Around the globe, citizens and netizens are focused on the coronavirus – how not to be infected, how to prevent the virus’s spread, how it is stressing systems of medical care, and how long preventive measures must continue. The crisis has more than medical and economic dimensions, however. It has given rise to what some are calling a “propaganda battle.”
The Chinese government’s and Communist Party’s missteps after COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan are well documented, by BBC (citing the Politburo Standing Committee) and Business Insider, for instance. There was a sharp popular reaction when the “whistleblower,” Dr. Li Wenliang, who first warned of a new virus (on December 30) was silenced and sanctioned. He died on February 7. His exoneration on March 19 was posthumous, his family receiving an apology from the Wuhan Police Department.
As the medical crisis unfolded in China, there were initial speculations that the virus might become a “Chernobyl moment” for Beijing – in The Washington Post, The Diplomat, Newsweek, and at The Wilson Center, for instance. Those expressing these first thoughts usually said “may” rather than “will,” and there was some pushback — in The Atlantic, for instance. Because, however, the Chinese Communist Party has long judged that it must avoid the mistakes made by an irresolute Soviet leadership, the Chernobyl analogy hit what an American might call one of the Party’s “hot buttons.” This prompted at least two narrative thrusts.
The first is that it was China’s – and thus the Party’s — superior system of governance that brought the medical crisis to a quick end. As the Italian journalist Francesco Sisci wrote from Beijing, “in about a month Beijing turned the tables, proving that its system could bring the situation under control and that it was better than Western democracies at fighting the disease.” Al-Jazeera teased out the domestic and international sides of this narrative line. That a resolute Chinese response “bought enough time” for other nations to respond has been one narrative theme, which has the bonus of muting domestic anger over how the Chinese government and the Communist Party ignored – even suppressed – early evidence of the disease outbreak.
A follow-on push, still ongoing, is that China has become “the global leader” against the pandemic and is generously sending aid to other nations still grappling with it. ABC News has provided details.
This “war of words” has, however, taken on a nastier tone.
Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted two conspiracy theories – that Patient Zero was an American soldier who visited Wuhan to participate in the 2019 Military World Games and/or the virus broke loose from the U.S. Army at its laboratory at Fort Dietrick, Maryland. CNN and Forbes reported how these allegations spread throughout China, and TheScientist provided more details of the accusatory back-and-forth. To his credit, China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, called the latter theory “crazy” on Face the Nation.
The White House calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” prompted another Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, to accuse the U.S. of “finger pointing at China,” which brought things to “a new low point.” According to Quartz, “Trump’s tweet came the same day US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had what sounds like a prickly phone call with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi. Pompeo expressed ‘strong US objections‘ over China’s efforts to ‘shift blame’ for the virus to the US, and told Yang that this was not the time to ‘spread disinformation and outlandish rumors.’ Yang, for his part, conveyed his ‘strong objections‘ to US efforts to ‘slander and smear China’s efforts’ to contain the virus, according to CGTN, China’s state-run overseas broadcaster.” Xinhua also responded with a roundup of criticism of the “Chinese virus” label, quoting Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representative Lois Frankel of Florida. Another Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, tweeted that Secretary Pompeo should “Stop lying through your teeth.”
These dueling interpretations, narratives, and accusations — no matter how heated, no matter how stretched or untrue or spun, no matter how they bruised feelings on one or the other side — have at least been visible and attributed. Alas, there’s more going on.
From August 2019, ProPublica tracked more than 10,000 suspected “fake,” “hijacked,” and “zombie” Twitter accounts “involved in a coordinated influence campaign with ties to the Chinese government.” The wide-ranging report by Jeff Kao and Mia Shuang Li revealed the use of social media, fake profile photos and usernames, “changed handles,” bots, hacking of accounts, disinformation, an “interlocking group of accounts,” conspiracy theories, spamming, use of contractors, and “a chorus of approving comments from obviously fake accounts.”
For Public Diplomacy, this contest of narratives provides a useful case study of concepts. The old “propaganda” techniques like name-calling, glittering generalities, euphemisms, and transfer, for instance, still provide insight. So do the “commandments” of fake news derived from the study of an earlier outbreak of disease in the 1980s. Understanding how Chinese government ministries and councils are guided by Communist Party bodies such as the United Front Work Department is also warranted. The velocity, impact, and punch of social media posts can be compared to the influence of official statements.
Sisci, the Italian journalist in Beijing, says bluntly, “The ongoing pandemic has also started a massive propaganda war.” It “could spin out of control with unfathomable consequences.”
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.