For Shanghai’s 25 million people, life under lockdown has been shaped by an army of volunteers clad in white hazmat suits. Their duties include giving millions of people covid tests, distributing food to locked down residential compounds, determining who can leave their building and for what reason, and sometimes even walking the dogs of quarantined residents.
In China, these volunteers are known as big whites,” or 大白 (dà bái), a nickname that comes from the Chinese name for the white robot Baymax featured in Disney’s 2014 film Big Hero 6. The phrase took on a new meaning in 2020, when state-run media began to use it for covid workers (link in Chinese), because of their PPE. As frontline covid workers—medical personnel, local government employees, and volunteers—again become a common sight in cities grappling with new waves of infections, the term has come into wider usage.
State media coverage is filled with anecdotes showing the dedication of big whites, such as one account of a volunteer who traveled by horse to deliver covid testing kits to villagers in China’s Jilin province, or another who fainted amid overwhelming workload. People have shared viral videos of them performing TikTok-style choreographed dance routines to get motivated for the day. Qian Yali, a Shanghai resident who has worked as a volunteer, said the nickname makes her feel she is fighting a battle on behalf of the city when she’s wearing her white suit, helping her to deal with the intensity of the frontline role.
When used by the Chinese public, the nickname is “a way to lighten the mood amid the pressure from covid, and for those who became volunteers, it also carries an element of warmth,” said Guo Ting, an assistant professor of language studies at the University of Toronto. But when used by state media, it’s a way to obtain acceptance for Beijing’s harsh zero-covid approach, by evoking affectionate feelings for the people who are carrying it out.
“It is…treating citizens as children, which I would describe using a frame called ‘parental governance’,” said Guo.
The phrase is an example of the Chinese government’s tendency to deploy “cuteness” in its propaganda, a different approach than the “wolf warrior” type of aggression of some of Beijing’s messaging.
“This sort of infantilized language is actually quite typical of the Chinese state media and the discourse of the Chinese Communist Party,” said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, which analyses Chinese media and political communication. “One key effect for propagandists, I think, is that it makes those who act in service of the party goals and ideals lovable.”
Bandurski pointed to the party’s use of the phrase “little bees,” which can be traced back to the 1950s, as a way to praise workers. It continues to be used, with Chinese president Xi Jinping praising delivery drivers this way in 2019 during a visit to a delivery service station in Beijing.
Through the pandemic, the government has also used infantilized language to prettify a harsh reality. In January 2020, the official Communist Party newspaper The People’s Daily’s promoted nicknames for the red cranes that built Wuhan’s quarantine hospitals, which were called “little red,” or “red bulls,” by viewers of the livestreams of the building process. The ‘crane dream team’ is here!” the outlet said in a post on Weibo at the time, attracting comments from users who prided themselves on being “good babies” for watching the livestream at home rather than going out amid the pandemic.
Last year, shortly after tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from public view after airing sexual harassment allegations against a former top Party official, state media workers tweeted photos that they claim were posted by Peng to her WeChat account, in which she was seen hugging fluffy stuffed animals, an off-key attempt by the propaganda apparatus to prove her wellbeing amid a mounting international outcry over her whereabouts.
“Just as in the case of big whites, state media have realized through the observation of internet trends that cuteness is power,” Guo told Quartz.
As Shanghai’s lockdown has dragged on, less cheerful videos and accounts have emerged. In one, a worker in white protective gear is seen beating a corgi to death with a spade after its owner was apparently taken away for testing positive, sparking horror among many in China. Other clips have allegedly shown covid workers in physical brawls with residents increasingly frustrated by food shortages and other stresses. For many of China’s young people in particular, the stringent enforcement of covid rules in Shanghai as Beijing’s involvement intensified is their deepest brush with authoritarianism in day-to-day living.
“With more and more violent incidents emerging, citizens have called the big whites as ‘white guards’,” said Guo. That’s an allusion to the “red guards” of chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, young people who enthusiastically took part in beatings and “trials” of those deemed to not have the correct thinking.
Some complain that workers have been rough when dealing with citizens during endless rounds of testing, or when dispatching them to sometimes unpleasant facilities. In another video that has provoked ire on China’s Weibo, a group of white-clad workers is seen using anti-riot catchpoles to restrain a man and force him to wear a mask. “It’s easy for grassroots society to form social Darwinist-style ‘law of the jungle’ under emergencies, with grassroots [workers] given and feeding upon unprecedented power,” wrote columnist Xiao Yi.
Still, many remain grateful towards the workers, who have helped residents with sundry tasks, such as securing food provisions, or getting permission for an emergency hospital visit. “I don’t know why Shanghai got into such a state, but grassroots workers and big whites, thanks for your hard work!” wrote a Weibo user.
The volunteers themselves say they are doing the best they can in trying circumstances. “There are lots of things big whites can’t decide themselves…They have to carry out tasks arranged for them, and they need understanding and support too,” said Qian, the Shanghai volunteer.