At midnight on Friday, China closed its borders to the rest of the world as it tries to stop a resurgence of the coronavirus.
The move was the culmination of a months-long PR and disinformation campaign waged by the Chinese government to rewrite the history of a pandemic that has spread to almost every corner of the planet, killed more than 34,000 people, and infected almost three-quarters of a million.
China initially ignored the outbreak that first surfaced in Wuhan in early December, silencing doctors who tried to raise the alarm before eventually enacting a draconian and restrictive lockdown that impacted 50 million people.
But the Communist Party of China (CCP) is now seeking to portray itself not as the country that allowed the coronavirus to spread unchecked for weeks but as the country that has defeated the virus and is now on hand to save the rest of the world.
To do this, the Chinese government has employed a unique mixture of tactics including disinformation, soft power, conspiracy theories, and even a book that tells the heroic story of China’s victory over coronavirus — all of which are designed to reframe the narrative around the virus and Beijing’s role in allowing it to get out of control in the first place.
“In the last few weeks, the CCP has stepped up its propaganda efforts to shape the narrative with respect to COVID-19, both within China and internationally,” Adam Ni, director of the Australia-based research organization the China Policy Centre, told VICE News.
“In essence, the party wants to make the best out of a terrible situation and spin the story in favor of the party by deflecting blame, sowing doubts on its culpability, whipping up nationalism, and highlighting the superiority of the Chinese party-state,”
Here’s China’s playbook:
Silence dissenting voices: The outbreak in Wuhan was first noticed by doctors working on the front lines. They tried to raise the alarm by sharing messages with friends on WeChat, messages that were shared on social media and went viral. But the police detained the doctors — some of whom subsequently died of coronavirus — and told them to stay quiet.
Block information: Once Hubei province had been put into lockdown, the Chinese government didn’t want any negative information getting out. To do this, it employed a range of tactics. One was making citizen journalists disappear after they began publishing videos from inside Wuhan exposing the sheer scale of the crisis. It also ramped up its censorship of social media platforms significantly, meaning even the slightest reference to coronavirus or the government’s response was erased.
Spin up state-run media: As stories of overwhelmed hospitals and mounting death tolls spread around the world, Beijing spun up its massive media operations into full battle mode, with both its Chinese-language and English-language outlets running positive stories about the heroic work being done to counter the outbreak. The campaign included posts on social media, news reports, and articles written by state media journalists but quietly published in other outlets. Beijing is also leveraging deep media ties across Africa to promote its own agenda.
Spread disinformation: Earlier this month, Hua Chunying a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, posted a video on Twitter that showed Italians on lockdown clapping in unison and shouting "Thank you, China" as appreciation for the aid Beijing sent to the country. The only problem is that the video was fake, and the applause was in fact for the heroic work being done by Italian medical workers.
Promote conspiracy theories: Earlier this month, Chinese foreign ministry deputy spokesperson Zhao Lijian suggested on Twitter that the coronavirus was manufactured in a U.S. military lab and brought to Wuhan by the U.S. Army who sent 300 service personnel to the World Military Games that took place in the city in October. The unfounded claim was then given more oxygen by official Chinese state media.
Write a book: China has already produced a book on the coronavirus pandemic. “A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combating COVID-19 in 2020” is a compilation of articles from Chinese state media that recount the heroic leadership of President Xi Jinping and the vital role the Communist Party played in combating the virus outbreak. The book is being translated into English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic, with more likely to follow.
Deploy a Twitter army: An investigation by ProPublica found a Twitter army directed by the Chinese government, consisting of fake and stolen accounts — that in the past was used to seed disinformation about the Hong Kong protests — have become “cheerleaders for the government, calling on citizens to unite in support of efforts to fight the epidemic and urging them to “dispel online rumors.”
Gin up more conspiracy theories: China’s state-run media last week suggested the virus may have originated in Italy, after Giuseppe Remuzzi, director of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, told NPR that doctors there had noticed “very strange pneumonias” as early as November last year. Remuzzi clarified that all he meant was that it’s possible the virus had spread to Europe sooner than we thought, but the Chinese state media failed to mention those comments.
Start donating stuff: One of the key aspects of China’s efforts to change how the world views its role in the coronavirus outbreak is by sending donations of testing kits, masks and other essential supplies around the world. Leading this effort is Alibaba-founder Jack Ma, whose foundation has sent supplies to Iran, Europe, Africa, and even the U.S.
No conspiracy theory is too wild: China’s latest claims that a U.S. cyclist, who was part of the Military Games team, is coronavirus patient zero. It’s source for such a claim? A U.S. conspiracy theorist who is attempting to capitalize on the pandemic to boost his social media profile.
But, is it working?
“I would say it has been quite successful inside China. Due to censorship and the lack of independent news sources, many Chinese people have bought the theory that the virus was brought by the U.S. to China,” Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. “It has helped shift public anger towards the Chinese government for its initial cover-up to the convenient external enemy – the US government.”
And, at a time when frontline medics the world over are crying out for protective equipment, China’s donations will go a long way to bolster its image abroad.
“The soft power dividends that China has gained in Africa, and also Europe as well, over the past couple of weeks through both its governmental assistance and the massive donation of masks and other medical supplies by Jack Ma is absolutely enormous,” Eric Olander, managing editor of the nonpartisan China Africa Project, told VICE News.
But not all medical supplies from China are being welcomed. There is a growing number of countries rejecting tests and other supplies for being defective.
And while the conspiracy theories may play well with a home audience, outside of China, where people generally have access to much more information about what is going on, Beijing’s ludicrous theories ring hollow, and may in fact be further damaging the country’s reputation.
“I think the Chinese movement’s claim is backfiring, as many people see it as petty and irresponsible for the Chinese government to spread these conspiracy theories,” Wang said.
Cover: In this handout photograph taken and released by the Pakistan's Press Information Department on March 28, 2020, Chinese doctors arrive at the Islamabad International airport in Islamabad. (Photo by -/PRESS INFORMATION DEPARTMENT/AFP via Getty Images)