China’s Virus of Lies in 2020

Viral Alarm

The following material is reprinted from China Digital Times 中国数字时代 with the kind permission of Samuel Wade, the deputy editor. This is a chapter in Viral Alarm: China Heritage Annual 2020.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
29 December 2020


Further Reading:

【CDT档案】‘2020年十大审查事件:讲真话求真相’, 《中国数字时代》, 12/28/2020, with links to material on:

The Virus of Lies:

2020’s Top Ten
Ministry of Truth Directives


Collated by China Digital Times
Posted by Joseph Brouwer

Our colleagues at CDT Chinese have put together a list of the Top Ten Directives from the Ministry of Truth. We have translated the introductory text and the list of directives, many of which have previously been posted in English on CDT.

Joseph Brouwer
24 December 2020

In , all of our lives have been rewritten by the spread of . As of December 20, there have been 76,400,000 confirmed cases globally, and 1,690,000 people have lost their lives.

This public health disaster could have been averted, or at least to largely contained December 30 of last year. Talk of “new SARS cases” was already circulating among the people, but Chinese officials claimed this to be “rumor” and severely punished “rumor mongers” while proclaiming “we have not found clear evidence of person-to-person transmission,” “have not found any infected medical personnel,” and calling the virus a “minor illness” that is “preventable and controllable.” Most ironically, five days before Wuhan locked down, the city’s Baibuting neighborhood held a “10,000 Family Banquet” to welcome the Lunar New Year. Attendees brought fevers back to at least 50 of the neighborhood’s buildings.

But, even more dreadful than the coronavirus is the virus of lies—to this day we still haven’t found out who patient zero of this great plague was. How did it cross from animals to people? Why did the massively expensive public health emergency monitoring system built after SARS completely fail in the face of this virus? Meanwhile, the propaganda organs  steadily turned up the volume, propagating “the Miracle of China’s Fight Against COVID-19,” while ridiculing other nations’ pandemic responses, “They can’t even copy homework correctly.” Before his death, in response to a question about his redress for spreading “rumor” about a new illness, Dr. Li Wenliag said, “It is more important for people to know the truth. To clear my name is not that important to me.” Since his passing, citizen journalists and volunteers who have shared the truth have been regularly arrested and detained for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

A few days ago, The New York Times and ProPublica published the joint report, “No ‘Negative’ News: How China Censored the Coronavirus.” The report drew on over 32,000 directives and 1,800 memorandums leaked from an office in Hangzhou’s Cyberspace Administration Office to analyze how Chinese authorities manipulated public opinion about the pandemic. One group of documents showed that has become a sort of competition. Each website begins the season with 100 points. If their monitoring of essays or comments is found to be lacking, points are deducted, if their performance is outstanding, points can be added. During the first quarter of 2020, two local websites lost 10 points for “sending out illegal epidemic information.” One government-run portal earned an additional two points for “actively participating in, and guiding, public opinion.”

This all leads to desperation, but not entirely—popular wisdom still sprouts and grows in the cracks between censorship. After the essay “The Whistle Provider” was deleted, internet users used martian language, braille, emojis, Morse code, seal script, Classical Chinese—all sorts of methods—to launch an anti-censorship relay race.The works that remain will surely go down in the annals of internet history. On the night that Dr. Li Wenliang passed away, “There should be more than one voice in a healthy society” reverberated across the Chinese internet and the cries of commenters’ hearts turned his Weibo into an online “Wailing Wall.”

China Digital Times has long monitored internet censorship in China, consistently collecting, archiving, and translating” whenever possible. Each and every one of these directives is designed to create a so-called “correct collective memory”—and from this dejected present, it can seem as if they’ve succeeded. A directive is issued, and information is completely wiped out, slaughtered to the last character as if by a hostile army. But when looking back, you find that on the skeleton-littered battlefield, new growth has once again sprouted. Human memory cannot be deleted.




昨天,《纽约时报》和非营利媒体 ProPublica 联合发表了报道《压制负面新闻:机密文件揭露中国如何操纵疫情舆论》,从杭州市网信办某办事处外泄的3200多条指示、1800多份备忘录和其他文件中,分析了中国当局如何操纵疫情舆论。其中一份文件显示,审查是变成了一场比赛:每个网站在季度开始时都有100分,如果文章或评论的监管出现漏洞会被扣分,表现出色则可以加分。在2020年第一季度,有两家地方网站因“发布涉疫情违规信息”各被扣除10分。一家政府门户因在疫情期间“主动参与舆情引导”而获得额外的2分。




January & February: Mystery Pneumonia

Beginning in early January, the Chinese government issued almost daily directives limiting and guiding coverage of the emerging coronavirus. CDT acquired, verified, and translated propaganda directives issued by central Party authorities to state media  between January 2 and March 10 of this year which we published in our Minitrue Diary 2020 series. The first directive spoke of a “pneumonia of unknown origin.”

Regarding the pneumonia of unknown origin that emerged in Wuhan, Hubei, use information released by authoritative departments as the standard, do not write baseless conjecture. If in doubt, direct questions to the National Health Commission to prevent fake news reports from triggering mass panic. (January 2, 2020) [Source]

When reporting on confirmed cases and deaths from the novel coronavirus pneumonia, pay attention to protecting privacy. Do not identify patients by name, and do your utmost to avoid using real photos or images of patients unless using appropriate technologies to pixelate the identifying images. When giving the source of information, avoid wording like “doctors believe”; indicate the specific source as far as possible. Do not use “incurable,” “deadly,” etc. in headlines to avoid public panic. (February 1, 2020) [Source]

(1) All media reports on individual cases of relevant organs’ improper management, cadre nonfeasance, or other obstacles in pandemic control measures should be moderate. In general, do not aggregate. (2) “When reporting on limits on travel, controls on movement and other prevention and control measures, do not use formulations like lockdown, road closures, sealed doors or paper seals.” (3) Monitoring of public opinion surrounding the implementation of grassroots virus control measures should be moderate. In general, report through internal channels. (4) Regarding the progress of research into medication for the novel coronavirus, report on the basis of authoritative information published by the national Ministry of Health. Treat the curative effects of medicines that have not entered clinical use with caution and do not freely reprint internet news. [Chinese] (This translation includes text originally published in The New York Times)

All media: Do not use pop-up notifications for any negative news reports about the prevention and control of the ‘novel coronavirus epidemic.’ If you must report, only use authoritative information from People’s Daily, Xinhua, CCTV, as well as departments such as the Health Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and related Hubei Province and Wuhan counterparts. Our bureau will increase the intensity of inspection and supervision, if pop-up notification violations are discovered, they will be dealt with seriously. Please speedily implement the contents of the above directive within your jurisdiction with strict secrecy. [Chinese] (This translation includes text originally published in The New York Times)









在媒体对“不明原因肺炎”进行追踪报道同时,宣传部门也迅速行动,对报道方向作出了指示:“以权威部门发布信息为准,不作无端猜测,不援引外媒报导,不关联非典,防止不实报导引起恐慌。” 在这一原则指导下,疫情初期媒体的报道多集中于强调“可防可控”和“未发现明确的人传人证据,未发现医务人员感染”,甚至在1月18日,武汉市百步亭社区还举行了“万家宴”活动。这一禁令和与此相关的一系列舆论导向,直接导致疫情错过了黄金防控期。


Early February: Death of Dr. Li Wenliang

The February 6 death of Dr. Li Wenliang—who had been admonished for sharing information about the new virus with medical colleagues—sparked days of mourning and rage online.

Regarding the death of Doctor Li Wenliang of Wuhan Central Hospital, rigidly adhere to standard sources. It is strictly forbidden for reports to use contributions from self-media, and sites may not use pop-up alerts, comment, or sensationalize. Safely control the temperature of interactive sections, do not set up special topic sections, gradually withdraw the topic from Hot Search lists, and strictly manage harmful information. (February 6, 2020) [Source]

To all district, county (and city) Cyberspace Administration bureaus: In accordance with the spirit of the February 7th Provincial Cyberspace Administration video conference, work directives for the current period are as follows: (1) precisely understand the complexity and severity of the past few days’ online rhetoric. Li Wenliang’s death has quickly become a trending topic online. “We must recognize with clear mind the butterfly effect, broken windows effect and snowball effect triggered by this event, and the unprecedented challenge that it has posed to our online opinion management and control work. All Cyberspace Administration bureaus must pay heightened attention to online opinion, and resolutely control anything that seriously damages party and government credibility and attacks the political system.” Guide commentary [on posts] about other manners that are cathartic in nature, paying close attention to both style and method. [Chinese] (This translation includes text originally published in The New York Times)


关于武汉市中心医院李文亮医生去世一事,要严格规范稿源,严禁使用自媒体稿件擅自报道,不得弹窗 PUSH,不评论,不炒作。互动环节稳妥控制热度,不设话题,逐步撤出热搜,严管有害信息。








宣传部门迅速出台指令,要求对李文亮去世相关新闻,“要严格规范稿源,严禁使用自媒体稿件擅自报道,不得弹窗 PUSH,不评论,不炒作。互动环节稳妥控制热度,不设话题,逐步撤出热搜,严管有害信息。”,沃民高科沃德网情研究院也在李文亮去世当天向“中央有关部门”报送了一份《重大网情专报》,提出了“肯定、追责、封堵、减负、恢复秩序、发布利好、保持定力”七点建议。


Early March: Whistleblower

In an interview with People (Renwu 人物), Dr. Ai Fen recalled being disciplined by hospital administrators after sharing information about a SARS-like virus spreading in Wuhan in late December:

Concerning the “whistle provider” and this type of reporting, do not place on home pages and remove if there.

Reference links:

The Great Whistle provider! Should be received by top leaders.

The first to discover the virus, only she is the whistle provider!

People reported today on whistle provider Ai Fen, director of the ER at Wuhan Central Hospital. The introduction has been cut.

The Whistleblower: If these doctors could get prompt alerts, maybe this wouldn’t have happened″ (March 10, 2020) [Source]








Early June: Walk Back on “Street Vendor Economy”

After Premier Li Keqiang posited that the “street vendor economy” might be able to spark China’s post-COVID economic recovery, the phrase caught fire online, until Beijing authorities decided that street stalls were unbecoming of the capital city:

All previously posted content on the “street vendor economy” must be deleted. Please do not hype further. (June 5, 2020) [Source]





推特网友@撸一串儿 以此创作政治漫画《短命地摊》



Late June: Shandong Village Relocations

In late June, a scandal rocked Shandong when a sociologist’s essay exposed how villagers had their homes razed as part of the provincial government’s “village consolidation” policy.


From June 28 onward, all reports on village planning and construction must use the standard wording “building a beautiful and livable countryside,” and must no longer use phrases like “village consolidation.”

When propagating reports employing the concept of “rural community,” don’t touch on the spheres of village autonomy or rural administration. In general, don’t broaden the focus.

Rigorously follow authoritative information from authoritative departments on sensitive issues and mass incidents involving village abolition and consolidation, whole-village relocation, and rural building rights.

Increase management of online and self-media within the province, and WeChat, Weibo and media apps under the control of relevant departments. Strictly adhere to the new phrasing requirements. Existing content on “village consolidation” in all media and on all platforms should be pulled offstage. (June 30, 2020) [Source]











November: U.S. Presidential Election

The Chinese government stayed silent on the United States’ election until November 13, ten days after the election. The media likewise stayed silent.

Regarding the U.S. presidential election, all media platforms must strictly follow unified reporting. Relevant reports must be based on standardized sources such as Xinhua. Do not republish foreign media without authorization, and follow-up reports are not allowed. Media commentary must be consistent with [the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson’s] statement on the relevant situation, and must not aggravate excessive emotions or hype public opinion. Online interactive platforms must guard against any anti-U.S., boycott the U.S., or other inflammatory and actionable messages. (November 3, 2020) [Source]









  • “鼓励制作、复制、发布”的信息。主要是党的宣传和所谓“正能量”内容,例如“宣传习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想”、“宣传党的理论路线方针政策和中央重大决策部署”,“展示经济社会发展亮点”、“展现中华民族昂扬向上精神风貌”、“有助于引导群众形成共识”、“有助于提高中华文化国际影响力”等内容;
  • “不得制作、复制、发布”的“违法信息”。例如,危害国家安全、损害国家荣誉和利益的、散布谣言,扰乱经济秩序和社会秩序的等內容;
  • “防范和抵制制作、复制、发布”的“不良信息”。例如,使用夸张标题,炒作绯闻、丑闻、劣迹等的、不当评述自然灾害、重大事故等灾难的等內容;