Chinese internet users rarely have the opportunity to vent their anger at local government officials on social media because of the country’s strict censorship, but the coronavirus outbreak may have changed that – at least temporarily.

Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging site, and Tencent Holdings’ ubiquitous WeChat all-purpose app, have emerged as channels for criticism directed at the government of Hubei, the province in central China at the epicentre of the outbreak, with 1,771 new confirmed cases of the virus reported nationwide on Tuesday.

Medical staff attend to coronavirus patients at a hospital in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province in central China, on January 25. (Picture: Reuters)

“My question every day is: Has the mayor of Wuhan been taken down yet? Has the governor of Hubei province been taken down?” a user posted on Weibo on the eve of the Lunar New Year holiday. As of publication time, the comment had not been taken down.

“When SARS broke out in 2003, there were no social media platforms like Weibo or WeChat so we couldn’t hear these criticisms even if people [in 2003] wanted to express them,” said Dingding Zhang, an internet industry commentator and former head of Beijing-based research firm Sootoo Institute. “This also shows that mass internet users are playing the role of supervising [the government in its handling of the outbreak], not just media.”

Criticism of the government is rare in China, where the ruling Communist Party implements strict media censorship policies. Yet in the current crisis, Chinese internet users have been able to openly criticize the local government.

A photo showing Hubei government leaders attending a press conference on Sunday drew ire after some noticed that the city mayor did not have his mask on properly. The picture and critical comments subsequently went viral on Weibo and WeChat Moments.

To be sure, widespread criticism on social media is not a sign of relaxed censorship rules by the government. After a senior reporter from the official provincial Communist Party newspaper Hubei Daily called for the immediate removal of the city’s leaders in a Weibo post, the paper apologized to the city government for the “negative publicity” and ordered the reporter to remove the post.

A story posted on Monday by Beijing Youth Daily in which the reporter interviewed a doctor who was reprimanded for sending warning information about the new virus on a WeChat group in late December has been taken down. The doctor was suspected of being infected himself in January but that has not been confirmed by authorities.

Screenshots of the story, however, have been reposted on social media, attracting further comments. “How lucky is this society to have such a good doctor! How terrible is this society to put such a good doctor in such a situation!” one user wrote when he reposted the story on Weibo.

Beijing’s Great Firewall is used to regulate the internet domestically, blocking access to selected foreign websites and slowing down cross-border internet traffic. In recent years, the central government has also upped its efforts to police the internet via periodic crackdowns and by encouraging self-regulation by platform providers to remove content related to pornography, gambling and sensitive political issues.

Besides Weibo, Tencent’s WeChat Moments – similar to Facebook’s Timeline – has become another venue where netizens are reposting stories from WeChat official accounts about frontline medical workers and patients suffering during the outbreak – and adding critical comments. “Where is our national system!!” a Wuhan native surnamed Chen wrote in her WeChat Moments when reposting a story about how patients in her hometown could not get proper treatment.

Still, not all commentary has been critical of the local government. “I think the mayor of Wuhan is under a lot of pressure and feels sadder than everyone else,” a Weibo user wrote.

China’s popular short video platforms, such as Douyin, have also become outlets for people to learn the latest news about the outbreak as well as entertain themselves while they heed the advice of authorities to stay at home during the week-long Lunar New Year holiday.

At a recent meeting of the Party Central Committee in Beijing, government officials said it was necessary to “promptly, accurately and openly” report the epidemic situation and respond to domestic and foreign concerns, adding that it was necessary to “strengthen the public's awareness of self-prevention and social confidence.”