuhan-based doctor posted: “I hope this drama, if it is going to be aired overseas, could re-shoot these parts. The hardship the medical staff has endured should not be humiliated by such unprofessional practices.”
The Contentious Clip
The specific scene that triggered the massive furor over sexism is set in Wuhan, recognized as the ground-zero city for the virus. Even a quick look at the scene is enough to show that the netizen outrage is not misplaced. The short, telling scene not just misses including female volunteers but actually calls them out for being unwilling and for not stepping up. The scene showcases drivers filing into a meeting at a Wuhan bus company office where they are told about the government request for transport volunteers. A number of men line up while the female staff remains seated. As the roster is called, the official notes that only men have signed up and asks why women are not stepping up. Almost rubbing in the point, what follows is the official is portrayed as question a woman who says she cannot volunteer.
Social media users interpreted this depiction as the continuation of a narrative that invisibilizes women’s role in social cultural polity. Speaking to New York Times, Zoe Shen, a feminist activist in Beijing said, “In previous television dramas, women would frequently be smeared. But I thought that something would change this year, after the experience of the epidemic, because so many women participated in the fight. I didn’t think there would be such a plotline now.”
Even comments on Twitter pointed to the role of women from the very beginning of the Covid19 pandemic. Media analyst Nalaka Gunawardene, tweeted “More than 90% of nurses deployed to #Wuhan at the height of #COVID19 outbreak were women. But Chinese-govt-sponsored TV drama plays down women’s contributions – a flagrant example of #sexism in Chinese society.”
Heroes in Harm’s Way received a 2.4 out of 10 on the Chinese review platform Douban. It remains to be seen how Beijing handles this new series of backlash against the current regime.