As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the world, Beijing is actively trying to shape how people remember the pandemic and China’s role in it. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is engaging in a propaganda campaign aimed at promoting narratives favorable to China and suppressing any that would tarnish its international image. At the heart of this campaign is the argument that China rose to the challenge of the outbreak and exemplified the role of a responsible great power. This core narrative seeks to erase the Chinese government’s missteps from the public memory so that only China’s successes remain.
Domestically, the Chinese government is deeply invested in convincing the country’s 1.4 billion people that it is capable of steering the nation through any and all challenges. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus at the end of 2019 posed the most serious threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP)’s legitimacy in decades, as citizens started to question whether their leaders were capable of dealing with the crisis.
As it became increasingly clear that Chinese government officials had gravely mishandled the initial situation, the PRC tried to suppress the truth, arresting journalists who reported on the actual extent of the outbreak in Wuhan and censoring online discussion to prevent the public from discussing its grievances. In place of alarming statistics and unvarnished accounts of human suffering, China’s massive state-controlled media apparatus filled the airwaves with doctored data and pro-party kitsch. Beijing even tried to recast Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who was silenced by police after warning colleagues of the virus and who subsequently died of the illness in February, as a loyal CCP member, instead of the whistleblower that millions within China mourned him as.
COVID-19 has also threatened to shatter Beijing’s carefully cultivated image of the PRC as a responsible and open member of the international community. China’s leaders are determined to convince the world that the PRC deserves its increasingly central role on the world stage, and so it is no surprise that Beijing has strived to avoid the stigma of being responsible for allowing the novel coronavirus to spread beyond its borders. As early as January, the Chinese government has pushed back against calls by foreign observers to investigate the origin of the virus, claiming that such efforts are politically motivated attempts to smear China. In its efforts to avoid blame, Beijing has engaged in an unprecedented disinformation campaign aimed at sowing doubt that the virus first emerged in China, even going so far as suggesting that the U.S. Army could have initially brought the virus to Wuhan in the fall of 2019 when it participated in the World Military Games hosted there.
Beijing has attempted to position itself as a leader in the global struggle against the virus. It has used highly publicized foreign aid efforts, with the PRC Foreign Ministry declaring in mid-November that China had provided medical assistance to over 150 countries and international organizations in the fight against COVID-19. Beijing has also attempted to cast itself as a champion of multilateralism: throughout the pandemic, it has publicly praised the World Health Organization (WHO) and defended it in the face of U.S. criticism, despite having kept vital information about the virus from the United Nations body and preventing it from conducting a serious investigation into the source of the outbreak.
How people around the world perceive of China’s handling of COVID-19 has major implications for broader issues of influence within the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. In many ways, the pandemic has exacerbated bilateral tensions between the U.S. and China. Since March, when U.S. cases overtook those in China, Beijing has highlighted Washington’s struggle to contain the virus within the U.S. as a foil against which to highlight its own successes. For example, in contrast to its portrayal of the People’s Liberation Army as having emerged stronger from its encounter with COVID-19, the Chinese press has shone a glaring spotlight on the virus’s effect on the U.S. military, with some media commentary asserting that U.S. military readiness has been compromised. Beijing has also argued that the PRC’s authoritarian model of governance is better equipped than US-style democracy to handle a major crisis.
Regardless of how the global pandemic develops in the future, the events of 2020 will live long in the public memory. The long-term effects of the crisis on China’s international image, and whether the CCP’s handling of the crisis solidified its legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people or degraded the public’s trust in the government, remain to be seen.
Click here to read Josiah’s full report on China’s COVID-19 Propaganda Campaign.