To reclaim the narrative in the early days of the pandemic, as my colleagues have reported, the Chinese government began a tremendous behind-the-scene effort to make sure that the censors took control at even the most local level. They listened and read just about everything people posted. Then the censors either addressed the problems or silenced the dissenters. Chinese officials say the police investigated or otherwise dealt with more than 17,000 people who they said had fabricated or spread fake pandemic-related information.
This demand for a single narrative carries risks. It silences those who might warn the government before it does something foolish, like stumble into a conflict or interfere with China’s economic growth machine.It also conceals the true feelings of the Chinese people. On the street, in person, most Chinese will be happy to tell you what’s on their minds, perhaps in exhaustive details. But China became a more opaque place in 2020. Online censorship became even harsher. Few Chinese people are willing to take the risks of speaking to Western news media. Beijing expelled many American journalists, including those at The New York Times.This single narrative also means that people who don’t fit into it risk getting left behind (emphasis added).