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China’s Dangerous Coronavirus Disinformation Campaign
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China’s Dangerous Coronavirus Disinformation Campaign

Not only did the CCP fail to act in a way that could have diminished the pandemic, the Chinese are now peddling conspiracy theories blaming others.

The Chinese government expelled journalists from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post this week. Beijing claims the move was retaliation against Washington for placing “unwarranted restrictions on Chinese media agencies and personnel in the” U.S. The Trump administration last month required Chinese media organizations to register as “foreign agents,” and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs argues this “growing discrimination and politically motivated oppression” merited a response. Of course, no one actually thinks America’s three leading newspapers were kicked out of China for this reason. The reality is quite different: Xi Jinping’s minders want to control reporting during a time of crisis. And coronavirus threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) both at home and abroad. 

The CCP now claims that the situation is under control, with new infection rates inside China rapidly falling. This success, Xi’s propagandists argue, demonstrates the superior virtues of China’s authoritarian system. The Chinese government wants the world to believe that it dealt with the crisis in an efficient, even if heavy-handed, manner. There are many reasons to doubt the CCP’s story. 

First, there is the way the CCP acted at home early in the crisis. Dr. Li Wenliang tried to warn the world about the virus late last year, but the Chinese security state shut him up. Wenliang died of infection some weeks later in the same Wuhan hospital where he worked. Ren Zhiqiang, a prominent real estate investor, disappeared after penning an essay that was critical of the government’s apparent coverup of the initial outbreak. If Xi’s regime was so confident in its actions, then Zhiqiang’s critique wouldn’t have stirred such a fuss inside the Politburo. 

Xi and his team prefer stability, or the illusion of it, at the expense of truth, and this allowed the coronavirus to fester over a crucial period of several weeks. That was the topic of a lengthy Washington Post expose documenting how the Chinese political system was slow to react to the first patients presenting symptoms in mid-December. Another study, prepared by researchers at the University of Southampton in the U.K., credits the Chinese government for eventually limiting the scope of the outbreak. But the authors also concluded that if Xi’s health officials had acted one to three weeks earlier, then the number of infections would have been dramatically fewer—ranging from 66 to 95 percent less than observed. That is a high price for the appearance of security and competency.   

Part of that security comes from the domestic Chinese media, which operates under the Communist party’s thumb, and whose reporting is tightly controlled. TheTrump administration was fully justified in requiring some of these same outlets to register as agents of foreign powers in the first place. They are not independent reporting agencies but instruments for propaganda and influence.

Indeed, English-language Chinese media outlets such as Xinhua and China Daily have produced a steady stream of pro-CCP stories since the pandemic first garnered headlines around the world. Their reporting includes an infographic – produced for English-speaking audiences – trumpeting the government’s allegedly swift response timeline, with test results available within just 12 hours after symptoms are reported. This and other items are undoubtedly intended to convince people, both within China and elsewhere, that the government has its act together. Moreover, these same outlets report that the crisis will not slow down the Chinese economy any further – or so Xi’s financial officials say. These Chinese press shops specialize in reassurance, not investigation.  

Other propaganda stories have focused on the Chinese government’s efforts to assist foreign countries affected by the pandemic, especially in Europe, where China hopes to expand its economic footprint. Italy has been hit especially hard, with a mass quarantine put into effect in an attempt to slow COVID-19’s impact. Reporting on Twitter and other social media platforms, Xi’s propagandists highlighted the CCP’s efforts to quickly help, with a team of medical specialists being flown in to share their frontline expertise with the Italians. Other European nations will benefit from China’s generosity, Xi’s press explains, and trade is already returning to normal with dozens of freight trains headed to Europe. 

Of course, China’s actions are not entirely manipulative. Chinese doctors are not all heartless monsters and shouldn’t be demonized as such. But looking through Chinese media this past two weeks it is difficult to see much of it as anything more than performative. 

During a meeting with Pakistani President Arif Alvi in Beijing this week, for instance, Xi went so far as to portray himself as the benevolent leader of a worldwide anti-viral campaign. China has “upheld the principle of being transparent and responsible, releasing information in a timely manner and sharing experience with other countries on the prevention and control of the disease,” Xi said, according to a report by China Daily. Alvi reportedly praised the CCP’s “excellent leadership capabilities” and “great capacity to mobilize” a global response.

Given Xi’s self-aggrandizing, it is no wonder that the Chinese government and outlets like Xinhua have strenuously objected to President Trump’s deliberate use of “Chinese Virus” to describe COVID-19. Both the CCP and some of Trump’s American detractors have accused him of stoking xenophobia during a time of hardship. The president’s phrasing can be clumsy, but a shorthand way of indicating China’s culpability isn’t inherently racist, as some claim. It is a simple fact that Wuhan is ground zero. There is much evidence indicating the Communists’ desire for complete obedience outweighed any effort to keep it there. 

To make matters worse, Chinese officials have peddled conspiracy theories, blaming the U.S. military for the virus’s migration out of Wuhan. There is no reason to think this is true. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was right to chastise a member for the Politburo for “spread[ing] disinformation and outlandish rumors.”

The worldwide effort to contain coronavirus is far from over. America’s campaign to rebut Chinese disinformation concerning the virus’s origins and the CCP’s responsibility for unleashing it isn’t over either.  

Photograph of Xi Jinping talking with patients and medical workers through a video link at Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, March 10, 2020 by Xie Huanchi/Xinhua/Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.