Chinese state-owned media have been operating a video screen in New York City’s Time Square since 2011, advertising pro-China messaging. This last year, that so-called “China screen” also promoted China’s COVID-19 response, even as critics have blamed China for concealing critical information about the virus that began in Wuhan and has lead to the deaths of millions of people worldwide.
In February, Fox News reported that the Times Square screen has run messages from the state-run Xinhua News Agency, such as that “China has helped more than 80 countries and territories” impacted by COVID-19. The “China Screen” is owned and leased by Sherwood Outdoor, a subsidiary of Sherwood Equities Inc.
Messages on the Time Square screen have said China “will continue to fight the virus hand in hand with the international community.”
Fox News reported on the pro-China COVID-19 messaging in the days after World Health Organization (WHO) investigators completed a trip to Wuhan after waiting nearly a year for China to permit international investigators to study the virus origins. WHO investigators initially called a theory that the virus escaped from a Wuhan virology lab “extremely unlikely.” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus would later say the organization remains open to all theories surrounding the virus origins.
The Time Square video screen’s message of a coronavirus response united with the international community also comes after criticisms that China punished early whistleblower efforts to raise alarm about the virus and even into mid-January had passed along a claim, shared by the WHO, that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus.
While China said it had helped more than 80 countries and territories responding to COVID-19, it has conditioned its international aid on receiving countries and jurisdictions providing positive coverage of China in return. The Chinese method of conditioning medical aid on positive public relations outcomes has been called “mask diplomacy” by its critics.
The pro-Chinese messaging within the U.S. isn’t just confined to the Time Square billboard. In May, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that between November 2020 and April 2021, China’s state-run China Daily paid more than $1.6 million for advertising space in the Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, TIME Magazine, and Foreign Policy Magazine.
The Chinese media efforts pre-date the COVID-19 outbreak too. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump criticized China Daily for running full-page advertisements resembling actual news articles in local papers throughout the U.S., including the Des Moines Register in Iowa. Trump said the advertisements were run with the intent to “interfere in our upcoming 2018 election.”