Boxes filled with medical equipment from China are landing at airports in Italy, Spain and Greece, each carrying a note that promises eternal friendship between the countries. Top Czech politicians welcomed the delivery at the runway in front of cameras. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic even kissed the Chinese flag in front of them. Often overpriced masks and apparently faulty rapid tests would normally not reach the hall of fame of humanitarian aid. But the Chinese ones do have unusually well-managed marketing.
After the domestic coronavirus epidemic has been subdued more or less successfully, China is dealing with a follow-up crisis: its image of great world power has been damaged. COVID-19 has spread from within its borders and Beijing has contributed to the intensity of the pandemic by concealing the problem for several months. China is now trying to rewrite this unflattering narrative and position itself as a world leader in the fight against a pandemic, which it has already managed to overcome.
When it comes to information control, propaganda is no strange concept to China’s political leadership. However, the COVID-19 campaign’s characteristics defy China’s traditional influence operations strategies. The recent rather unusual steps by Beijing have indicated that China might be taking lessons from the Russian handbook of disinformation. What awaits us now?
Who Knows Where It All Started Anyway
On March 13, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian shared an article on Twitter titled “COVID-19: More evidence that the virus originated in the US”. This article from the globalresearch.ca conspiracy site speculates that the novel coronavirus was developed at the Maryland Biology Laboratory as a bio-weapon, then spread to Wuhan by US soldiers.
Although this statement contradicts the scientific conclusions about the natural origins of the virus, Zhao’s tweet was shared by more than 10 thousand accounts, including other representatives of China on the network. In an uncommon move, fourteen official accounts of Chinese embassies abroad, including those in France and Germany, joined the disinformation-spreading efforts. The latter account, however, did not exist until recently. China created forty official Twitter accounts of embassies and consulates just between September and December 2019.
Zhao’s Twitter subsequently served as the source for other articles accusing the US of being responsible for the spread of the coronavirus, all published in English by China’s state media. A week later, the Chinese state-run news website Global Times came up with another alternative speculation. It suggested that COVID-19 had actually first begun spreading from Italy.
Although such a series of conflicting disinformation is not rare on social networks, this particular case surprised the experts. This type of messaging does not resemble typical Chinese propaganda. Yet, it is a rather faithful copy of the pro-Russian disinformation scenarios.
Russian Way, Chinese Way
Russian misinformation has always been more aggressive, negative as well as creative in dealing with facts. They do not attempt to convince the public about any given ‘truth’, but instead create many conspiracy scenarios, even with clashing premises. The aim is to evoke a feeling that finding the factual truth is impossible, causing confusion and deepen tensions in society. For example, when the Malaysian MH17 aircraft was shot over Ukraine in 2014, Sputnik readers gradually learned that the crash was a hoax, that the Ukrainian army shot down the plane, and that in fact, the CIA was responsible.
China is also not a newcomer to propaganda. General Sun Tzu praised the importance of information control in his treatise “The Art of War” five centuries BC. China, similarly to Russia, also does not draw a decisive line between conflict and peace, therefore achieving “discursive superiority” over rivals and partners is an integral part of its foreign policy. However, here the resemblance to Russian information operations ends.
While Moscow overwhelms readers with disinformation, China bets on re-writing the reality with positive news. For instance, in mid-March, Chinese influence accounts shared a viral video of the people of Rome making their stay in quarantine more pleasant by singing out the windows. “Thanks, China”, one of the participants in the balcony choir shouted. Although the context of the situation tells us it was clearly an ironic commentary, propaganda accounts shared the video as proof of the Italians’ gratitude for China’s help in the crisis.
As the Stanford Cyber Policy Center analysis of the COVID-19 social media landscape shows, China’s state media in the times of pandemic focus on the positive international responses to Chinese aid, on the swiftness of China’s crisis response, and on the numbers and stories of people cured. This self-focused coverage stems from the fact that China is more confident about its brand than Russia. While RT only mentions Russia in 4% of its reports and prefers to focus on the mistakes of other countries, Chinese CGTN and CCTV talk about China in 50% of articles.
But why is Beijing changing its established practices and experiments with disinformation?
War on Criticism
While in the times of crisis Russia embarks on epic disinformation battles, China prefers to suppress criticism quietly by direct, but publicly invisible pressure on the critics themselves. When Bloomberg News published a shocking list of assets owned by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s extended family back in 2012, its journalists received death threats and Bloomberg was close to losing access to the giant Chinese media market. Foreign Policy describes how, after this experience, Bloomberg began with the self-censorship of China-related news. Many editors who refused to exchange the economic advantages for silence quit. Central Europe also has its own set of experiences with Chinese media pressure. In 2016, several Czech and Slovak editors received a cease-and-desist letter from the Chinese investment group CEFC, requesting the deletion of articles on the company’s connection to the People’s Liberation Army.
However, the intimidation tactic is demanding and its effect during a pandemic is limited. CCP’s role in the dissemination of COVID-19 is currently being addressed by the vast majority of the world’s media. China is therefore likely opting for disinformation to counter the onslaught of criticism, perhaps only for the short term. However, it is possible that the country has been preparing to launch a new disinformation strategy for a long time.
In 2019, the CCP created dozens of official accounts of its government offices and embassies on Twitter and Facebook. At the same time, Chinese state media accounts posting in English became more active. Between the end of December and mid-March, the Chinese media published seven thousand articles on coronavirus in English on Facebook alone. Meanwhile, the Chinese profiles on social networks more often share RT, Sputnik and Iranian PressTV and are thus taking on the existing disinformation wave. However, direct cooperation between the Chinese and pro-Russian media has not been discovered.
It appears that China is skillfully transforming the crisis into an opportunity to move yet another inch closer towards global leadership. Its ‘coronavirus campaign’, which also newly includes disinformation, is generally considered a success. Beijing’s response appears excellent especially in comparison with the United States that have responded slowly, do not engage in international aid and found themselves on the losing side of a diplomatic tit-for-tat game with China. In the meantime, the European Union’s assistance to its member states receives little attention, especially when compared with the payed-for aid coming from China.
While the Western states will continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic for at least a few months, China will continue to work on improving its media image. Disinformation is likely to be increasingly part of the campaign, especially if the rumors of China grossly underscoring the numbers of infected and deceased prove to be true. Withstanding the pressure of the “Chinese worldview” combined with the Russian methods is likely to be another of the many challenges facing Europe this year.
The article was originally written in Czech and published at Voxpot.
Alžběta Bajerová is a Research Fellow at the Association for International Affairs. She graduated from Master’s program Security and Strategic Studies at Faculty of Social Studies of Masaryk University, completed a study exchange programme at National Taiwan University, and gained work experience through internships at the Embassy of the Czech Republic in China, NATO CCD Centre of Excellence, or National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NCISA).