One boy who was photographed after the disaster encouraging rescue troops is now in training to become an army doctor. Another was photographed then with a sign that read, “I want to be a paratrooper when I grow up.” And sure enough, he became one.
“The stories not only create a positive narrative about the victims, but their choice of professions also shows how the tragedy brought them closer to the state,” said Suzanne Scoggins, an assistant professor of political science at Clark University in Massachusetts.
Some critics said the government’s messaging allowed it to deflect public discontent that surfaced after the quake. In anticipation of sensitive anniversaries, the propaganda authorities often instruct the state news media to “cast tragedy in a new light” in order to pre-empt reflections on “political and institutional failures,” said David Bandurski, a co-director of the China Media Project and a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
In a comment that has since been deleted, a Weibo user assailed the reframing of the earthquake anniversary as “utterly thoughtless,” saying it “shirks responsibility.”
“This is clearly a tragedy, and yet it’s made into a celebration,” another Weibo user said. Then, referencing a propaganda term derisively, he asked, “Is this a Chinese characteristic?”
By reframing the quake anniversary as a day of thanksgiving, local officials are probably trying to forge an atmosphere of unity, reinforcing “the way in which government groups and residents worked together,” Professor Scoggins said.
But Chinese internet users remained cynical about the government’s positive spin.
“Only after seeing these comments do I realize the world is sane,” a Weibo user wrote in response to the “Thanksgiving Day” announcement. “Unlike this crazy piece of copy.”