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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

As China begins to get its coronavirus outbreak under control, authorities are going on the offensive to rewrite the narrative that the global epidemic is Beijing's fault.

Why it matters: We're getting a glimpse of how China's formidable propaganda apparatus can obscure the truth and change narratives abroad, just as it can at home. The stakes are high — for the world and China's standing in it.

What's happening: Chinese diplomats are taking to Twitter and email, pushing talking points that deflect blame from Beijing and instead praise its response.

  • The efforts are getting a boost from Chinese state-run media.
  • "The CCP is masterful at rewriting history and we’re watching them do it in real time," Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter, told Axios.

What's at stake: The world is facing a potential global economic recession that can trace its roots to specific decisions by Chinese authorities. Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to prevent that narrative from taking hold.

Chinese authorities are pushing the following talking points:

1. The coronavirus may not have originated in China.

  • What they're saying: "Though the COVID-19 was first discovered in China, it does not mean that it originated from China," Zhong Nanshan, a scientist helping lead the government response, said in a Feb. 27 press conference.
  • China's propaganda apparatus is now pushing that idea hard.
A tweet previously embedded here has been deleted or was tweeted from an account that has been suspended or deleted.
  • The Chinese Embassy in Canberra recently sent an email intended for foreign journalists that "suggested journalists are politicizing the coronavirus by suggesting it originated in China."
  • Reality check: There is no evidence COVID-19 spread in any human population before it spread in China.

2. China's response bought time for the rest of the world.

  • What they're saying: On March 9, the official Twitter account of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote that "China’s endeavor to combating the epidemic has bought time for int’l preparedness."
  • State news agency Xinhua also pushed that narrative after Xi Jinping called upon Chinese media to publish stories casting China's response to the coronavirus in a positive light.
A tweet previously embedded here has been deleted or was tweeted from an account that has been suspended or deleted.
  • This has been a particularly successful piece of Chinese propaganda, and it's now widely echoed outside of China. Most recently, an economist at Harvard repeated it in a March 9 interview for NPR's Marketplace, saying, “China really did great work in buying the rest of us time."
  • Reality check: The Chinese government's cover-up of the virus allowed it to spread unchecked in Wuhan for weeks, including among the 5 million city residents who left the city without being screened, leading to a national epidemic and inevitably to its spread outside China.

How it works: These narratives are being pushed via Beijing's recently expanded diplomatic social media presence.

  • Beginning in October 2019, dozens of Chinese ambassadors, embassies and consulates opened official accounts on Twitter, a platform banned in China and that Chinese government officials had previously shunned.
  • Despite dull talking points and relatively few tweets, some of those accounts have already garnered tens of thousands of followers.
  • Those accounts are now pushing out coordinated messaging around the coronavirus.

What to watch for: "The worse the coronavirus response in the foreign country, the more effective [Beijing's] narrative is going to be," said Bishop.

  • If the U.S. government bungles the response, it will be easier to believe that China actually got it right.

Go deeper

California wildfire explodes in size, destroys historic town

Battalion Chief Sergio Mora looks on as the Dixie fire burns through downtown Greenville, Calif. on Aug. 4, 2021. Photo: Josh EdelsonAFP via Getty Images

The small Sierra town of Greenville, California, was heavily damaged on Wednesday night into early Thursday as the Dixie Fire surged northward amid high winds, extremely dry air and hot temperatures.

The latest: The Dixie Fire, California's biggest blaze, continued to threaten communities in Plumas County into Thursday night, as more mandatory evacuation orders were issued in the region.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Top labor leader Richard Trumka dies unexpectedly at 72

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who led the largest federation of unions in the country for over a decade, has died at 72.

The big picture: Trumka began working as a coal miner in 1968 and would go on to dedicate his life to the labor movement, including as president of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO beginning in 2009.

Biden signs bill awarding Congressional Gold Medals to officers who responded to Jan. 6 attack

President Biden, joined by Vice President Harris, lawmakers and members of law enforcement and their families, signs legislation to award Congressional Gold Medals to law enforcement in the Rose Garden. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Biden signed legislation awarding Congressional Gold Medals to the law enforcement officers who defended the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Why it matters: The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress' "highest expression of national appreciation," notes the New York Times.

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