Discussion of Lhasa COVID Outbreak Censored on Weibo

Late last week, censors purged Weibo of posts documenting the chaos of pandemic control measures in Lhasa, Tibet. In mid-August, Tibet began reporting thousands of new cases in the region’s first documented outbreak since 2020. However, there has been little coverage of the Lhasa outbreak and subsequent lockdown because local journalists are limited in what they can publish, and Access to the region for foreign journalists remains strictly controlled. In response, Lhasa residents took to Weibo with complaints centered on six now-familiar aspects of the locks: the alleged cover-up of case numbers, poor central quarantine facilities, food shortages, lack of medical care for non-Covid illnesses, unresponsive government agencies, and general malfeasance. In The New York Times, Vivian Wang reported calls for help from Tibet, which outside observers say are unprecedented in recent years:

“The social media posts you see from Lhasa people are about suffering, but this is the real Lhasa. The public advertisements in Lhasa, I think they are all fake,” said a food delivery worker in the city who gave only his last name, Min, for fear of official reprisals.

[…] On Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, some residents have shared videos in Tibetan describing being unable to work or pay rent, according to translations by the Tibet Action Institute, an overseas activist group that supports Tibetan independence. One man, filming himself in a vehicle, said he had been sleeping in his car for a month. One woman begged to be allowed to return to her village elsewhere in Tibet, describing her concern about running out of food.

Lhadon Tethong, the director of the Tibet Action Institute, said she had been surprised by what she called a flood of Tibetan voices this week, compared with a trickle of information earlier.

“It’s these direct cries for help that come from within in a way that we don’t see anymore,” he said. “That’s how we know they’re at breaking point.” [Source]

On What’s On Weibo, Manya Koetse translated a series of viral posts outside of Lhasa:

“I’m a little surprised!” a local social media user wrote: “What I saw was a total of 28 buses lined up outside Lhasa Nagqu No. 2 Senior High School, and then even more. [buses] they came There are about 50 people on a bus, so there must have been about 1400 positive cases. There was a blind man, there were old people in wheelchairs, there were swaddled babies, from getting on the bus at 9.30pm until now, we have been waiting for 5 hours and we are still waiting. It is pure chaos at the school entrance, there is no order. I won’t sleep tonight.”

[…] “In order to welcome the central government leaders to Lhasa and demonstrate to them the local government’s “excellent” epidemic prevention capabilities and “excellent” results in the fight against the epidemic, they move citizens to rural areas and leave them all. Stay crammed into unfinished concrete buildings, with all kinds of viruses having free reign.”

[…] “Please pay more attention to the Lhasa epidemic issue,” one person wrote, echoing a similar message sent by many others: “Lhasa doesn’t need your prayers, we need exposure.” [Source]

Lhasa netizens also deployed memes of Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian to criticize the government’s COVID response. During the Shanghai lockdown, a viral image of a man with a Zhao quote taped to his back led to an explosion of jokes about the “stolen joy” of living under China’s zero COVID policy until censors eventually cracked down. But the Lhasa posts again used Zhao’s meme templates. One of them shared a screenshot taken from a press conference on September 16, 2021 during which Zhao quoted Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” to criticize the United States’ response to COVID-19 United: “How many ears does a man have to have before he can hear people cry?”

A screenshot of a Lhasa post with a Zhao Lijian meme

The effervescence was also apparently inspired by a wave of publications of a similar blockade in Yining (known as Ghulja in Uighur and Porridge in Kazakh), the largest city in Xinjiang’s Yili (Ili) Autonomous Prefecture. Online discussion about Yili was drowned out by a campaign revealed by leaked directives from local authorities. Brigades of “internet comment staff” were deployed to drown out stories of suffering from being blocked “a comment flood campaign” in a Weibo super thread dedicated to Yili. The Internet Surveillance Department of Public Security threatened them spread “negative energy” with arrest, and described the campaign as part of a “smokeless war”. Local media were also asked to record scenes of “children having fun and smiling old people” for wide distribution through news sites and social media.

Although similar directives have not yet emerged for the Lhasa blockade, a similar playbook appears to be in use. A hashtag used to document events in Lhasa was cleared by censors, which removed tagged posts from public view. The hashtag was flooded with identical posts from the official Weibo accounts of municipal fire departments across the country, which shared a short propaganda film produced by the Ministry of Emergency Management of the Fire and Rescue Department of China greetings to Lhasa”heart on fire” frontline volunteers. These climbs are a form of Censorship of Weibo mockingly called “Operation Blue V” by netizens, an ironic nod to the Chinese action film Operation Red Sea and the blue “V” verification marks carried by verified government accounts:

Weibo also apparently censored the “trending topics in your city” feature for Lhasa, as the city had only one trending topic: a state-sponsored hashtag reporting only two new cases, while others Cities that suffered blockades, such as Chengdu, had dozens:

Side-by-side screenshots of Weibo’s “Trending in Your City” feature for Lhasa and Chengdu, which appear to indicate that Lhasa’s was being censored on Friday, September 16.

In recent days, the state media have started publication of pieces praising Lhasa’s “back to work” with an employer telling CGTN: “The control of the pandemic has been effective. As a business owner here, I am very happy to see this.” Posted by the official Weibo account of the Lhasa Propaganda Arm a song by Tenzin Tsondu (known as Ding Zhen in Mandarin), a Tibetan shepherd whose charisma and good looks helped him achieve overnight fame in Douyin. The song included the lyrics: “But I’m grateful to have you in my life, / carefully light all the torches for me. / Thank you for each and every time you’ve given me / the direction and the light clearer”, interspersed with gifs of hazmat white suits”Great Whitesunder the Communist Party flag or spraying Lhasa with disinfectant under a self-created rainbow:

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