(Bloomberg) -- China’s censors have launched a campaign to ensure a “festive and peaceful” mood prevails in the Asian nation as it nears its most important holiday while deaths from Covid-19 rise.
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The Cyberspace Administration of China said in a statement Wednesday it will “increase the rectification of epidemic-related online rumors” over the next month to prevent content from “misleading the public and causing social panic.”
The internet watchdog said it would focus on “rumor-mongering behaviors in areas such as the economy and people’s livelihoods” and deal with problems related to “fabricating patient experiences.” It added that the goal was “to thoroughly rectify issues such as false information to prevent the exaggeration of gloomy emotions.”
China strictly censors internet content and blocks many foreign news websites. Often that activity includes dismissing accurate accounts of events as “rumors,” such as when a doctor in Wuhan named Li Wenliang who warned about the spread of a SARS-like virus in late 2019 was admonished by police for spreading misinformation.
The government appears to be trying to forestall any groundswell of anger next week, when families across the nation gather and most people have extra time on their hands with workplaces and schools closed.
Many people will be seeing relatives for the first time since the pandemic started in early 2020 because the government discouraged domestic travel to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. Some families will also be dealing with the loss of a loved one from Covid-19, especially the elderly.
See: Chinese Doctor Who Warned of Virus Dies, Stoking Outrage Online
China has said just 60,000 people died in the five weeks after it started dismantling President Xi Jinping’s zero-tolerance approach to wiping out the virus on Dec. 7, but the figure is likely higher given funeral homes and crematoriums have been unusually busy in recent weeks. In a video speech Wednesday, Xi said the current outbreak has been “fierce,” and he was especially worried about epidemic control in rural areas.
The independent forecasting firm Airfinity Ltd. estimates that cumulative Covid deaths in China stand at 608,000 since December. China is likely to see 36,000 Covid fatalities a day during the Lunar New Year holiday that starts Saturday, making it one of the most deadly periods of the pandemic.
“With official reports downplaying the scale of deaths or the severity of the health crisis facing the country, people are more likely to lose trust in the government,” said Sarah Cook, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, a US-based advocacy group.
“This type of cognitive dissonance in the past has spurred anger, undermined the Communist Party’s legitimacy and encouraged people to try to seek out uncensored information.”
More: Xi Faces Dilemma as China Quietly Detains Young Covid Protesters
The ruling party already dealt with protests in late November, when people in Beijing and dozens of other cities demonstrated against Covid Zero, which for nearly three years required mass testing, snap lockdowns of cities and mostly closed borders that only reopened earlier this month. That unrest was the most widespread in China in decades, and for days afterward police maintained a large presence in an area of the capital to deter any repeat.
Protesters in Shanghai — which was subjected to a two-month lockdown last year that was so brutal some people struggled to get food and medical care — went so far as to call for Xi’s ouster. China is now quietly rounding up protesters that authorities view as instigators of the unrest.
(Updates with remarks from President Xi Jinping.)
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