Don’t let China turn the Wuhan virus narrative to its advantage
At the end of February, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda underwent an important narrative shift and began to blame the United States for mishandling the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus, even insinuating that the COVID-19 disease originated in America. The Chinese Communist regime now triumphantly postures as the country that is showing the world how to deal with a lethal plague that actually spread because of its callous denial of warnings by responsible medical authorities and the regime’s suppression of information deemed threatening to the reputation and stability of Xi Jinping’s surveillance state.
With deaths from the virus now greater in the rest of the world than inside China, Chinese officials portray the CCP as coming to the rescue of Italy and other countries suffering from the spread of the virus, claiming China is now the “safest” and “most desirable country in the world.” Chinese authorities say the threat of the virus comes from other countries, thus trying to shift its identity away from its genesis.
Indeed, facts cited every day show China as victorious over the plague and reinforce the perception that the CCP’s heavy-handed tactics — and its entire individual rights-denying and dictatorial system — are rational, well-suited to the challenges and mentality of postmodern society.
But in the face of China’s ruthless propaganda onslaught, we must not lose track of the truth, our principles, or our resolve. The viral outbreak is China’s responsibility, and China’s willfully botched response in its early phases led to a pandemic, with huge loss of life that only now is beginning — in China and around the world. No one knows the extent to which the pandemic will continue to spread, including inside China.
It is not true that China has returned to “business as usual” because of the putative wisdom and efficiency of Xi’s regime. In fact, the virus has led to one of the worst economic setbacks the Chinese economy has ever faced, one affecting the global economy as well. Factories came almost to a halt, because migrant workers who left for New Year celebrations could not return to their workplaces, thus impeding production and China’s trade capacity. The current export outlook of China remains under the shadow of the continuing spread of the virus.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has dragged China’s annual growth 0.4 percentage points lower than previous estimates, and has warned that global economic growth could be reduced by 0.1 percent this year. S&P Global Ratings revised its Chinese 2020 growth forecast to 5 percent, down from 5.7 per cent, saying the impact of the Wuhan virus outbreak could take a heavy short-term toll. According to economist David Kotz, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, the global economic scenario has not been promising in the past few years, especially for China, and given ongoing uncertainty in the global market, the pandemic could lead to a global recession.
While the Chinese authorities have been claiming that the negative impact of the virus outbreak will be short term, the failure of Beijing’s measures to minimize proliferation of disease has made investors worried on two counts. The first one is that, two months after the onset of the epidemic, the number of people infected with the virus in China and around the world is increasing. Secondly, it has exposed China’s vulnerability to health hazards. The Chinese government’s handling of this crisis in its initial stages — suppressing the flow of information that citizens needed to protect themselves and harassing whistleblowers — illustrates how the CCP would handle future crises.
Restricting the flow of people, strengthening surveillance on quarantine subjects, isolating patients and extending New Year holidays created panic in Chinese society, because of widespread confusion, fear and uncertainty. People have suffered from shortages of medical supplies, and shopping for groceries is a source of deep anxiety. Orders to close public spaces, imposed with no honesty or transparency, have aggravated this panic.
Social media around the world reflect that the Chinese people — who are among the primary victims of this crisis — are subjected to collective guilt because of the malfeasance of their rulers. Social media are filled with hate language against Chinese. Normally unacceptable slogans such as “No Chinese Allowed” in public places are seen in many parts of the world, underscoring the anger of people affected by the crisis. Locals in the Zaisan district in east Kazakhstan, a region bordering China, protested in February against housing virus-infected patients from China.
Despite the deceitful rhetoric emanating from China’s propaganda machine, the country’s international reputation is plummeting, which lamentably tarnishes citizens and civil society along with the government. And while the leaders and civil society of democratic countries must hold the Chinese state to account for the global pandemic and its economic consequences, we owe the people of China our sympathy and solidarity.
Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a Tiananmen Massacre survivor, and a former political prisoner in China.
Aaron Rhodes is president of the Forum for Religious Freedom–Europe and author of “The Debasement of Human Rights” (2018).