Beijing Knows Who to Blame for the Virus: America

The outbreak has caused a PR crisis for China.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar meet with pharmaceutical executives to discuss the coronavirus.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar meet with pharmaceutical executives to discuss the coronavirus in Washington on March 2. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Amid a national lockdown, desperate patients, anger at a cover-up, an economic crisis, and a virus breaking beyond its own borders, the Chinese government’s priorities were clear: It was time to publish a glossy book on how wonderful Beijing’s handling of the virus has been.

A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combating COVID-19 in 2020 compiles numerous state media accounts on the heroic leadership of President Xi Jinping, the vital role of the Communist Party, and the superiority of the Chinese system in fighting the virus. It has gotten rave reviews in Chinese media, not least because it was published by their ultimate boss—the Central Committee Publicity Department, formerly known as the Propaganda Department.

The Chinese audience won’t be the only lucky readers. The book will be translated into English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic, with more likely to follow. Authorities know the virus could irreparably damage China’s image in the world s eyes, but they also see an opportunity to push their own narrative of organization, success, and triumph. Part of that involves glossy propaganda texts, combined with more sophisticated, individually targeted efforts. Part of it is pushing a new set of conspiracy theories about the virus itself, aimed at the ultimate enemy: the United States.

The downside of the epidemic for China’s image is obvious. There are legitimate reasons: The cover-up of the early extent of the outbreak by authorities more concerned with politics than pandemics gave it critical time to spread. But the Chinese government is also likely to be blamed for events outside its control, especially as patients and casualties pile up.Authorities know the virus could irreparably damage China’s image in the world’s eyes, but they also see an opportunity to push their own narrative.

The damage to China’s economy and image is also seriously worrying the leadership, which has been attempting to push people back to work. That damage is already visible in the United States, where the virus has pushed opinions of China to record lows—and made people less confident in China’s economic future. Firms were already looking for suppliers outside of China as a result of the trade war; the coronavirus is giving that a critical push.

Yet Beijing is pushing a powerful counternarrative: the idea that Chinese organization and authoritarianism allowed for a rapid and effective response to the crisis that other countries can learn from. The export of authoritarian techniques has been one of the underrated selling points of China’s global projects in the past few years, especially in Central Asia. The primary audience, as always, is domestic—but it includes foreigners too, especially in developing countries.

In fairness, it may be that the widspread lockdown truly played a critical role in containing the virus. Yet it’s hard to know for sure because of the government-led clampdown on reporting, as well as the introduction of yet another set of new media and Internet controls, already planned before the coronavirus. At the provincial level, statistics on the outbreak range from the dubious to the obviously false.  Disturbingly, the World Health Organization, already facing public criticism for its refusal to confront Chinese failures, is a willing participant in pushing that narrative, writing a comically sycophantic report on Chinese efforts based on a recent managed propaganda tour of Hubei province, where the virus first erupted.

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Much of this is clumsily obvious and will have little effect on audiences with no obligation to pretend Xi’s speeches are rhetorical masterpieces. But other parts of Chinese outreach are far smarter and more sophisticated, drawing on the country’s huge linguistic and diplomatic resources when it comes to Africa and the Middle East in particular. Take this video produced by China Radio International that’s been widely circulated on Telegram in Iran, in which a fluent Farsi speaker explains how China managed the outbreak, and offers help to Iran, one of the countries outside China most affected by the outbreak. That’s the kind of engagement that can make a lasting difference to ordinary people rather than fellow autocrats.

From early on, there’s also been a deliberate doubling-down on anti-U.S. propaganda. In part that was an almost instinctive reaction; anti-Americanism has so come to dominate the Chinese media in the last four years that it’s the default position for writers. Even in the early weeks of the outbreak, Chinese officials were blaming the United States for supposed overreaction and falsely claiming Washington was the first to impose travel bans. But there’s also a clear desire to divert anger away from officialdom and toward an external foe.The fact that these stories stay up in China shows that, at the very least, the government is tolerating them.

The next stage of the propaganda push has been to deny that the virus started in China at all. (Quite how the virus crossed species is still unclear, but there’s nothing to suggest it didn’t happen in China, which saw the first outbreak in the city of Wuhan.) Those claims erupted on Chinese social media last week, where conspiracy-minded sites such as College Daily, already vectors for deeply racist and Islamophobic stories winked at by the propaganda authorities, are pushing the idea that the virus really originated in the United States. Clips from Taiwanese TV and mistranslated captions from American reporting are used to back up the case.

They’re helped in this by China’s own bad recording of flu stats, which makes it appear as though the country has only had a few hundred seasonal flu deaths this year, when in reality 84,000 to 92,000 people in China die of the flu each year. Claims of the deadliness of American flu appeared in January, leading to officials believing that U.S. reporters didn’t fear the coronavirus because they were inured to the disease. The explicit claim that coronavirus started in the United States is relatively new, but—judging from reported conversations between Chinese abroad and their parents and grandparents at home—has spread disturbingly fast. Flu isn’t the only culprit blamed; one other popular theory is that vaping deaths under President Donald Trump were a cover for coronavirus fatalities.

It’s unclear how much of this is state-sanctioned. The United States, of course, has hardly been short of conspiracy theories of its own about the virus. While he walked it back later, Trump himself described the virus as “fake news.” Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton has also played a part in spreading them. But the United States doesn’t have thousands of government and private-sector personnel dedicated to online censorship, who block key search terms and take down stories and rumors unfavorable to the government with lightning speed.

The fact that these stories stay up in China shows that, at the very least, the government is tolerating them. Most worryingly, top Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan, who has been at the front and center of the response to the outbreak, recently made an enigmatic claim at a press conference that the virus may not have originated in China—winking at these conspiracy theories without explicitly endorsing them.

Even more than boasts about China’s effectiveness, conspiracy theories are targeted at a domestic audience, as well as the Chinese diaspora. But they’re likely to be embraced elsewhere, especially in countries with their own tendency to spot U.S. plots everywhere.

If the coronavirus is uncontainable, as many epidemiologists fear, the whole world is going to be looking for someone to blame—and Beijing wants to make sure that blame falls on Washington.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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