Gansu government’s head-shaving publicity stunt backfires

Society & Culture

The Chinese internet is on fire over a disturbing video via the Lanzhou Morning Post that shows a group of female health care workers in Gansu Province getting their heads shaved before leaving for Hubei to assist local medical staff in response to the COVID-19 epidemic.

Released on February 15 by the Lanzhou-based newspaper, the one-minute clip (in Chinese) features a dozen female medical professionals from Gansu Provincial Maternity and Child-care Hospital getting buzzcuts. The video captures the entire process from start to finish, from the time they walk in to when they take a group photo before walking out. It appears to be a copycat of an earlier stunt pulled off by medical workers a week before in Xi’an, which Xinhua tweeted about:

Some of the Gansu women can be seen having a tough time holding back tears. At one point, a barber places huge chunks of hair in front of one of the women, who appears upset and turns her head away.

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“Having their hair cut off, they are fully equipped for an expedition,” the newspaper wrote in a Weibo post (in Chinese) accompanying the video. “Thank you, beautiful fighters!”

Judging from the caption, the video was supposed to be touching and inspiring. For the Gansu government, which orchestrated the scene as a public stunt, there’s little doubt that it wanted to use the women’s new looks as a statement of determination in battling the epidemic, and potentially garner some praise from the public.

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But the online reactions turned out to be quite the opposite of what they expected — people loathed the video. They asked how this could have possibly been allowed to happen.

In an article (in Chinese) titled, “Please stop using women’s bodies as a propaganda tool,” WeChat blogger Chén Máshǔ 陈麻糬 said that the video didn’t strike her as encouraging or impressive. Instead, she felt that the medical workers were severely mistreated because head-shaving is historically and commonly used as a punishment for women who break the rules. “No one, even people who commit major crimes, deserves to have this mark of shame,” she wrote in the article, which has more than 100,000 views and 31,000 likes so far. “These women are brave and wonderful people. Why were they treated this way, as if they were criminals?”

“Their tears are used as an anecdote of collectivism to arouse people’s feelings,” Chen wrote. “I guess this is what government officials wanted. They really don’t care if the head-shaving was against their wills.”

“It really boggles my mind that they didn’t have the option of cutting their hair short,” one Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). “They are going to Wuhan to save patients, not to receive punishment in labor camps.”

“It seems like some government officials really craved big news to satisfy their desire for a media moment,” another Weibo user commented.