Chengdu, China – On March 18, China marked a milestone in its “people’s war” against the new coronavirus. For the first time in three months, there were no new local infections in the central province of Hubei, where more than 60 million people remain confined to their homes as part of a nationwide effort to control the deadly outbreak.
The respiratory illness caused by the new pathogen, first detected in late December in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, has spread rapidly across the world, infecting more than 465,000 people and killing more than 21,000 as of March 26.
Europe has become the new epicentre of the disease, also known as COVID-19, with the death toll in Italy and Spain higher than China and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday that the United States might be next.
But in China, the outbreak appears to be under control, with less than 5,000 patients still undergoing treatment and new cases confirmed only among people returning from overseas.
Authorities in Beijing, who were widely criticised for initially covering up the outbreak, are now hailing their success, highlighting the unparalleled measures that helped quell the outbreak within the country and positioning China as a global leading power in the fight against the coronavirus – all while engaging in an acrimonious war of words with the US.
Prior to the slowing of local transmissions in China, the country’s highly controlled state media was almost exclusively pushing one narrative: the supremacy of the so-called “system with Chinese characteristics” in fighting the outbreak.
News anchors and online reporters praised the central leadership for utilising measures unthinkable in other countries in their bid to contain the virus, including a nationwide quarantine, the use of mass surveillance to track infections bringing the world’s second-largest economy to a near-halt.
“With utmost determination to curb the outbreak growth, China has bought enough time for the world to prepare itself for this pandemic,” Geng Shuang, the spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters on March 19, suggesting that China’s draconian measures had slowed down the transmission of the disease worldwide.
‘Global leader against coronavirus’
As the domestic pressure to contain the outbreak eased, state media shifted their focus to featuring China’s recent effort to deploy medics and resources to areas most hard-hit by the virus, particularly Italy and Iran, labelling itself as a global leader in the battle against the virus.
China has sent planeloads of medical equipment, including the much sought-after masks, ventilators, and other personal protective equipment to the worst-hit countries in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.
CCTV, the official state broadcaster, continuously plays videos of Chinese medics arriving in Bergamo in northern Italy and Iran’s capital, Tehran.
CGTN, the international wing of CCTV, and Global Times, a state-owned English language tabloid, are two of the many state media outlets praising China’s “generosity” and “leadership” during the pandemic.
Positive feedback from global leaders, such as Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, and officials from Venezuela and the Philippines – mostly comments applauding China’s support and leadership – have also been prominently featured in the state media coverage.
Meanwhile, the social media accounts of government-backed media institutions are at the front line of the propaganda push, including on Twitter and Facebook, which are both banned in China.
‘Shifting domestic anger’
By doing so, Beijing is trying to shift domestic and international attention away from the pent-up anger in the country towards the central government for an initial cover-up of the outbreak that many say paved the way for the rapid spread of the virus.
“By pushing for this narrative, China is avoiding the blame and successfully dodging culpability for its role in spreading the coronavirus,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.
“In suppressing information about the virus and allowing it to spread unchecked in the crucial early days and weeks, the regime imperilled the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks.”
Some analysts say what triggered the propaganda machine in China is the deterioration in relations between Beijing and Washington, which are also locked in a bitter trade dispute.
Last week, tensions escalated after China expelled more than a dozen American journalists working for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post newspapers, in a tactic seen as retaliation for the US designating China’s state media as diplomatic missions.
Now officials in the two countries are blaming each other for the current pandemic.
Since early March, Chinese officials and state media have been pushing the idea that the new coronavirus could have originated somewhere else – notably the US.
Lijian Zhao, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, has been particularly vocal in questioning the US’s role in the viral outbreak.
On March 12, Zhao posted a tweet saying: “It might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan”. And despite widespread criticism over the unsubstantiated claim, Zhao continues to blame Washington.
Articles with titles along the lines of The virus didn’t come from China: the US brought the virus to China as a bioweapon are widely shared across China’s tightly-controlled internet.
Some of these pieces filled with conspiracy theories say the US army brought the virus to China during the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October last year. State media is also calling for an “inquiry” into the US’s role in the emergence of this outbreak, publishing articles that question Washington based on an unfounded assumption that the US was behind the spread of the virus.
Aggressive foreign policy
The WHO and leading medical experts say the virus jumped from an animal host to humans, stressing that the suggestion that the pathogen did not have a natural origin are “dangerous” to the effort to contain the pandemic.
But Chinese academics are also supporting the narrative of US involvement.
Chen Xuyan, a scientist based in Beijing, appeared on CCTV on March 18 and suggested that the fast speed of research on COVID-19 vaccines in the US could be attributed to the possibility that Washington had already obtained the virus long before, by extension implying the US might have sent the virus to China.
Animation: How does coronavirus behave?
“The Xi government is following a very aggressive foreign policy now, engaging in what Mao Zedong called a ‘tongue war’ – the propaganda war,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury who specialises in Chinese politics.
The resentment in China has been exacerbated by US President Donald Trump’s decision to use terms like “foreign virus” and more frequently, “Chinese virus”, to refer to the new pathogen.
Images posted online show that during a recent news conference, Trump crossed out the word “corona” and wrote “CHINESE” in front of the word “virus” in the script of his speech.
The Chinese foreign ministry has called the moves “irresponsible” and “racist”.
Instead of sweeping Trump’s comments under the rug, which is usually what the state media does for comments that go against the Communist Party line, the government is using Trump’s remarks as a tactic to incite public anger towards the US leader and as an extension, the US as a whole.
“With the US facing its own credibility issues in recent years, China’s false narrative threatens to spread as quickly as the coronavirus,” wrote Matthew Karnitschnig, the chief Europe correspondent of Politico.