China’s State Broadcaster Blurs Out Maskless World Cup Fans as Local COVID Protests Grow

As protests against COVID restrictions continue to spread across China, the country’s state broadcaster has taken to censoring images of maskless crowds at the 2022 World Cup.

During Sunday’s World Cup group game between Japan and Costa Rica, the sports channel of China’s state broadcaster CCTV replaced shots of maskless fans in the stadium in favor of images of players and officials, according to the South China Morning Post. CCTV Sports was also reported to have cut crowd scenes from coverage of the game between Australia and Tunisia.

When the World Cup kicked off, images of maskless fans at the World Cup had riled Chinese viewers and social media users, known as netizens, with those supporting the country’s so-called Zero Covid policy deriding other countries for their reckless approach to COVID-19.

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Over the weekend, rising nationwide anger over China’s COVID restrictions burst into protests in a number of major cities including Shanghai and Beijing. A growing number of Chinese, however, now see the images of fans from Qatar as yet more evidence that the rest of the world has moved on as their country chafes under restrictive virus protocols and never-ending rolling lockdowns.

Video clips from the World Cup games showing maskless fans smiling and cheering in the stands in Qatar, with no social distancing, have circulated widely over Chinese social media services WeChat and Weibo, with many users posting sarcastic remarks asking if the event is taking place on another planet or in another dimension.

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“Is this the 2018 WC? No one is worried about the virus?” one user on WeChat wrote.

State censors have reacted quickly with their usual playbook of deleting critical posts en masse and significantly reducing the number of crowd shots from local TV broadcasts of the tournament.

The popularity of the FIFA World Cup has soared in China over the past decade, with Chinese President Xi Jinping himself once pledging that China will eventually become a major competitor (the country failed to qualify for the tournament this year). Collectively, Chinese companies are the 2022 World Cup’s biggest sponsors, having spent $1.4 billion in sponsorship deals, compared to the $1.1 billion from U.S. brands, according to estimates.

This year, however, as many major Chinese cities continue to weather lockdowns, with their once-lively sports bars and restaurants shuttered, the World Cup has only underscored China’s growing global isolation — particularly for Chinese fans watching from the forced isolation of their own homes.

The China monitoring site What’s on Weibo reports that scores of young protesters in Beijing and Shanghai have taken to holding up blank white pieces of paper as a sign of dissent over the COVID policy and censorship, with many dubbing the protests as the “A4 Revolution.” Another popular slogan that briefly circulated on WeChat was the statement “Blocked Lives Matter” — until the censors blocked it.

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