On Monday afternoon, the youth wing of China’s Communist Party was urging the 12 million followers of its Twitter-like Weibo account to show their support for two new animated cartoon characters.
“Let’s meet two new friends, the league’s virtual idols Hongqiman and Jiangshanjiao,” the Communist Youth League said, encouraging followers to turn the duo into a top trending topic.
Within a few hours, the messages and all sign of the characters in stylised traditional Chinese dress were gone.
The league deleted the post introducing the idols, and on the characters’ official Weibo page, all posts had been pulled, replaced with the message: “Sorry, still need to rest.”
In between, the league had been hit by a public backlash, with critics questioning why it was drawing attention to animated spokespeople when people were dying of a new coronavirus and medical staff were trying to save lives with limited resources.
“Do we need strong material support, or virtual, juvenile attempts to cheer people up?” the commenter said.
The two characters – whose names mean “abundant red flags” and “lovely land” – are part of the league’s efforts to attract younger generations to the party.
Virtual idols are not new phenomenon in China. In 2012, Japanese conglomerate Yamaha and Chinese entertainment company Thstars created Luo Tianyi, a holographic figure and China’s first-ever virtual singer.
She quickly rose to fame, going on to have her own concerts and featuring in major TV shows.
Authorities sought to use her image as well. The league recruited Luo to become a youth ambassador in an official video in 2017.
This kind of animation has also been deployed in non-official nationalist causes – thousands of netizens flooded Facebook pages last year with cartoons praising China and Hong Kong police, and vilifying anti-government protesters in the city.
The “internet warriors” were united under the call to “protect Brother Ah Zhong” – a personification of China.
In a typical post, netizens wrote that Brother Ah Zhong was heartbroken over his treatment at the hands of his “ungrateful children” – Hong Kong and Taiwan, saying “his children had sucked up to the enemy and broken his heart”.
“We are all he has! Defend the best Brother in the world!” one post said.
Party mouthpiece People’s Daily and the league both praised the digital conquest “to defend Brother Ah Zhong” on social media.
But such propaganda might not rally the public this time, said Fang Kecheng, an assistant journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“After more than a month of the coronavirus outbreak, the government’s credibility and legitimacy are at a low point,” he said.
People have questioned whether the government had handled the crisis well, and whether there was cover-up in the early stage of the crisis, leading to the outbreak across the country.
In the past, such propaganda had been successful because the cause, such as digital conquest against Hong Kong protesters, was built on the issue of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and there was not much disagreement among the public. All the authorities needed was a strong voice to unite everyone, he said.
“But this time it’s a domestic issue, and there were already diverse voices,” Fang said.
State broadcaster CCTV also came under fire when it tried to encourage viewer interaction with its live stream of the race to build two makeshift hospitals in Wuhan at the epicentre of the outbreak.
Excavators at the site were named according to their colour and fans were asked to vote for their favourite. CCTV promptly took the voting system offline after coming in for online criticism.
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This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.