May 1, 2020 - World

Chinese embassy publishes 16-point coronavirus rebuttal

Illustration of photos including a virus, a map of the U.S. and China, President Trump, and healthcare workers in Wuhan, tacked with string in the shape of a star
Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Drew Angerer/Getty Images and Stringer/Getty Images

The Chinese embassy in Germany has posted to its website a 4,600-word rebuttal of 16 common criticisms of China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak, depicting Beijing itself as a victim of disinformation.

Why it matters: The rebuttal comes amid a "global battle of narratives" between China and western governments over blame for the pandemic.

Written in a "true or false" fact-checking style, the German-language post seamlessly blends fact with propaganda in a sophisticated attempt to persuade German audiences that China's response to the coronavirus was blameless.

What they're saying: The 16 statements — or as the post calls them, "myths" — include a mix of conspiracy theories about the virus's origins, racist stereotypes against Chinese people, and factual reporting that the Chinese government casts as flawed.

  • "Many uncertainties have crept into the discussion about the origin and spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Lies, myths and conspiracy theories are spreading on social media — but not only there," the post states.
  • "China is particularly affected by this 'infodemic.'"

Between the lines: The Chinese embassy's message utilizes three strategies to blur the nature of truth.

  1. It intersperses obvious conspiracy theories with accurate factual reporting in the list of claims it seeks to debunk.
  2. It cites both highly reputable sources, such as scientific journals and European research institutes, and highly disreputable sources, such as conspiracy websites.
  3. It equates Chinese laws and policies with on-the-ground reality.

The Chinese embassy in Germany did not respond to a request for comment.

Some examples:

"Myth # 1: China created the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in a lab."

  • The embassy's take: "Fact: The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is of natural origin."
  • Axios fact-check: The list starts off with what is indeed a widely debunked conspiracy theory, citing the prestigious science journal Nature in its rebuttal.

"Myth # 6: China arrested doctors who warned the world about the virus early on to cover up the outbreak."

  • The embassy's take: "Fact: No doctor in China has been arrested for warning of an epidemic. Doctors who have reported a possible outbreak have been recognized by the government."
  • Axios fact-check: Eight Chinese doctors were detained and interrogated by the Wuhan security bureau on Jan. 1 after they shared information about the new virus and warned colleagues of its dangers. It is technically true that detention and interrogation are not arrest.
  • Three months after this incident occurred — and after the coronavirus-related death of the one of the doctors, which spurred intense national anger and demands for freedom of speech — the central government changed course and recognized the doctor as a national hero.

"Myth No. 9: China is preventing Taiwan from joining the WHO, which endangers the health of the people of Taiwan."

  • The embassy's take: "Fact: Taiwan is part of China and not a member of the United Nations. It is therefore not legally permitted to join the WHO."
  • Axios fact-check: This equates a Chinese foreign policy position with fact. It also fails to mention that Taiwan lost its membership in the UN, and thus its membership in the WHO, only because of Beijing's lobbying.

Context: China is currently waging a major diplomatic campaign to refute western government attempts to hold the country accountable for the coronavirus's global spread.

  • Chinese diplomats and state media have repeated information criticizing the U.S. response and suggesting the virus may have originated outside China.
  • The People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's flagship newspaper, published an article on May 1 implying the coronavirus may somehow be linked to a U.S. army lab in Maryland or a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services virus outbreak simulation.
  • They also suggested the U.S. was intentionally underreporting the number of coronavirus deaths.

The bottom line: The embassy's fact-check is part of a global strategy to improve China's image, a strategy which at times has involved disinformation.

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