Writing on social media back in February, Chinese writer Yi Zhongtian likened the excessive emotion, positivity and adulation in reporting and commentary on the coronavirus epidemic in China to “eating blood-soaked dumplings”  (吃人血馒头). This was a reference to Lu Xun’s 1919 short story “Medicine,” the writer’s indictment of senseless superstition, in which poor and illiterate parents attempt to cure their son’s tuberculosis by offering him a steamed bun soaked in the blood of an executed revolutionary.

Just as Lu Xun’s frequent references to “cannibalism” in works like “Medicine” and “A Madman’s Diary” denounced the devouring of individual consciousness by an oppressive feudal society, Yi Zhongtian calls on these insights to highlight the way individual convictions and criticism can be swallowed up in today’s China as people and institutions reflexively conform to power. 

This aspect of Chinese politics is most notable in times of tragedy and, as Yi writes, often takes the form of fawning and groveling. “Kissing up is a local specialty [of the Chinese],” he writes. “Every time national adversity strikes, they leap up eagerly and play at writing, which takes two standard forms: first, turning funeral rites into occasions of joy; second, showering leaders with adulation.”

After the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, as furious parents protested over the death of thousands of schoolchildren in collapsed schools, a senior Shandong official named Wang Zhaoshan (王兆山) wrote a poem published in the Qilu Evening News that included these selected lines:

1.3 billion people cry as a single host,
We are blessed even if we are ghosts . . .
I just hope they place a screen before my grave,
So we can watch the Olympics together and rave.

The poem infuriated many Chinese, who railed against it in internet comments. Wang, and the newspaper, had gone too far. But the culture of “eating blood-soaked dumplings” is an irrepressible tool of the party-state, and it constantly demands the complicity of officials, journalists – and of course also citizens.

The manipulation of human emotion as propaganda kitsch, which I wrote about back in February, is one aspect of this “cannibalism.” Female nurses have been particular victims this year, their individuality consumed by the demands of party-state propaganda. When nurses were shorn of their hair, ostensibly to help prevent infection as they rushed to the front lines of the epidemic, their completely understandable tears were abstracted and exploited as uplifting propaganda. In another story of sacrifice, a local Wuhan newspaper reported that a young nurse had returned to work to fight the epidemic just 10 days after having a miscarriage. One WeChat-based essay took objection to this, calling it “the same old propaganda trick [of] using the sacrifice of ordinary individuals to strengthen solidarity.”

Power-conforming faith requires indulging in emotion and suspending disbelief. When the China Business Gazette was pressed to apologize in February for quoting the newborn twins of one front-line nurse as asking their father where mommy was, its only real sin was stretching belief too far (though they claimed the miraculously verbal infants had been an editing error).

As the coronavirus epidemic has been taken up by the Chinese party-state as a powerful propaganda tool this year, both domestically and in its foreign policy, the lines in this culture of “eating blood-soaked dumplings” have been constantly tested by skeptical Chinese who resent the dehumanization such propaganda demands.

One of several instances of “kissing up” that prompted Yi Zhongtian’s remarks on eating “eating blood-soaked dumplings” in February was a saccharine poem called “Thank You, COVID-19” that appeared on WeChat, and for many Chinese was too much to stomach. A taste of its nauseating sweetness:

I want to thank you, COVID-19, because you allowed me to see a blessing – unbreakable unity of will.
I want to thank you, COVID-19, because you allowed me to see a blessing – courageous advancement.
I want to thank you, COVID-19, because you allowed me to see a blessing – [people] facing death with equanimity.

The poem was criticized so roundly that it received attention even in the state-run media. Shanghai’s Liberation Daily spoke sharply against the poem’s insensitivity, cautioning that creative works needed to have “a human feel”  to find a place in people’s hearts. The official Xinhua News Agency felt obliged to report that the poem had “not only failed to elicit sympathies, but in fact had enraged masses of internet users.” Nevertheless, the same Xinhua report heaped praise on other “great works” clearly manipulating emotions to support Party-state themes, noting in particular this one and this one.

Such acts of misbegotten creativity have been broadly encouraged, not just through the emotive and exaggerated language of the party-state media, but also through the school system.

One former journalist in Beijing tells me his nephew in southwest China was tasked by teachers with compiling a “poetry collection” on the epidemic, writing a poem and also inviting friends and relatives to contribute. The purpose, he said, is to write poems urging solidarity, and praising China for its coronavirus response, following party-state themes of sacrifice and unity. The journalist’s personal compromise – as he agreed as a matter of avuncular duty to write his own poem for the child’s collection – was to avoid outright praise of the government, centering instead on the theme of “human community” (close enough to Xi Jinping’s foreign policy phrase, “community of common destiny”).

Chinese nerves over being obliged to “eat blood-soaked dumplings” were again tested last week, as the Beijing News and other Chinese media reported that the Middle School Student Guide (中学生导报), a nationally circulated publication for middle school students published by Lanzhou Daily, the official Party-run newspaper in the city of Lanzhou, had run a special issue called “College Entrance Exams: Predicting Hot Topics in Current Affairs” that included a particularly noxious coronavirus inspired poem. The news originated with a post on social media showing apparently authentic images of the newspaper.

The voice in the poem, which indirectly praises China’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic, is that of the virus itself. The virus bemoans its horrible fate in China in the face of robust measures to contain it, and it says it wishes to retreat to its place of origin: the United States:

I wish to leave,
I wish to return to America,
In returning to America I return home . . . .
I regret ever coming to China.
Here, I just can’t continue on.
China has too many mountains [to cross],
This Huoshen Mountain, and Leishen Mountain, and Zhong Nanshan [Note: first two are temporary field hospitals set up to fight Covid-19, the last a reference to Dr. Zhong Nanshan, whose name includes the character for mountain.]
China’s government is too fierce,
It says to close the city and the city is closed;
Play with China’s white-angel nurses and you toy with your life,
They charge to the front lines, eyes blazing
Where one falls, another steps into position.
They are too awesome!

The poem caused outrage across Chinese social media, and a commentary from The Beijing News called it “inhuman.” “In the end, a disaster is a disaster, and should not elicit songs of praise and embellishment,” it said. “Nor should distorted writings that describe disasters as good things appear in newspapers circulated to schools.”

The last point quickly became the next point of controversy, as the Middle School Student Guide came out with a statement on April 28 alleging that the poem appearing online had been “illegal conduct misusing our publishing license number,” and that the publication had not in fact published a special issue about college entrance exams. Was the online photo a fake? Apparently not. Without getting into the tangled details, it seems based on subsequent reporting by the Shanghai Observer and others that the publishing license number of the Middle School Student Guide might indeed have been misused in some way by a company advertising with, or perhaps partnering with, the publication.

It does seem that a printed educational paper or supplement with the offending poem was indeed circulated, resulting in the online image that stoked this latest storm over fawning statements in the midst of national, and now global, tragedy. The piece from The Beijing News criticizing the poem has since disappeared.

On April 29, the WeChat account “Fisheye Observer” looked more closely at the poem supposedly written by a school student, exploring its origins, and found that it in fact was a shortened version of a poem written and posted online back in March by Tian Hexin (田和欣), identified online as having been an editor and “leader” at the Henan provincial branch of Xinhua News Agency and the state-run Consumer Daily newspaper. “Fisheye Observer” was unable, however, to find news content written by Tian or any information about his supposed leadership work, leading the account to suspect that his work with state media was “possibly exaggerated.”

Exaggerations and inventions like that of Tian Hexin have proliferated over the past few months. They arise, particularly in the midst of crisis, from a political culture in which exaggeration of the right kind is broadly encouraged – and even, as in the case of state-run media and the education system, explicitly assigned.

As China’s coronavirus propaganda campaign goes global, it should not surprise us to see foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying (华春莹) post an emotional tweet about sharing “weal and woe” surrounding a completely discredited story about Italians blaring the Chinese national anthem from their balconies to express their gratitude toward China. It should not surprise us be sold stories about the glories of China’s Covid-19 response, seasoned with words like “arduous,” “swift,” “decisive” and “victory”; to be told that “China’s model” in tackling the crisis points the way to a global solution; or to read glowing reports of China’s “institutional strength,” and a constant flow of accounts of countries thanking China for its aid during the epidemic.

Sure, there may be many directed efforts by China to influence international opinion. China’s government has pushed assertively to offset and contain global criticism over its handling of the coronavirus epidemic – exploiting every arrival of coronavirus supplies as a propaganda opportunity, pressuring the European Union to tone down criticism of China in its report on government disinformation, attempting to solicit public praise from Germany for its response, and so on. China’s so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomats have taken to Twitter with strident tones, upbraided foreign journalists, and even written to suggest that “some Westerners are beginning to lose confidence in liberal democracy.”

But we should also understand that officials like Hua Chunying are deeply invested in their own fictions, that much of their noisy self-congratulation arises from the conditioned positivity about which Yi Zhongtian writes. Their impulse is to face (and efface) tragedy by elevating emotion and brown-nosing national power. Far from being strategic or helpful, their actions and statements are likely to be deeply counterproductive. Nevertheless, they cannot help themselves, just as Wuhan’s new top official, Wang Zhonglin (王忠林), almost certainly cannot comprehend how his suggestion in March that the much-suffering people of his city should undergo “gratitude education” stirred up such a storm of controversy.

For many Chinese Communist Party officials and “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, the supposed greatness of the country’s response to the coronavirus epidemic is a matter not of strategy but of superstitious faith. And they cannot understand why the rest of us have failed to acquire a taste for their “blood-soaked dumplings.”