December 8, 2022 - 11:00am

The media response in the West to Chinese protests over Zero Covid policies has been remarkably supportive. ‘Their bravery is a profound affirmation that freedom of expression, dissent and protest are values held by people all over the world,” boomed a New York Times editorial. “These events should remind [China] that relying on repression has its limits,” the Guardian agreed. Meanwhile, the BBC warned that China’s “censorship machine” was “going to great lengths to prevent people seeing scenes of protest”.

It must be observed that these were the very same outlets that strongly criticised protesters in the West for taking a similar stand against their own governments during lockdowns. Instead of brave freedom fighters, protesters in Western countries were branded as far-Right extremists and street fighters.

Evidently, being anti-lockdown is no longer the taboo position that it once was. Just two years ago, it was difficult to find any reporting on it at all, with the BBC refusing to cover virtually every anti-lockdown protest that took place in 2020 — a ‘media blackout’ as one commentator called it. On the few occasions the Beeb did get around to reporting on them, it ran with disparaging headlines like ‘Covid: Conspiracy and untruths drive Europe’s protests’.

Elsewhere, in its own imitable style, the New York Times attributed lockdown protestors’ “twisted” view of liberty to its “enforcement of racial hierarchy”, while the Guardian went further yet by describing protesters as “street-fighting far-right groups […] religious fundamentalists, anti-vaccination groups and other elements of the radical right.”

This about-turn in coverage of the Covid protesters poses some awkward questions for the media. Why, for example, did the Guardian observe an “extraordinary outpouring of discontent” in China over Xi Jinping’s strict lockdown policies, but not last year’s Canadian Freedom Convoy? This protest was, according to the Guardian, lawless, unlawful, paranoid and violent. ‘The whole world should be worried by the “siege of Ottawa“‘, pronounced one journalist.

Perhaps the most brazen U-turn yet was in the recent issue of German magazine Der Spiegel, whose cover art pictured a young Chinese man protesting Zero Covid under the headline ‘Das Virus der Freiheit’ (The Virus of Freedom). Two years earlier, Der Spiegel had effectively declared Covid protests a movement for loons: “right-wing extremists, anti-vaxxers, anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists, left-wing radicals, old school anarchists and followers of New Age beliefs.”


Der Spiegel’s front page

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t differences between the protests in China and the West. For one, China is hardly a democracy and protesting there is a much riskier proposition. But even so, the glaring disparity in tone between the coverage of Western anti-lockdown protestors and their Chinese counterparts, without any apparent realisation of the contrast, says a lot about the disposition of today’s establishment media.

Panda La Terriere is a freelance writer and playwright.