Perspectives April 20, 2020
Beijing’s Coronavirus Propaganda Has Both Foreign and Domestic Targets
Disinformation peddled abroad may be most successful in China itself.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime is attempting to reshape global media discourse about the COVID-19 pandemic and effectively overwrite public information about its own mishandling of the outbreak.
Over the last month, CCP-backed media and other actors have pushed three narratives for a global audience: first, that China’s response to the crisis is a model for other countries to follow; second, that China is a global leader in the fight against COVID-19 and is providing aid to grateful nations; and third, that the coronavirus may have originated outside of China.
While there is at least a grain of truth in some of these claims, others—like the assertions that the pandemic began in the United States or Italy—amount to outright disinformation. The CCP messaging has notably been shared through both new disinformation networks and existing ones established on global social media platforms by Iran and Russia. It has also been disseminated within China to shore up the regime’s image at home.
A global megaphone in action
Beijing and its proxies have used four key strategies to reach global audiences:
- Embedding state media content in mainstream foreign media: Foreign news outlets have continued to accept funds from Chinese state media to disseminate propaganda on China’s response to COVID-19. The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and Britain’s Telegraph newspaper are among the foreign media that have published such articles as paid advertorials over the past two months, although the Telegraph appears to have subsequently discontinued its partnerships with two Chinese state outlets. The official Xinhua news agency has also used content-sharing partnerships with African news websites like News Ghana to highlight Chinese assistance against COVID-19 in various countries.
- Spreading disinformation through Foreign Ministry spokespeople and diplomats: Throughout March, conspiracy theories concerning the origins of COVID-19 and other proven falsehoods have been amplified by senior Chinese diplomats. On March 12, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao tweeted a link to an article falsely claiming that the virus had originated in the United States, and this was later retweeted by the official account of China’s embassy in South Africa. It has also been reported that Chinese officials in Tokyo were ordered to refer to the pathogen as the “Japanese coronavirus.” These efforts built on a 2019 initiative to set up Twitter accounts for dozens of Chinese officials, even though the platform remains blocked in China.
- Purchasing online ads with state media content: Chinese state media have been purchasing political advertisements on foreign social media sites in an effort to cover up Chinese authorities’ botched early response to the spread of the coronavirus and instead place blame for the pandemic on the United States. Appearing on Facebook and Instagram and failing to disclose their origins, the ads promote content on China’s handling of COVID-19 produced by Chinese state media outfits including Xinhua, China Central Television, and the Global Times.
- Amplifying propaganda with Twitter bots: A March 26 investigation by ProPublica found a network of fake and hijacked Twitter accounts that were covertly spreading Chinese government propaganda about the virus to global audiences. While some of these accounts have tweeted messages expressing support for the Chinese authorities’ handling of the pandemic, others have promoted disinformation or attacked political opponents in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong. Parts of the network were linked to a Beijing-based company that had previously been contracted by the China News Service, part of the CCP’s United Front Work Department, to increase its Twitter following. Beijing has also made use of Twitter bots to promote Italian hashtags praising China’s medical assistance to Italy, which has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe.
Attention to domestic audiences
While the CCP is clearly trying to manipulate global audiences with its narratives on COVID-19, it is also spreading them within China, aiming to fortify the regime’s legitimacy at a time when it is stretched thin.
Throughout March, media outlets and Beijing-friendly social media platforms in China similarly promoted the idea that COVID-19 emerged elsewhere, and not in Wuhan. In late March, Chinese media misrepresented statements made by a prominent Italian scientist to incorrectly imply that the virus had originated in Italy. On March 24, the popular Chinese news platform Toutiao published an article spuriously linking the coronavirus outbreak to a “mysterious pneumonia” that emerged among young e-cigarette users in 2019 in the United States. And on March 25, an article in the Global Times promoted the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was brought to China by a US military athlete who participated in the World Military Games in Wuhan last October.
State media with Chinese audiences have expressed support for the same Chinese government figures who have promoted these fringe ideas on global social media platforms. In response to a March 12 tweet by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accusing the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of covering up cases of COVID-19 in late 2019, an article published by Xinhua encouraged Zhao to “keep asking questions.” While Twitter is blocked in China, screenshots of Zhao’s tweets have circulated on the Sina Weibo microblogging platform under the hashtag “Zhao Lijian sent out five consecutive tweets questioning the US,” and have been viewed millions of times.
Even as these narratives have been permitted to circulate widely, Chinese censors have moved quickly to silence other online discussions about the coronavirus. For example, they have deleted Weibo users’ expressions of support for the United States as it struggles to confront COVID-19.
For many in China, the government’s narratives appear to be convincing. Even when there is anger at the early handling of the outbreak, it is often directed at local officials in Wuhan rather than the central government or the CCP-controlled political system as a whole. Anecdotal evidence suggests that anti-US narratives in particular have been taking hold in segments of the Chinese public. The faltering responses to the outbreak in the United States and certain other democratic countries—of which there is no shortage of state media coverage in China—have also helped bolster the CCP’s claims that its own reaction was exemplary.
Outside China’s borders, the regime’s propaganda efforts have been undermined by factual journalism from independent media. In countries like Spain, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic, news outlets have reported that many of the medical products and testing kits purchased from Chinese suppliers were found to be defective. In Africa, videos of local politicians castigating Chinese diplomats over the mistreatment of African expatriates in China—who have faced discriminatory suspicions that they are spreading the virus—circulated widely along with the hashtag #ChinaMustExplain.
In the coming days and weeks, as the COVID-19 death toll and related economic suffering rise around the world, the stakes of Beijing’s damage-control effort in the media will also increase. The Chinese regime will certainly continue—and even upgrade—its campaign of propaganda and disinformation. It is the responsibility of free media, democratic governments, and ordinary news consumers everywhere to remain vigilant in exposing and counteracting any false or misleading content at this crucial moment.
Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin.
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