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China wipes clean Weibo discussions of Lhasa Covid lockdown

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(TibetanReview.net, Sep21’22) – The apologies made by top leaders of Tibet’s capital Lhasa on Sep 17, highlighting the city government’s shortcomings and weaknesses in addressing the complaints of residents on Covid-19 lockdown measures, were accompanied by censors wiping China’s social media website Weibo clean of posts documenting the chaos of pandemic control measures there, said the online China-monitoring group chinadigitaltimes.net Sep 20. 

Most of the complainants were Chinese residents, since Tibetans face the additional risk of being hauled up for separatism for any kind of complaint or protest against any kind of Chinese government policies and actions. However, this did not deter some Tibetans from going online with their complaints anyhow.

The Tibetan area designated by China as Tibet Autonomous Region began reporting thousands of new cases in mid-August in the region’s first documented outbreak since 2020. Yet there has been a paucity of reporting on the Lhasa outbreak and subsequent lockdown because local journalists are constrained as to what they can publish, and access to the region by foreign journalists remains tightly controlled.

In response, residents of Lhasa took to Weibo with complaints centering on six now-familiar aspects of the lockdowns: the alleged cover-up of case numbers, shabby central quarantine facilities, food shortages, lack of medical care for non-Covid illnesses, unresponsive government agencies, and general malfeasance, said the chinadigitaltimes.net report.

There have also been unofficial accounts of Covid-related deaths, which the Chinese government and its media has so never mentioned, it may be added.

Few samples of Weibo complaints and outcries were seen covered in Sep 16 reports on the lockdown chaos in Lhasa by the nyitmes.com and the scmp.com. Apart from them, chinadigitaltimes.net noted that at What’s On Weibo, Manya Koetse had translated a number of the viral posts out of Lhasa.

“I am a bit shocked!” one local social media user was stated to have written: “What I saw was a total of 28 buses lined up outside Lhasa Nagqu No. 2 Senior High School, and then still more [buses] were coming. One bus can fit around 50 people, so there must have been around 1400 positive cases. There was a blind man, there were elderly people in wheelchairs, there were swaddled-up babies, from getting on the bus at 9.30 pm up to now, we’ve been waiting for 5 hours and we’re still waiting now. It’s just pure chaos at the school entrance, there is no order. I won’t sleep tonight.

[…] “In order to welcome central government leaders to Lhasa and to demonstrate the ‘excellent’ epidemic prevention capabilities of the local government & the ‘outstanding’ results of the fight against the epidemic to them, they moved citizens to the rural areas and let them all stay crowded together in unfinished concrete buildings, with all kinds of viruses having free reign.”

One person was stated to have written, repeating a similar message sent out by many others: “… Please pay more attention to the topic of the Lhasa epidemic, Lhasa doesn’t need your prayers, we need exposure.”

Lhasa netizens were also stated to have deployed Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian memes to criticize the government’s Covid response. The report said one shared a screenshot taken from a Sep 16, 2021 press conference – during which Zhao quoted Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” to criticize America’s Covid response – with the remark: “How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry?”

However, last week, the report said, a hashtag used to document events in Lhasa was wiped clean by censors, who removed tagged posts from public view. The tag was then flooded with identical posts from the official Weibo accounts of municipal fire departments across the country, which shared a short propaganda film produced by China’s national Fire and Rescue Department Ministry of Emergency Management hailing Lhasa’s “flaming heart” frontline volunteers. 

These surges are a form of Weibo censorship derisively termed “Operation Blue V” by netizens, a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Chinese action movie Operation Red Sea and the blue “V” checkmarks borne by verified government accounts.

The report said Weibo also appeared to have censored the “topics trending in your city” function for Lhasa, as the city now had only one trending topic—a state-sponsored hashtag reporting only two new cases.

And in recent days, state media outlets have begun publishing pieces hailing Lhasa’s “return to work,” with one businessman telling the official CGTN (China Global Television Network): “Pandemic control has been effective. As one of the business owners here, I’m very happy to see this.”

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