Arun Sudhaman 16 Mar 2020 // 7:12AM GMT
BEIJING — China has begun to deploy new messaging that aims to deflect from the popular charge that the country is to blame for the global Covid-19 crisis.
Last week, Beijing's state-run media — supported by the country's diplomatic network on social media — began to heavily promote specific talking points. The coordinated campaign comes as China gets its own coronavirus outbreak under control, with global deaths and infections overtaking those inside the country.
The first contention being floated by China is that the coronavirus may not have originated in the country, despite any evidence to the contrary. In a press conference on 27 February, high-profile doctor Zhong Nanshan said: "Though the Covid-19 was first discovered in China, it does not mean that it originated from China."
That idea has since been pushed by Chinese politicians and diplomats across the world and on social media. A note from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra to journalists claimed that "suggested journalists are politicizing the coronavirus by suggesting it originated in China."
On 8 March, the Chinese ambassador to South Africa tweeted that, “Although the epidemic first broke out in China, it did not necessarily mean that the virus is originated from China, let alone 'made in China.' "
Perhaps the most famous example of this approach comes from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who tweeted: "CDC was caught on the spot. When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!"
The second element of China's campaign involves the notion that, without China's rapid action, the coronavirus pandemic would be much worse than it is. On 9 March, the official Twitter account of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that: "China’s endeavor to combating the epidemic has bought time for int’l preparedness."
Unsurprisingly, state news agency Xinhua has been quick to support the campaign, after — as Axios puts it — "Xi Jinping called upon Chinese media to publish stories casting China's response to the coronavirus in a positive light."
And there is evidence that China's efforts are working, with the latter contention, in particular, being regularly echoed beyond the country. A Harvard economist, for example, recently told NPR's Marketplace that "China really did great work in buying the rest of us time."
As Axios China reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian points out, though: "The Chinese government's cover-up of the virus allowed it to spread unchecked in Wuhan for weeks, including among the five million city residents who left the city without being screened, leading to a national epidemic and inevitably to its spread outside China."
China's efforts are the most prominent salvos in a misinformation war that has helped fuel Covid-19 panic across the world, as our report last month found. Russian state media appears to have encouraged the spread of conspiracy theories that position the virus as an American biological weapon. Meanwhile, US Senator Tom Cotton has propagated a fringe theory that the virus originated in a Chinese research laboratory.
In addition, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has claimed that the virus is a manufactured bioweapon. Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to the UN secretary-general, which he posted on Twitter, noting, “It is clear to the world that the mutated coronavirus was produced in lab.”
Speaking to MarketWatch, Sinocism author Bill Bishop explained that China's propaganda blitz is intended for both international and domestic audiences. "I think both," Bishop told MarketWatch. "Globally to avoid being blamed for the carnage it is causing in so many countries, domestically to once again [blame] an external force as a way to deflect blame."
Bishop believes that many in China will buy the claims, underscoring their importance in terms of shoring up domestic support for the government, even if foreign audiences are likely to be more sceptical.