Talk about awkward silences.
When a reporter asked whether the Chinese government is going to end their zero-COVID policy in light of nationwide protests, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson kept quiet for almost a minute… and then gave the most nervous, politically-correct answer known to man.
Here’s what happened.
Question Regarding Response to Protests
A Reuters reporter asked, “Given the widespread display of anger and frustration at the zero-COVID policies, is China thinking about ending it? And if so, when?”
The “widespread display of anger and frustration” refers to the nationwide protests that have been appearing across China. Those came after a deadly fire in Xinjiang on 24 November, where 10 were killed and nine injured due to the COVID-19 measures that hindered rescue and escape.
The strict measures under the zero-COVID policy locked residents in their homes, barring them from leaving, and saw constant mass testing. Across the country, entire neighbourhoods have been sealed off (sometimes for weeks with no sign of the end).
Since that accident blew up on social media, there have been protests rising in multiple parts of the country, many started by university students. People are storming the streets and holding up blank sheets of paper as signs of protest.
Silence is Louder than Words
As the translator finished translating this question, the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, went silent and sifted through his papers for about 30 seconds.
He then looked up and said, “Please repeat your question,” stammering a little on “please”. The reporter then repeated the question in a slower manner this time round.
The question was once again met with silence for about 20 seconds.
A stunning display of ‘silence is louder than words’, because the tension in the air was so thick I could feel it through my laptop screen.
Protests? We Don’t Know Them
Zhao finally replied after his heavy silence.
“The situation that you mentioned does not reflect the truth… China… has been following a dynamic zero-COVID policy, and has been continuously adjusting to the situation,” he stated while hesitating in parts of his response.
It is also interesting to note that while translating the reporter’s question, the translator did not actually translate the part about widespread anger across China. She simply translated the anger and frustrations portion as “recent dissatisfaction”.
This was the original question, which was repeated verbatim: “Given the widespread display of anger and frustration at the zero-COVID policies, is China thinking about ending it? And if so, when?”
And this is a rough translation of what the translator initially said: “What does the Chinese government have to say about the recent dissatisfaction in China toward the zero-COVID policy?”
This is a rough translation of what the translator then said for the repeating of the question: “Given the recent dissatisfaction toward the zero-COVID policy, is the Chinese government considering ending this policy soon? And if yes, when will it end?”
In both translations of the question, the translator basically filtered out the part about protests, and replaced it with the less-charged image of general dissatisfaction.
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