External Propaganda Casts Beijing as Leader in Global Coronavirus Fight

For nearly three months, Chinese authorities have relied on  and  to control the domestic narrative about the COVID-19 novel epidemic. In an attempt to keep the populace calm, early cases in Wuhan were downplayed or ignored. After unsanctioned information shared by Wuhan healthcare providers was labeled “rumor,” those who shared it were punished, while their punishments were reported on CCTV to serve as a broader public warning. When one of those healthcare providers, Dr. Li Wenliang, died on February 7 after contracting the disease from a patient, censors’ best efforts to control relevant online information couldn’t stop web users from calling for free speech online en masse. (Last week, Wuhan police publicly apologized and retracted their criticism of Li hours after top authorities released a report investigating the death.) Once an epidemic was underway, censorship directives guided the media’s coverage. More recently, as further information about the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan and authorities’ censorship of the situation emerged, netizens creatively found ways to preserve it despite the censorship.

With public anger high over Beijing’s official response, state media ensured that none of it would be shown in their coverage of Xi’s first trip to Wuhan since the outbreak began. Some domestic commentators wrote of their disgust seeing official media use their characteristic “positive energy” to cover such a grim situation. Many foreign commentators have characterized Beijing’s censorship as a contributing factor to the massive human cost of the disease and breadth of its spread.

As the virus continues to spread globally and nations worldwide close borders and enact social distancing recommendations, China has recently been reporting dwindling numbers of new cases. On Monday, only one new locally transmitted case had been officially reported nationwide in the last five days (with 46 others attributed to incoming international travelers). A heavily trafficked tourist section of the Great Wall of China was reopened to visitors this week, another potential sign to the world that Beijing may sincerely believe the worst is over. State media Monday reported a zero increase of new cases in Wuhan for five days in a row, and Hubei provincial authorities announced on Tuesday that the two-month-running “brutal but effective” lockdowns of cities would be eased and lifted by April 8. At The Guardian, Lily Kuo reports that while health officials and some citizens are also saying the situation has drastically improved, there is skepticism on these near-zero transmission rates from analysts and local residents:

“I am really worried that there are still many asymptomatic infected people inside Wuhan. As soon as everyone goes back to work, everyone will be infected,” said Wang, 26, who lives in the city. Another resident added: “I don’t believe [the numbers]. This epidemic will not disappear so easily.”

[…] According to a report on Monday by RTHK, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, residents said hospitals in Wuhan had refused to test patients who showed symptoms. Kyodo News in Japan reported at the weekend that a local doctor said the number of cases had been manipulated before President Xi Jinping’s visit earlier this month, prompting the beginning of “a mass release of infected patients”.

[…] Some of the concerns about China’s reporting stem from how Beijing classifies patients. While the World Health Organization and South Korea consider anyone who has tested positive for the virus as a confirmed case, China does not include asymptomatic infections in its final tally.

[…] Critics also question why recovered patients who retest as positive are not counted. Data from quarantine centres in Wuhan showed that the possibility of recovered patients testing positive again was between 5% and 10%, according to the state-run Global Times. Officials in Hubei have said those patients would not be recorded as new confirmed cases because they had been counted previously.

[…] [Additionally, early government efforts to suppress information and continued censorship have also damaged public trust of official numbers.] “With the cover-up in December and January we really cannot trust the numbers from the Chinese government without more credible and solid evidence to verify,” said Ho-fung Hung, a professor in political economy at Johns Hopkins University. […] [Source]

At The Washington Post, Jeremy L. Wallace gives reasons for skepticism about official Chinese figures by explaining the primacy of numbers in Chinese politics, and the common falsification by officials incentivized to misreport:

First off, this research [published by the author in 2016 on GDP falsification] highlights the importance of numbers in Chinese political discourse — across a wide bureaucracy, the covid-19 figures serve as the measure of performance. And past findings suggest there are reasons to pay attention to a number of possibilities, including the strong incentives for distortions in officially released data.

The primary reason to be skeptical of official Chinese coronavirus statistics is that the initial reporting of the outbreak was suppressed. Local authorities in Wuhan intentionally hid the outbreak, as did national authorities.

[…] What else do we know about Chinese coronavirus statistics? Total confirmed case statistics out of China probably underestimate total cases of infection. This is true everywhere, of course, but more so in China than most places. In part, this is understandable — Wuhan’s health-care workers did not have the capacity to test widely in the middle of a total health-care system collapse.

[…] It is also likely that officials reported lower numbers of deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Especially once the central government’s propaganda mission to win the “people’s war” against the virus became clear, numbers shifted to achieve that vision. Such shifts would probably be subtle — not hundreds or thousands of hidden deaths, but instead excluding deaths that could be attributed to other types of pneumonia or heart failure, for instance. […] [Source]

Wallace continues to note that the bigger picture in China is still “remarkable,” and that Beijing did manage to “flatten the curve” and “keep the virus in check,” further noting that despite this, annual top political meetings haven’t yet been rescheduled and many schools remain closed.

As official Chinese numbers flattened and fell, Beijing’s propagandists increased efforts to shape the global coronavirus narrative and deflect blame. These external propaganda efforts are ongoing as a domestic backlash to Beijing’s propaganda continues. At Deutsche-Welle, William Yang last week reports on a different propaganda tool Beijing is using to improve its international image and portray its system as superior for crisis management:

“This is a timely opportunity for the CCP to turn the narrative of a troublemaker into the narrative of a global leader that’s fighting against a pandemic,” said [expert on China’s political communication Maria] Repnikova.

“I think China’s efforts have in part paid off, as international organizations like the WHO have praised China’s response, and much of the Western media’s narrative has shifted from criticizing China to describing it as a lesson or an example.”

[…] As the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak has shifted from China to Europe, Chinese state-run media also began to actively report about China sending medical experts to other countries to help them fight the coronavirus.

[Director of the China Policy Center in Australia Yun] Jiang said China wants to demonstrate to the world that its governance system is better equipped in a crisis than the liberal democracies in the West.

[…] Repnikova pointed out that China has successfully shifted the narrative from that of a “victim” to a “teacher” or a “leader.” [Source]

The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers and Alissa J. Rubin report on China’s “chance to reposition itself not as the authoritarian incubator of a pandemic but as a responsible global leader at a moment of worldwide crisis,” while also noting more sinister efforts by officials to change the global narrative:

In doing so, it has stepped into a role that the West once dominated in times of natural disaster or public health emergency, and that President Trump has increasingly ceded in his “America First” retreat from international engagement.

[…] China has long aspired to assert a more prominent role in the United Nations and other international organizations while projecting its political, economic and military influence in more and more parts of the world — at times in direct competition with the United States.

[…] On Wednesday, China said it would provide two million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced masks and 50,000 testing kits to Europe. “We’re grateful for China’s support,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in tweet. “We need each other’s support in times of need.”

[…]Chinese officials have insisted that a pandemic should be an arena for political cooperation, not competition. China’s success in slowing the disease’s spread, however, has emboldened officials and state media to push back harder — at times clumsily.

One foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, floated a conspiracy theory that the United States Army was behind the virus, while another squabbled with Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian author and Nobel Prize laureate, over a newspaper column he wrote about the pandemic. […] [Source]

See also a video report from The New York Times on how China is reshaping the coronavirus narrative. The Times’ Muyi Xiao tweets:

At the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, Vanessa Molter describes a study further showing how Beijing has leveraged social media and a global network of English-language media outlets in an attempt to influence global public opinion over China’s role in the global spread of COVID-19:

Chinese state media produces and disseminates daily English-language content to English-speaking audiences via Facebook and Twitter (platforms that are technically banned in China). Chinese state media’s English-language Facebook pages post very frequently, and have extremely large audiences. CGTN has over 96 million Page likes; CNN in contrast has only 32 million. These media properties run ads regularly to grow their audiences, which suggests that China invests in these pages as a tool for communicating its message to the English-speaking world. Facebook’s Ads Library shows specific regional ad targeting in India (Punjab State), Nepal, Bangladesh (Dhaka) and the Philippines (Manila), suggesting that English is used to communicate state views to a broad global audience

[…] The English-language Chinese state media has also aggressively reported positive stories about the make-shift hospitals built for China’s immediate emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak. Leishenshan and Huoshenshan hospitals were built in just a few days in late January to early February. Chinese state media disseminated stories about how the international community was “impressed” with China’s rapid building capacity, calling the quick progress of the construction a “miracle.” U.S. media also reported on the rapid building of the hospitals but presented them in a less positive light, saying they were a response to overwhelmed medical facilities or that the temporary structures should not be characterized as hospitals.

[…] Early in the global outbreak, Chinese outlets declared a local victory over the virus, stating that China’s efforts had prevented coronavirus from infecting the world, boasting: “Were it not for the unique institutional advantages of the Chinese system, the world might be battling a devastating pandemic.”  As global coronavirus infections near two hundred thousand, and cases of infection and deaths outside China surpass those within, this narrative has become less defensible.

China has responded by increasing its efforts to position itself as a world leader in virus response and a model of effective governance whilst blaming the United States for the coronavirus pandemic. While U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien has stated that China’s silencing of whistleblowers and covering up early cases in fact exacerbated the global outbreak, Chinese state media has disseminated a statement by Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director-General of the WHO who visited China on a WHO-mission, saying that China’s response “bought the world time” and that the global community should be “grateful.” […] [Source]

In a ChinaFile conversation, experts were asked to weigh in on the ongoing global propaganda campaign, and how the outbreak and Chinese response could influence Beijing’s standing on the global stage. In his response, China Media Project’s David Bandurski illustrates the CCP’s “obsess[ion] with perception” by summarizing the recent findings of an official investigation into late Dr. Li Wenliang, noting the focus on Li as a member of the system and excoriation of “hostile forces” who attempted to frame him as a whistleblower. Bandurski, a preeminent expert on domestic Chinese propaganda, then explains that China’s external propaganda is often still aiming to shore up domestic public opinion:

Of all the matters China treats as pressing at this time of global urgency, nothing is of greater urgency than the matter of perception. The Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with perception, to the detriment of all other calculations. This is why China must maintain a vast system of human and technical controls on information, and enforce a regime of “guidance” at every level of the Party-state bureaucracy on what is now virtually a real-time basis, commanding hundreds of thousands of press workers and propaganda apparatchiks.

Just this week, the leadership released the findings of its investigation into the case of Doctor Li Wenliang, who was one of the first medical professionals to report in late December on coronavirus cases in Wuhan. As a result, he was subjected to a stern and brutish police reprimand that later infuriated Chinese public, showing how the early attempts of health professionals in Wuhan to press for action and awareness about the growing epidemic were callously suppressed. Li’s death in early February galvanized public anger over the early mishandling of the outbreak. Now that the leadership is slowly and insistently turning the narrative on its head, insisting it was always in control, the verdict on the Li Wenliang case flat-out rejects the idea that he was ever working against the grain. It stresses that he was a Party member, and that he was just one among many health professionals working courageously with the Party in its fight against the epidemic. Any suggestion otherwise is the work of “hostile forces,” says another state release. The narrative is forcibly twisted back into the Party’s grotesque shape. The original letter of reprimand is not yet revoked, but Li, we are told, has been given a posthumous commendation from the National Health Commission for his sacrifice.

I’m focusing here on the domestic side, but in fact even most instances of international messaging over the capabilities of Xi Jinping and the Party are directed chiefly toward domestic audiences, the primary point being to shore up the Party’s domestic legitimacy by manipulating the idea of foreign perceptions. Italians, don’t you know, were singing the Chinese national anthem from their balconies! We can treat whether China will win this war of perceptions as a complicated question of global discourse power, the retreat of the United States, and so on. But we should also remember that this global pandemic arose to a decisive extent from the Chinese Communist Party’s monomania about perception. This obsession with appearances has created misery time and again in China. For all Xi Jinping’s talk of pragmatism and performance, perception rules. And under this political logic, no one is safe. [Source]

At Foreign Policy, “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited” author Louisa Lim argues that Beijing’s global blitz to change the narrative shows that “China’s decade-long attempt to build its so-called discourse power overseas is finally bearing fruit.” Lim recalls the efforts that official media, diplomats, and censors took to recast the situation as it unfolded, compares that to similar efforts at distracting and reframing in the West, and finally warns that the back-and-forth in official coronavirus blaming are part of a “bigger battle is over who will control global flows of information and the future of journalism itself.”

[…] As other countries founder, China is pushing that further, casting itself as a responsible global leader dispensing humanitarian aid overseas. This is in part an effort to distract attention from accusations that its initial cover-up is responsible for the rest of the world’s plight, in particular the looming economic catastrophe.

But these efforts didn’t come out of nowhere. Since 2009, Beijing’s been quietly laying the groundwork by expanding its state-run media overseas, running look-and-learn tours—often for free—for thousands of non-Chinese journalists to China and striking content-sharing agreements with foreign news providers. Chinese business leaders acting as state proxies have acquired and established news outlets to amplify Beijing’s voice. All these tools are now being used to reshape the global information landscape, even while its some of its domestic propaganda efforts are encountering unusually vocal resistance [see CDT coverage and translation of examples].

[…] A new storyline percolated online and through WeChat from late January, arguing that the virus might not have originated in China. In late February, the famous epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan lent credibility to this theory, calling it a “disease of humans, not of a country”. By March, the foreign ministry had taken on this battle, with spokesman Zhao Lijian drawing attention to an unfounded conspiracy theory that the U.S. military had brought the disease to Wuhan. This message was then amplified on Twitter—a platform banned at home—by dozens of other Chinese embassies around the world.

One instructive moment was [Yuen Kwok-yung’s column, its quick retraction, and Yuen’s apology] […]. This rhetoric of forced confessions and loyalty pledges was previously unheard of in Hong Kong. But against the backdrop of U.S. President Trump’s descriptions of the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” the tussle for narrative control could become an issue of patriotism on the mainland.

[…] The worse the West does at fighting the coronavirus, the better Beijing’s hard-line measures and willingness to supply much-needed goods look. Already its state media is crowing. The China Daily newspaper wrote, “The bitter truth is that the anti-China propaganda campaign has to some extent contributed to the West being negligent to the looming crisis and they are now facing a medical, human and economic disaster.” This may seem like a war of words, but the stakes could not be higher; this current skirmish is over narrative control of the coronavirus, but the bigger battle is over who will control global flows of information and the future of journalism itself. [Source]

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