China Censors Academic Research, Spreads Disinformation About COVID

Since the novel first erupted in Wuhan in December and then spread around the world, the Chinese government has worked hard to control the narrative, by punishing doctors and others who first shared information about it, issuing propaganda directives, and spreading disinformation globally about the virus’s origins. Now that the pandemic has slowed significantly in China and is surging dramatically throughout the world, especially Europe and the U.S., the Chinese government is focusing on rewriting the history of the virus. In particular, new restrictions on academic research into COVID-19 in China require government approval before publication. Nectar Gan, Caitlin Hu, and Ivan Watson report for CNN:

Under the new policy, all academic papers on Covid-19 will be subject to extra vetting before being submitted for publication. Studies on the origin of the virus will receive extra scrutiny and must be approved by central government officials, according to the now-deleted posts.

A medical expert in Hong Kong who collaborated with mainland researchers to publish a clinical analysis of Covid-19 cases in an international medical journal said his work did not undergo such vetting in February.

The increased scrutiny appears to be the latest effort by the Chinese government to control the narrative on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives and sickened 1.7 million peopleworldwide since it first broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December.

Since late January, Chinese researchers have published a series of Covid-19 studies in influential international medical journals. Some findings about early coronavirus cases — such as when human-to-human transition first appeared — have raised questions over the official government account of the outbreak and sparked controversy on Chinese social media [Source]

Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Emma Graham-Harrison, and Lily Kuo further report for The Guardian on the new requirements as implemented at several universities in China:

China University of Geosciences (Wuhan) appears to have published and then deleted new requirements that academic papers dealing with the origins of the virus be approved by China’s ministry of science and technology before publication.

[…] A separate document obtained by the Guardian, which could not be independently verified, appears to be from the Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University and also said publication of research into the origins of Covid-19 would need approval from the science and technology ministry.

Another notice, which appears to have been published on 9 April by the school of information science and technology at Fudan University in Shanghai, called for “strict and serious” management of papers investigating the source of the outbreak.

Papers could only be submitted for publication after being approved by a special office. Email, names and phone numbers provided on the notice suggested that office was part of China’s ministry of education.

A source who alerted the Guardian to cached versions of the websites, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they were concerned by what appeared to be an attempt by Chinese authorities to intervene in the independence of the scientific process. [Source]

The British science journal Nature recently issued an apology for linking its coverage of COVID-19 to China. While most officials and media around the world have stopped using the name “Wuhan virus” following a rise in racism and hate crimes targeting Asians, the scientific consensus is that the virus originated in Wuhan:

Nature is owned by Springer, which was discovered to have hidden more than 1,000 journal articles from readers inside China at the behest of the government in 2017.

While attempting to control the narrative inside China, the Chinese government has also been reaching out to local governments around the world asking them to publicly commend their response to the virus. AFP reports that German officials were told to reject such advances:

Senior officials and staff at German government ministries were invited “to speak in positive terms about China’s management of the coronavirus,” Die Welt said, citing a confidential foreign ministry document.

The foreign ministry recommended that all German governmental departments reject such approaches, the newspaper added. The ministry has declined to confirm or deny the report.

However a German intelligence source told Die Welt that “Chinese officials are pursuing an intensified information and propaganda policy with regard to the coronavirus”.

Beijing has sought to counter the narrative that the outbreak began in China and highlighted its assistance to Western countries “in order to present the People’s Republic as a trustworthy partner,” Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution said. [Source]

In Wisconsin, State Senator Roger Roth says he rejected a request from the Chinese government to sponsor a resolution supporting China’s response to COVID. Instead, Roth issued a resolution “acknowledging that the Communist Party of China deliberately and intentionally misled the world on the Wuhan Coronavirus and standing in solidarity with the Chinese people to condemn the actions of the Communist Party of China.” Melanie Conklin reports for the Wisconsin Examiner:

The genesis of this resolution is quite a story. Roth received two emails from Chinese consulate staff asking that he pass a resolution they wrote supporting China’s battle against COVID-19 praising China’s response to the virus. When he received the first one dated Feb. 26, he saw it was from a hotmail account and disregarded it as a prank.

Then on March 10, 2020, he received a follow up, and Roth says he had his staff start digging, reaching out through government channels. They were able to confirm that the email requests were legitimate — and they were told Chinese diplomats routinely use private email accounts because they are faster.

“Then I got mad, because that’s when [COVID-19] cases started cropping up here and you saw the problem exacerbated as we started to learn the truth,” Roth says. “I just sent them back a one-word response. I said ‘nuts.’

“Then a couple of days later I said that we are going to introduce a resolution, it’s just not the one that the Chinese government wants. We’re going to introduce one that speaks the truth to the lies that I believe are being told around the world, so that’s how we ended up with the resolution as it was introduced.” [Source]

International media has also been targeted by Chinese diplomats attempting to influence coverage. Australian’s Daily Telegraph received a letter from the Chinese Consulate General “taking issue” with their COVID coverage. The newspaper published a point-by-point rebuttal.

On social media, accounts linked to the Chinese government continue to spread about the spread of COVID-19. Betsy Morris and Robert McMillan report for The Wall Street Journal that “from mid-February until early March, social-media sites linked to Chinese state media posted more than 3,300 times a day, triple the normal rate, according to Recorded Future, a Somerville, Mass.-based cybersecurity consulting firm. Those outlets were principally active on Facebook and Twitter, the research showed.” In France, the Chinese embassy posted articles containing misinformation about France’s response to the novel coronavirus:


Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, the Chinese embassy in Colombo had its Twitter account suspended for its aggressive responses to its critics.

The Digital Forensic Center analyzed thousand of Twitter accounts from Serbia which sent pro-government messages praising the friendship between the two countries and China’s coronavirus response:

A huge pro-government network of “bot“ accounts wrote and praised the Chinese aid and the friendship between the two countries, amplifying the visibility of tweets by retweeting. The analysis shows the approach, tactics and reach of the campaign.

[…] A detailed analysis of 30,000 tweets showed that 21,572 of them (71.9 percent) were produced by “bot” accounts.

Unique 1,124 “bot” accounts were identified in the analyzed content.

Analyzing content, it can be seen that the primary task of this large network of accounts was to praise the Serbian-Chinese friendship, as well as the significance of the Chinese aid during the coronavirus epidemic. On the other hand, the content criticizing the EU and its alleged lack of help was also present. [Source]

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