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China’s COVID-19 Propaganda Playbook: Part 3

“The pandemic will be recorded in history, and history needs a true record instead of an impression distorted by politics,” wrote Hu Xijin, editor for the Chinese state-owned Global Times. For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), however, that true record is solely information that protects the Party’s power. As countries re-open and investigate China’s role in the hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 deaths and the worst global economic disaster since the Great Depression, CCP overseas propaganda will leverage new messaging.

Future Propaganda: Still a Responsible, Indispensable Global Leader

International CCP COVID-19 propaganda has three phases: Initial, current, and post-pandemic. In the initial phase, while virus cases were mainly located in China, CCP propaganda downplayed the pandemic concern. In the current phase, as the pandemic envelops the world, CCP propaganda has transformed China from pandemic victim to victor by hiding its perfidious cover-up and response, criticizing the U.S., and promoting its foreign aid efforts. Continuing to proclaim itself as a responsible, indispensable global leader, CCP propaganda post-pandemic will declare domestic dependability, flaunt foreign feats, upbraid the U.S., and imprecate international investigations.

Declaring Domestic Dependability. CCP propaganda will advertise its early response as responsible despite evident negligence and cover-up. CCP propaganda outlets and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) have repeatedly declared that China’s initial response was “open, transparent and responsible,” revealing the CCP’s desire to have the world view its response as such. Furthermore, CCP propaganda has released a biased timeline and glowing “objective reflection” of China’s pandemic response.

China will also characterize its response as successful despite experts questioning the country’s COVID-19 data. For example, CCP-owned China Daily wrote, “With great courage and will, the spread of the virus has almost been tamed, marking an initial triumph for the country.” Yet, ProPublica reported that the CCP has developed thousands of fake and hijacked Twitter accounts to praise the government’s response.

Moving forward, CCP propaganda will declare domestic dependability by claiming responsibility and success in fighting COVID-19, while skillfully avoiding accountability.

Flaunting Foreign Feats. CCP propaganda will broadcast its foreign aid efforts in the context of a global pandemic. State-owned Xinhua released a music video titled, “WeAreOne,” which is strikingly similar to the 1985 American hit-single “We Are The World.” Instead of featuring musicians, “WeAreOne” highlights Chinese foreign aid. Additionally, Chinese government social media accounts zealously tout foreign aid efforts with photos, statements, and music videos.

CCP propaganda will further reiterate its support for the World Health Organization (WHO). The MFA tweeted, “China will donate another $30 million to the WHO to help contain #COVID19 & support developing countries in improving their public health systems. At this critical moment, support for WHO helps to strengthen multilateralism and the UN.” Similarly, China Daily wrote, “the WHO has played an indispensable role in coordinating and promoting global efforts to contain the contagion of the novel coronavirus.”

Depicting China as a humanitarian leader and multilateral player, CCP propaganda will continue flaunting foreign feats of international aid and WHO support to bolster a heroic aura.

Upbraiding the U.S. CCP propaganda will ridicule the U.S. pandemic response. Hu, a Global Times Editor, tweeted, “Daily COVID-19 deaths in the US have topped 4000, close to the global daily death toll barring the US. [The] Trump administration has been seriously negligent in their duty and should be subject to criminal liability. Hope the US law won’t condone such dereliction of duty.” Correspondingly, MFA Spokesperson Geng Shuang said that the U.S. is trying to “deflect attention from the fact that they fell short of fulfilling their own anti-epidemic responsibilities.”

CCP propaganda will also criticize U.S. statements of China’s cover-up and response. State-run China Global Television Network said that the U.S. is “sparing no effort to find a scapegoat,” and MFA Spokesperson Geng said, “We hope someone in the US can respect facts, science and international consensus, and stop smearing other countries.”

CCP propaganda will continue to upbraid the U.S. for its pandemic response and remarks about China’s cover-up and response in an effort to relieve themselves of the significant role they played in the global outbreak.

Imprecating International Investigations. CCP propaganda will oppose international investigations into COVID-19’s origin and China’s early response. Already, U.S. President Donald Trump, prominent U.S. politicians, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Trumbull, and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab have called for investigations. Regarding the Australian investigation comments, the MFA tweeted, “Australia’s ‘review into #COVID19’ is purely out of political motives,” and China’s Ambassador to Australia has threatened retaliation by halting Australian imports. These political motives which the MFA is referencing could have underpinnings in a potential Australian-U.S. collaboration on the issue. The U.S. has been a leader of the investigation inquiries of the correlation between China’s virus handling and the global outbreak.

Responding to U.S. investigation statements, MFA Spokesperson Geng said, “the international community should…not resort to mutual accusation or demand retribution and accountability.” Conversely, however, Global Times wrote, “we strongly call on the WHO to intervene in the investigation in the US’ initial COVID-19 spread.”

As countries open investigations into COVID-19’s origin, CCP propaganda will imprecate international investigations as “political,” and encourage the involvement of international institutions as their aid.

CCP Overseas Propaganda Results

Early in the pandemic, CCP propaganda painted China as medically responsible and economically stable. Now, as COVID-19 engulfs the world, CCP propaganda portrays China as a responsible, indispensable global leader. Post-pandemic, this narrative will continue.

Nonetheless, these characterizations have largely failed, and countries across the world continue expressing their dissatisfaction with the Chinese response. A record-high 66% of Americans view China negatively, various African politicians blame China for the outbreak, many Indians condemn China’s early pandemic response, the largest German newspaper, Bild, claims China owes Germany $165 billion in pandemic-related damages, French President Emmanuel Macron said it is “naïve” to say China handled COVID-19 better than Western democracies, and leading British politicians recently started a study group to reshape the UK’s China policy.

“Out Over Their Skis”

International audiences have generally detested the brazen, conspiratorial, and boastful CCP pandemic propaganda, especially when paired with China’s closed, opaque, and duplicitous pandemic response. From semiofficial Phoenix TV praising China’s pandemic response at a White House press briefing to Chinese officials pressuring the EU to delete negative statements about China in its COVID-19 disinformation report, CCP propaganda is overly aggressive and, consequently, has failed to win international resonance.

On the Intelligence Matters podcast, Chris Johnson, senior fellow at the Center for Security and International Studies and former CIA analyst, remarked that CCP propaganda is often “overplayed.” Specifically discussing CCP propaganda that criticized the U.S. National Basketball Association in October 2019, Johnson said, “my understanding is that the propaganda organs kind of led with their face and got out over their skis and President Xi actually was not very happy with how that went.” Yet again, CCP overseas propaganda is out over its skis but its continuance may signal CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s growing support for confrontational and ambitious propaganda.

The More Things Change…

…the more they stay the same. Writing in the Baltimore Sun in 2003, Gady Epstein, now China affairs editor for The Economist, wrote, “Here are some of the facts about the SARS epidemic in China: China’s government covered up the early spread of the disease, helping create a public health crisis and showing it was out of touch with the needs of its citizens.” Today, with COVID-19, China’s government again covered up the early spread of the disease, helping create a public health crisis. But regarding the last point, while China’s government is better attuned to the needs of its citizens, CCP overseas propaganda is out of touch with the attitudes of the world.