China’s Communist Party has long excelled at rewriting its own history, but with its latest propaganda blitz on the novel coronavirus, it’s rewriting the present. And while the traditional revisionism has largely been aimed at a domestic audience, this time it has a global one in mind. Beijing is attempting to gaslight the world as it escalates its propaganda push to obscure the source of the disease. Yet the real significance of this campaign is that it represents Beijing’s first truly international propaganda offensive and a new front line in the global information war.
This is a struggle in which the tools of a free society—journalism and social media—are both the combat zone and the weapons of choice. Beijing’s arsenal includes a massive state-sponsored disinformation campaign, prominent “third-party spokespeople” and the expulsion of some of the most experienced American journalists in China. As its state-sponsored messages proliferate across newspaper columns and Facebook and Twitter feeds around the world, one key takeaway is that China’s decadelong attempt to build its so-called discourse power overseas is finally bearing fruit.
One successful example of Beijing’s efforts to shift the narrative was its construction of two thousand-bed “coronavirus hospitals” in Wuhan in just 10 days. The mesmerizing time lapses of a gargantuan behemoth rising from a muddy field flickered across websites and television screens around the world, in part because China’s state-run broadcaster has content-sharing agreements with hundreds of news outlets, sometimes providing them with free material. The impressive speed and scale of the construction masked the fact that these were bare-bones prefab quarantine wards rather than fully equipped hospitals.
These measures—combined with hard-line moves such as enforced lockdowns—undoubtedly slowed the spread of infection, allowing Beijing to reframe itself as having made great sacrifices to buy time for the rest of the world. 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.
The composition of China’s coronavirus task force highlights its priorities: Two out of nine members are from the propaganda bureau. They faced a challenging job in shifting the narrative when Beijing’s cover-up of the initial outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year allowed the virus to spread unabated. There was further dismal publicity after nine doctors who tried to raise the alarm were punished. When one of them, Li Wenliang, died from COVID-19, the domestic groundswell of anger was so intense that a gratitude campaign thanking the state for its efforts had to be dropped. That popular rage is still evident. Touring a residential compound in Wuhan, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan was greeted by a chorus of shouts of “Fake! All this fake!” resounding out of the safe anonymity provided by high-rise apartments.
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 the attempt to push back against this earlier this week by the Hong Kong microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, who became famous during the SARS epidemic. In an article he co-wrote, he called such claims “self-deceiving” and nonsensical, and blamed the outbreak on the “ugly habits of Chinese people” including eating sometimes endangered wildlife. The speed with which he and his co-author retracted the article was notable, as was the language they deployed. In an interview that sounded more like a self-criticism, Yuen said, “Maybe no one loves the country more than I do.” 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.
A shift in emphasis emerged overnight after China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, described the conspiracy theory that the virus was brought to China by U.S. troops as “crazy.” This was followed by a more conciliatory tweet by Zhao underlining the need for global solidarity, featuring peaceful photos of cherry blossom trees. This apparent about-face could represent an internal power struggle over messaging or simply a decision to change gears in the service of showcasing Beijing as a responsible and humanitarian global power.
Even more persuasive than words, though, may be China’s deeds. China’s state-run news outlets now run wall-to-wall coverage of its face-mask diplomacy, as it donates millions of masks to countries including South Korea, Iran, the Philippines, and Spain. When Italy’s European Union partners refused its requests for medical aid, China stepped in to provide respirators and 2 million masks—not for free, but still a huge PR win. “The only country that can help us is China,” Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic pleaded last week after the EU imposed limits on the exports of medical equipment, “As for the rest, thanks for nothing.” Chinese business executives also play their part; its richest man, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, shipped a million masks and half a million testing kits to the United States in a show of geopolitical largesse.
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.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has been working with Louisa Lim to monitor, research and explore China’s influence on media around the world.