China’s Dangerous Coronavirus Disinformation Campaign

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.   

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