From Narrative Consent to Narrative Warfare: China’s COVID-19 Messaging
By Lukas Mejia and Marine Ragnet
An official press release by the Chinese embassy in France recently stated that Chinese methods for containing the COVID-19 pandemic in the mainland were seen by French health officials as an “interesting source of inspiration.” “It was the ‘dictatorship’ from which the world first sought help, and not the American flagship of democracy,” the release further read. This language predicates a narrative war currently being waged at the forefront of the epidemic and attempts to discredit the United States’ dominance over health governance. These efforts give way to new insights as to how Chinese information operations have begun to shift.
2008 was a decisive year for China, hosting its first-ever Olympics. The event served as a figurative maturation of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tenure over the country, which had ushered unprecedented economic growth and development. It was a signal that China was ready to take leadership in the Indo-Pacific region, while also conditioning foreign actors to acknowledge its narrative on issues including human rights, extraterritorial maritime claims, and economic programs.
But in the weeks before the event, and as the torch journeyed through other parts of the world, protests broke out in Lhasa and descended into riots. The torch’s passage through London and Paris was then marred by further protests. And in facing a reality check of its global image, which was still tainted by oppression and crackdowns, the Chinese government began to aggressively pursue the laundering of its reputation worldwide.
In the run-up to the Olympics, orchestrating pro-Beijing demonstrations, blackmailing activists, and threatening to exclude foreign actors from economic offerings became par for the course in Chinese foreign policy. As many have noted, Chinese information operations have since been characterized by the co-opting of political elites, economic institutions, the media, public opinion, civil society, technology, and academia — blurring the covert and the diplomatic, in an effort to engineer global consent of its brand, until now.
As the world now confronts the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Chinese state has shifted its approach. A Russianization of tactics now permeates information operations in face of shaping the narrative behind the blame, figures, and containment of the virus. Reports highlight Beijing’s presence on western social media platforms and a more confrontational approach to information manipulation that draws from Russian tactics. Among these, Chinese officials have been amplifying messaging from Russian and Iranian propaganda outlets. The Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) suggests such actions demonstrate that China has “confidence in its brand.”
In recent months, Chinese government officials’ presence on social media has increased exponentially–despite many platforms being banned in the mainland. ASD estimates that Twitter accounts connected to Chinese embassies, consulates, and ambassadors have increased by more than 250 percent. The official account of China’s Embassy in France has positioned itself as a model and mediator in the crisis, in an effort to demonstrate the effectiveness of China’s political system and showcase itself as a factor of stability, in comparison to the United States.
In examining the Chinese government’s official Twittersphere, our research has found that narratives being promulgated vary from praising the CCP for its efforts to combat the outbreak, to openly criticizing Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic. A recent public statement from the Chinese Embassy in Paris–retweeted hundreds of times–goes as far as comparing European political systems with that of China. These narratives are often retweeted by Chinese embassies based in francophone Africa.
In addition to social media accounts, the CCP also makes use of more traditional sources of information such as TV. The success of the English version of Russia Today inspired CCP propaganda officials to launch CCTV-News in 2010, renamed China Global Television in 2017, and present today in most Western European countries. Like Russia Today, the news broadcaster has hired foreign journalists and experts to report on issues around the world. These efforts are part of China’s wider strategy of engaging foreign audiences. General Secretary Xi Jinping urged state media to “use methods that overseas readers enjoy and accept, and language that they can understand, to explain the China story, [and] transmit China’s voice.”
We further found that messages emanating from these outlets aim to put forward China’s efforts in combating the outbreak while discrediting the United States. In doing so, CGTN’s French channel has disseminated the claim that the United States might be at the origin of the virus, propagating information backed by false academic evidence. CGTN France’s podcast series also maintains that Xi Jinping is leading the fight against COVID-19, asserting that he “personally guided and deployed the Chinese people to lead the interception battle, which is also the people’s joint battle against the COVID-19 epidemic.” Episodes of the podcast shared on Twitter are then retweeted by official Chinese government accounts such as consulates or embassies across France and francophone Africa.
This overall shift in the way that it conducts influence operations means that China is not only sufficiently confident in its global narrative but is also sufficiently armed to launch an international debate upon the global health community–a domain mostly dominated until now by the West. Gravely affected by the pandemic, European states are caught in the middle of a battle of narratives, pushing nations to eschew multilateralism in favor of their own responses. In a context where globalization is in retrenchment, Chinese help may feel welcome. But as China seeks to further its influence and reshape global institutions to its liking, the issues of human rights and transparency are likely to be neglected.
Lukas Mejia is an open-source analyst that has worked with New York University, the UN CTED, and the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center in furthering research and developing tools around the field of counter-disinformation — understanding the threat actors, methods, and trends.
Marine Ragnet (@marineragnet) is a public and international affairs professional that has previously conducted research for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Commission, and presently for a US State Department mandated platform. She has worked in India, France, the United States, the UAE and Jordan across the public, private and NGO sectors and is intimately aware of the technical aspects of narrative warfare and disinformation which she encountered throughout her career.