Rowan Atkinson‘s iconic Mr. Bean character is well-known for stumbling his way into various hijinks, but even he couldn’t have scripted what’s happening to his look-alike in China.
A Mr. Bean impersonator known as “Mr. Pea” appears to have become a propaganda tool for state-controlled media in China, where he’s spent the last several weeks praising conditions in Wuhan, the suspected origin of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Mr. Pea, a.k.a. British actor Nigel Dixon, has repeatedly lauded the Chinese government in interviews with state-run media networks over the last month. He’s also amassed more than 6 million followers on Douyin, China’s state-monitored version of TikTok.
Widely circulated clips of Mr. Pea show him enjoying the lockdown life in Wuhan, and applauding the government’s “brave” decision to quarantine the city. He claims in one video to have been in Wuhan for months, where he’s been making the best of his “free” time in quarantine to promote the Chinese state.
“I decided to carry on making meaningful, funny videos that would support the community of China every week,” Dixon says in an English video published online on March 1. The video was put together by Xinhua, a Chinese state-controlled media agency.
“The safety measures that are taken here on a daily basis by the population of Wuhan are nothing short of incredible,” he says in the video. The native English speaker then launches into a grammatically stilted message to his viewers.
“It is currently down to every person to adopt a high level of self-responsibility, and the strength of Wuhan people (sic) to not just think of themselves, but to think of the wider community exceeds any measurable scale.”
Dixon, 53, told the state-run Global Times last month that he feels safe and happy in Wuhan, and he has no desire to fly back to the United Kingdom. He said he was invited to the city in January for some work, and he decided to stay after the disease broke out.
He claims in the Xinhua video that he felt moved to stay after receiving a flood of “beautiful messages” on Chinese social media.
“This in itself created a complete turnaround in my thoughts,” he said, speaking again in awkward English. “I started to have my concerns for them and their families. It was then that I decided to make short videos to communicate to offer love and support.”
Another video shared from Mr. Pea’s Douyin page shows him promoting hand-washing in late January.
China keeps a tight leash on all activity over its internet, which is walled off from the rest of the world’s networks. Censors typically quash all criticism of the government or any attempt to rally against the ruling Communist Party. The state also maintains control over all media in the country, so news reports can never be critical of the government or its leader, President Xi Jinping.
The censors can restrict everything from political speech to memes, such as images of Winnie the Pooh. The cartoon bear was banned in China several years ago after memes surfaced comparing Xi to the portly, honey-loving character.
President Xi paid a visit to Wuhan in person on Tuesday in a gesture of confidence in his government’s cleanup efforts.
More than 115,000 people have been infected with the novel coronavirus since the first cases were reported in Wuhan late last year. More than 4,000 people have died, although new cases are being reported more rapidly in countries outside of China at this point.
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