Mar 11, 2020 - Health

Beijing's coronavirus propaganda blitz goes global

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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