Photo illustration by John Lyman

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China’s COVID-19 Propaganda Playbook: Part 2

“It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data. US owe us an explanation!” Tweeted Zhao Lijian, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson. Amidst increasing international criticism of China’s early response and cover-up, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has employed a persistent, aggressive, and unified propaganda campaign.

Current Propaganda: Responsible, Indispensable Global Leader

The CCP’s primary objective is to protect the Party’s power, and internationally, that power derives from China’s economic strength. Nonetheless, growing worldwide condemnation of China’s negligent early response, which has caused an estimated 95% of all COVID-19 cases and the resultant economic disaster, threatens China’s international diplomatic and economic standing. Consequently, CCP propaganda seeks to portray China as a responsible, indispensable global leader.

As COVID-19 enveloped China from late January 2020 through late February 2020, the CCP exploited China’s government institutions, CCP outlets, and social media to tout timely transparency, claim disease control, and oppose overseas overreaction. Since then, the CCP has levied new propaganda messaging: obfuscate outbreak origin, trim the timeline, upbraid U.S. utterances, attack American actions, wield the World Health Organization’s (WHO) worship, advertise assistance aims, and espouse economic eminence.

Obfuscate Outbreak Origin. CCP propaganda deflects blame for the outbreak by claiming that COVID-19’s origin is unknown or a U.S. biolab. State-run Xinhua said, “The epidemic was first reported in China but that does not mean it necessarily originated in China,” and state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN) hypothesized that a U.S. military biolab in Maryland was the COVID-19 source.

Parroting the Party line, the MFA said, “China was the first country to report the outbreak of COVID-19 to the WHO, but it does not mean that COVID-19 originated from Wuhan,” and MFA spokesperson Zhao tweeted a now-deleted article that promulgated the U.S. biolab conspiracy theory. Despite broad scientific support—including from Shanghai’s head health official—of COVID-19’s Wuhan origin, CCP propaganda obfuscates the outbreak origin.

Trim Timeline. Facing increased international and U.S. criticism for directing the destruction of COVID-19 samples, lying to the WHO about human-to-human transmission, and reprimanding, disappearing, and forcing false confessions from whistleblowing doctors—one who later died from COVID-19—CCP propaganda quells China’s cover-up. Xinhua “sorted out the main facts China has taken in the global joint anti-virus efforts” and released a solely favorable response timeline, which all CCP outlets circulated.

Analogously, the MFA published a response timeline without China’s errors, and the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. tweeted a timeline graphic depicting China’s pandemic response as exclusively positive and the U.S. response as conspicuously negative. The CCP’s duplicitous response and cover-up are well-documented and corroborated by U.S. intelligence sources, but CCP propaganda keeps trimming the timeline.

Upbraid U.S. Utterances. The largest portion of CCP COVID-19 propaganda counters cover-up allegations from the Trump administration, notable U.S. politicians, and the media. CCP propaganda have called these comments “inhuman,” “political,” “stigmatization,” “bullying,” “scapegoating,” “racist,” “blackmail,” “immoral,” and “lies.” CCP-run China Daily wrote, “Smearing people, pointing accusing fingers at them and deliberately using geographic references in talking about the virus are politicizing an otherwise natural disaster.”

Similarly, the MFA tweeted, “Some US political figures have kept discrediting China and China’s epidemic response and stigmatizing China. Any scheme to slander and smear China has no chance of success.” While international media outlets, including Chinese outlet Caixin, have widely reported China’s cover-up, CCP propaganda upbraid the U.S. utterances.

Attack American Actions. Depicting China as more responsible than the U.S., CCP propaganda derides the U.S. pandemic response. For example, the Global Times wrote, “The US is definitely second to none among all countries in terms of the poor anti-virus performance…The US has become the virus’ slaughtering field.”

Likewise, MFA Spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted, “The coronavirus death toll topped 20,000 in the US. Photos show stacks of coffins were being buried on Hart Island. Their families were absent and unable to visit. So heartbreaking!”

Furthermore, CCP propaganda attacks American actions as “seriously negligent…and should be subject to criminal liability.” (Note: China concealed and intentionally under-reported COVID-19 cases while the U.S. has conducted the most COVID-19 tests and has lower COVID-19 deaths per million than Belgium, Spain, Italy, France, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Sweden.)

Wield WHO’s Worship. In an effort to illustrate China’s multilateral cooperation, CCP propaganda trumpets the WHO’s and Director-General Tedros Adhanom’s acclamatory remarks. Xinhua for instance published articles entitled “China sharing experience on COVID-19 ‘nothing short of excellence’: WHO experts” and “‘China doing unprecedented job in battling unknown disease’: WHO expert.”

Comparably, the MFA tweeted, “WHO DG Dr. Tedros praised China for its steps to prevent the spread of #nCoV with transparency&international [sic] cooperation. He said China’s commitment to prevent the overseas spread of the virus is incredible.” Despite China stonewalling WHO investigators and pressuring, concealing data from, and lying to the WHO, Adhanom and WHO experts continue to commend China—and CCP propaganda continues to wield the WHO’s worship.

Advertise Assistance Aims. Promoting the CCP’svision of a community with a shared future for mankind,” CCP propaganda peddles China’s foreign assistance of medical supplies, medics, experts, and companies. To illustrate, Xinhua entitled three separate articles “Foreign party leaders praise China for practicing the concept of community with shared future in anti-epidemic cooperation.”

Correspondingly, the MFA said, “Adhering to the vision of a community with a shared future for mankind and upholding justice while pursuing shared interests, China is committed to providing assistance.” Notwithstanding China urging expat Chinese workers to hoard masks and send them to China, selling faulty medical supplies to European countries, and masking geopolitical goals with health initiatives, CCP propaganda extensively advertises China’s assistance aims.

Espouse Economic Eminence. As the world economy reels and countries consider severing Chinese manufacturing links because of China’s outbreak opacity, CCP propaganda proclaims China’s economic durability and necessity. CGTN wrote, “China will be the bright spot in the world recession,” and China Daily described China as “an indispensable link between the upper-stream suppliers and the world market.”

Similarly, MFA Spokesperson Zhao said, “China stands ready to…restore economic vitality to the region,” and MFA Spokesperson Geng Shuang said, “It is unrealistic and makes no sense to try to sever global industrial and supply chains.” Even though China historically falsifies GDP statistics, analysts question China’s recent economic data, and countries warn of China’s leverage over critical supply chains like pharmaceuticals, CCP propaganda espouses China’s economic eminence.

Persistence

Attempting to characterize China as a responsible, indispensable global leader, CCP propaganda since late February 2020 has obfuscated the outbreak origin, trimmed the timeline, upbraided U.S. utterances, attacked American actions, wielded the WHO’s worship, advertised assistance aims, and espoused economic endurance.

In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler wrote, “But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”

While CCP propaganda is undoubtedly persistent, aggressive, and unified, will it breed success? For Hitler and Nazi Germany, their propaganda succeeded domestically, but failed internationally when confronted with the truth. For General Secretary Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, the same fate may be looming.