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China launches coronavirus propaganda drive to boost international image

The U.S. designated five Chinese media companies as "foreign missions," including the Xinhua News Agency. (Mira Agron/Dreamstime/TNS)
March 14, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has launched an overseas propaganda offensive questioning whether the coronavirus originated in the country, while backpedaling at home on comments by a high-ranking official calling for “gratitude” from the inhabitants of virus-hit Wuhan.

A diplomatic and media campaign launched a week ago has two main aims: to play down the cover-up of the emerging coronavirus outbreak by party chiefs in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and to push forward the narrative that the virus may not have originated in China at all, according to an expose published by the Catholic French language newspaper La Croix.

Chinese ambassadors around the world have been ordered to publicly question the idea that the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, the paper said.

In South Africa, Ambassador Lin Songtian was among the first to obey the propaganda directive coming from his government in Beijing, tweeting obediently on Saturday: “Studies by scientists from countries like the United States, Europe and Japan show that the source of #COVID19 is still inconclusive. Based on the results of global scientists, WHO said the source is still uncertain and stigmatization should be avoided.”

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Lin sent the tweet on the same day as he held a news conference during which he told journalists that Beijing doesn’t accept the theory that COVID-19 was “made in China.”

In the U.S., Zhang Ping, consul general of the People’s Republic of China in Los Angeles, wrote in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times: “New viruses like this one are a reminder that in the globalized era, epidemics know no borders,” hitting out at “ideological” attacks on China and racist attacks on people who appear to be of Chinese descent outside China.

At the same time, Chinese government censors, usually quick to delete accounts sending out information about the epidemic not previously approved by the ruling party, appear to be turning a blind eye to growing conspiracy theories that the virus originated in the United States and was covered up by the administration of President Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, officials are now putting out the line that the epidemic at home is under control, and that China stands ready to lend a hand to foreign countries more recently hit by the epidemic, suggesting that less authoritarian regimes than its own may not be able to implement the same draconian lockdowns that left tens of millions of Chinese people confined to their homes for nearly two months in a bid to halt the disease’s advance.

An official who answered the phone at the Chinese embassy in South Africa on Monday asked for questions by e-mail, but no reply had been received by the time of writing. The Chinese embassy in Germany declined to comment when contacted by RFA.

Words and funds

Foreign minister Wang Yi, writing in the party’s theoretical journal Qiushi, appeared to confirm reports of a diplomatic and propaganda effort in recent weeks, however.

“In an external propaganda drive, we are telling the story of China’s fight against the epidemic,” Wang wrote. “We have … spoken to international public opinion in a timely manner, in order to fully publicize China’s huge efforts in battling the epidemic.”

The diplomatic corps had also been “resolutely fighting back against wrongdoing and false statements that discriminate against Chinese citizens and create panic,” Wang wrote.

The words are being backed up with funds, too. China announced on Saturday it would contribute U.S.$20 million to the World Health Organization (WHO) to help developing countries improve their response to COVID-19.

Wuer Kaixi, a former leader of the 1989 pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square, said China’s ambassadors are now all singing from the same hymn sheet written for them by the ruling party’s powerful Central Propaganda Department.

“China’s ambassadors have become its propagandists in Western countries,” Wuer Kaixi said. “The key talking points from the internal propaganda machine are now being promoted internationally.”

“While the coronavirus is now spreading to the rest of the world from China, [the message is that] it didn’t originate in China,” he said. “This is quite hard to believe … it’s so stupid of the Chinese government to do this.”

“Anyone who believes China is being foolish, because the values of the Chinese government are incompatible with those of Western countries.”

Yu Zhang, co-ordinator of the Writers in Prison Committee for Independent Chinese PEN, said China is effectively now in crisis management mode when it comes to public relations.

“These Chinese diplomats are just loudspeakers [for party propaganda],” Zhang said. “They are seeking to avoid criticism both at home and abroad regarding the government cover-up of the epidemic and its spread.”

‘Gratitude education’ idea ridiculed

He said China’s plan to export its authoritarian vision to the rest of humanity should be regarded with intense suspicion.

“The China plan starts with the summoning of whistle-blowing doctor Li Wenliang, who is now dead,” he said. “For Europe and the United States, with their tradition of freedom, it is far worse than a virus.”

Propaganda bosses are also worried about public opinion at home, following the widely publicized heckling of vice premier Sun Chunlan by residents of a housing estate in Wuhan last week.

The authorities have been carefully walking back comments made by Wuhan Communist Party secretary Wang Zhonglin, who called for “various forms of propaganda and education activities to carry out gratitude education among the general public, party members and officials.”

The comments prompted an online backlash, with many commenting online that perhaps the rest of China should be thanking the residents of Wuhan for enduring the initial onslaught of the virus under lockdown to protect the rest of the country.

Others said that the people of Wuhan need help, comfort and support in the wake of thousands of deaths from COVID-19 and a debilitating two months of widespread sickness and confinement.

A resident of Wuhan contacted by RFA on Monday reacted with derision when asked if they felt gratitude.

“The hell I do!” came the reply. “Would you be grateful just because he wants you to be educated into feeling grateful to the government?”

China has now closed most of the makeshift hospitals built to deal with huge demand for beds, as the number of new infections in the country hit a record low on Monday.

The National Health Commission on Monday reported just 40 new COVID-19 cases nationwide, the lowest number of fresh cases since records began in January.

More than 80,700 confirmed cases have been reported in mainland China to date, with 3,119 deaths from the coronavirus.