The coronavirus epidemic has become a major test for China’s global image. While Beijing has faced criticism for its mismanagement of the epidemic in the beginning, its seeming success in containing the outbreak contrasted with the lackluster response of some Western democracies has led to efforts to change the global narrative.
From Defeat to Victory
Thanks largely to the work of Chinese investigative journalists, it is clear that China has botched its initial response to the coronavirus outbreak. The system prioritizing political stability over everyhing ignored and even suppressed the first accounts of the outbreak in December. Doctors sharing the story, including Li Wenliang, were reprimanded for “spreading rumors” and endangering social stability, an all-too-common indictment in the country. Until the central government first belatedly commented on the virus on January 20, the situation has already spun out of control.
A series of extremely strict measures were soon taken in short succession, including the lockdown of Wuhan from January 23. The immense mobilization of the whole power of the Chinese Party-state resources and practically the whole Chinese population in the “people’s war” against the virus has been unprecedented. The tides of the fight seem to have turned by the beginning of March, with the outbreak contained to Hubei and the number of ‘imported’ cases exceeding locally transmitted cases.
Due to the fundamental logic of the CCP control, from the very beginning, the Party propaganda apparatus has taken up the task of managing the narrative of Beijing’s response to the epidemic. At home, it entailed a further clampdown on independent voices, despite such suppression worsening the outbreak in the first place. Massive amount of “positive energy” was pumped into the public discourse, limiting any critical or negative news. Beijing has faced an unusually difficult challenge with several public opinion crises, such as when the Wuhan Party secretary Wang Zhonglin tried to get the Wuhan residents “thank the Party” for its response to the epidemic, causing a public outcry. Yet, in the end, the CCP has taken credit for its coming victory in the “people’s war” as a clear sign of the “superiority of the Chinese system”. Alas, no soul-searching seems to be at hand, as the responsibility for the mishandling of the crisis has been attributed to few local leaders.
Telling the Chinese Story
Similar propaganda efforts have been in motion on the global stage. China has taken advantage of its standing in the WHO to shape the global discussion about Beijing’s policies from the very beginning. At the same time, it has employed its vast array of propaganda outlets, including the Party media and social media accounts, to shape the story and influence the world’s perception of China’s fight against the epidemic. For example, the Twitter and Facebook accounts of the Chinese Embassy in Slovakia were established during the crisis, with their content mostly revolving around China’s response to coronavirus.
This effort has been reminiscent of how the Party has tried to reshape the global narrative on Hong Kong protests. Just as in the case of Hong Kong, Chinese diplomats have been tasked in their hosting countries to give interviews and write articles for the local media, explaining China’s efforts.
As usual, Chinese media have given prominent exposure to foreign praise for the government’s response. Statements by foreign politicians and leaders were meticulously recorded and disseminated, targeting mostly the domestic audience in China. One of the numerous examples included a former French Prime Minister Raffarin’s quote that “Chinese government has manifested extremely effective organization and mobilization ability, which is exactly the advantage of the Chinese system”.
With the situation getting under control in China, China’s external propaganda efforts have gone into overdrive, playing up how China has bought time for the world with its effective measures and that world should “thank China” for its efforts. With the Western countries initially failing in its response despite following the situation ensuing in China for two months – e.g. US president Trump still comparing COVID-19 with the flu as late as the end February – Chinese effort to extoll the supremacy of its system has gained weight. This has only added to the long-nurtured propaganda narrative of China as an embodiment of stability and political foresight that is sorely lacking in the West, a theme that has gained particularly in strength since the Trump election victory and Brexit.
However, China has recently even gone into ‘counterattack’ in trying to spread the narrative that the origin of the virus may not have been in China. The Chinese Embassy in Australia has been contacting journalists, criticizing that they associated coronavirus with China “without any supporting facts”. In a further escalation, Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), shared the article on his popular Twitter account attributing the outbreak to the U.S. military, which gave weight to the previously fringe conspiracy theory circulating on the Chinese internet. In response, Chinese MFA did not deny Zhao’s claims, saying that “opinions on the question of the origin of the virus differ”. It may now be expected that the attempt to blur the origin of the virus and even similar conspiracy theories will trickle down into the messaging of Chinese media and diplomatic envoys. This way, China has joined the ranks of Russia, undertaking its first truly global disinformation campaign. Such propaganda campaigns can now be expected to become a new normal for China, a worrying development that should be countered.
New Public Goods Provider?
It needs to be emphasized that after containing the growth of the epidemic at home, China has indeed been aiding in the efforts of other countries to contain the virus, a fact that deserves praise. Beijing sent medical teams and supplies to Iran, Iraq, Spain, Italy and other countries currently going through the worst phase of the outbreak. China also offered to share its experience in medical care and epidemic countermeasures with the affected countries. These efforts, however, have often been framed within a distinct propaganda narrative. An example in case is the videoconference between China and Central and Eastern European countries gathered under the 17+1 format held on March 13. The summary of the videoconference stressed that the Chinese anti-epidemic countermeasures were “personally commanded and deployed by President Xi Jinping”, Beijing is willing to share information with “open, transparent and highly responsible attitude” and that China’s efforts support the construction of the “community of shared destiny”, an international relations propaganda concept attributed to Xi Jinping.
As argued elsewhere, China’s ability to step up and provide public goods may very well become a watershed moment in the perception of China around the world, especially if the Western democracies underperform. The effects may be similar to the situation during and after the 2009 financial crisis, which led many EU countries to turn their gaze towards China. While the issues of public health are a prerogative of member states, the EU has already been getting flak for not adequately responding to the crisis. Talking about the EU’s decision to ban the export of medical equipment, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that “European solidarity is a fairy tale” and that “the only country that can help Serbia is China”. A dangerous narrative may follow, accepting China’s propaganda on the superiority of its authoritarian system. Such praise could very well be used by Europe’s would-be-autocrats (such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán) as a further justification for a turn away from liberal democracy.
Walking a Fine Line
The successful fight against coronavirus and many sacrifices of the Chinese population during the epidemic should be recognized. It is vital for other countries facing the rising infection counts that China shares its lessons learned. China can build some genuine and deserved goodwill by sharing its experience and stepping in with aid for the countries in need.
The jury is still out on the question whether China’s measures are the right way for the world to replicate and whether measures undertaken by Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea do not present better ways of dealing with the epidemic. However, it seems that due to being late on the response, hard lockdown measures are now the only viable option in the Western countries as well.
We should now be past the overindulgence that the democratic system by itself translates into effective epidemic control. As this crisis has shown, different systems exhibit different problems in facing the outbreak. Yet, in democratic systems, the leaders who fail to step up to the task should be held accountable and reforms should be undertaken when shortcomings are found. While the CCP’s mishandling of the crisis has worsened the outbreak in the first place and aided in its spread around the world, the Party is now shamelessly attempting to take a victory lap. The CCP should not be allowed to misuse the epidemic to prop up its global propaganda.
Filip Šebok is a China Research Fellow and Project Manager at the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague, Czech Republic. He is also an individual member of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) Expert Pool. His research interests include relations between China and the Central and Eastern European countries and China’s foreign policy rhetoric.