Jabin T Jacob
Currently, there is a full-blown propaganda effort by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) underway to try and make the world forget about China’s ‘original sin’ of allowing the novel coronavirus Covid-19 disease to spread beyond the country. There are at least five elements to this endeavour.
First, there is an effort to magnify the scale and scope of China’s mitigation efforts. Hitherto, China had used its economic might and political heft to ensure that the World Health Organization (WHO) kept Taiwan out of the membership of the world body. After the virus outbreak, Beijing has also been able to prevent any WHO criticism of China’s actions. A joint WHO-China report on the coronavirus disease was practically hagiographic in tone, talking about how China had “rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history” and that the measures China has adopted are “the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimize transmission chains in humans.”
As impressive as all this sounds, it is the case that as with the SARS epidemic of 2002-2004 that originated in China, the global spread of Covid-19 is directly attributable to the fact it was not contained within China in the early stages. Chinese political exigencies initially dictated a cover-up of the outbreak of the disease was the best way forward. China’s ‘report card’ is therefore, ‘mixed’ at best and it is probably too early even to say yet that China has completely stopped the spread of the virus.
Second, even if it might not be schadenfreude, China has in recent weeks highlighted the struggles of other countries in dealing with their own outbreak and attempted to pay back in kind for the criticism it copped in the early days of the epidemic.
For instance, it quoted the WHO Director-General’s March 14 comment that more coronavirus cases were being reported each day outside of China than the latter had reported at the epidemic’s peak, and that Europe had become the new global epicentre of the disease. Chinese media has highlighted the US’ “overconfidence and lack of knowledge on the virus” that stopped it from preventing the virus from spreading. Part of this exercise reflects also in the highlighting of cases of Covid-19 now entering China from overseas.
Third, there is an increasing effort to advertise China’s contribution to helping other countries fight Covid-19. China has sent medical aid and offered training to several countries from Iraq to Italy, and Iran to the Philippines. It has also highlighted without fail the gratitude each of these has apparently expressed to China for such aid.
Meanwhile, Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s philanthropic foundation as well as the company’s own foundation have planned donations of medical equipment to every country in Africa. Ma had earlier also announced a donation of 500,000 coronavirus testing kits and 1 million masks to the US.
Fourth, is a desire to underline the robustness and legitimacy of the Chinese political system. The earlier WHO-China report, for instance, highlighted the “sincerity and dedication” of not just the medical personnel and scientists but also of Chinese “Governors and Mayors”, thus indirectly absolving the CCP leadership of its mistakes. Criticism of the US, while often warranted, has also involved references to the Chinese central government’s “decisive measures” as well as advice to the US — one of the first modern federal states — on “strengthen[ing]… coordination” between the US federal and state governments.
References in the report to the “community grid management system in China” and its role in fighting the 2019-nCov while accurate, also elide over the fact that it is the same system that also aids and abets draconian surveillance and control measures over minority ethnic populations in Tibet and Xinjiang.
The pandemic is also seen as offering an opportunity for China to push CCP General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rhetoric of a “community of common destiny” — part of the narrative of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — as a way of framing China’s help to the outside world. Calling Xi, “commander-in-chief of China’s war against COVID-19” now that the epidemic is apparently within control inside China is also about reinforcing not just his leadership supremacy at home but offering him as a model for other leaders and peoples around the world.
Finally, there is now an active Chinese effort to deflect blame and spread misinformation. The most prominent part of this campaign has been the effort to somehow pin the blame for the origins of the virus on the US. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, formerly Deputy Chief of Mission in Islamabad, has unashamedly pushed the narrative that the novel coronavirus was introduced into China by the US military and has incoherently — but successfully, going by the number of retweets — linked proceedings in the US Congress to his conspiracy theory. China has even gone after Mario Vargas Llosa, one of Latin America’s most prominent writers and the 2010 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, saying that his claim of the novel coronavirus “coming from China” was “inaccurate”.
The sophistication and spread of the Chinese propaganda campaign shows how seriously its rulers take their country’s image abroad and the importance of this image to maintaining their hold on power at home.Jabin T Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, National Capital Region. Twitter: @jabinjacobt. Views are personal.