Cracks in the 'Great Firewall': China's incompetent COVID-19 response

Cracks in the 'Great Firewall': China's incompetent COVID-19 response
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The Chinese government’s response to COVID-19 shows profound weaknesses in their political system, and some counterintuitive observations follow: China is not good at censorship, propaganda or other projections of “soft power.” 

In some circles, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) enjoys perceptions of having a steely grip over its people and control over the country’s destiny. But these views don’t hold up in the wake of their COVID-19 crisis response. China’s government has been forced to assume a defensive posture indicative of losing control. Cracks in the (literal and figurative) firewall are emerging, and paint a picture of a country threatened by technological backlash and inability to keep pace with events. 

Challenges to Chinese government control were obvious from the beginning of the crisis as reports emerged of an outbreak in Wuhan. News of the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, whose early warnings about the virus were censored by government forces, erupted on social media platform Weibo. Trending hashtags included “We demand our freedom of speech” and “Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology.” The CCP responded with further censorship that ultimately proved futile. This was only the first of many instances in which China’s censorship led to domestic and international outcry.

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As global criticism of China’s response to the outbreak accelerated, the Chinese government’s response started to look desperate — beginning with strong denials and baseless claims that the United States was responsible for COVID-19, then pivoting to “mask diplomacy”: donations of personal protection equipment to countries with outbreaks. Rather than perceive mask diplomacy as generous, or an example of strong leadership, much of the target audience viewed it as a flagrant attempt to exploit the crisis and buy support.

Criticism triumphs over censorship  

Criticism of the U.S.’s handling of COVID-19 abounds, but the manner in which that criticism is disseminated illustrates key differences between a democracy characterized by freedom and liberty and a heavily censored autocratic state. In the U.S., public discourse and criticism of the government allows for anyone to call out its leadership. The same free press that highlights the lack of governmental coordination in coronavirus response also praises the ways in which private industry has stepped up in service of a national crisis, just as it has in other times of global crisis or conflict. The U.S. economy is defined by this combination of private and public sector efforts to create economic opportunity, spur innovation and solve geopolitical problems. 

Conventional wisdom holds that China’s strengths are in central planning and its strong grip on private industry, particularly of strategic technologies. China’s pioneers have strong positions in distributed sensing, computer vision, other kinds of artificial intelligence, and large-scale computation, all of which enable widespread surveillance. That surveillance, when combined with cross-dataset control mechanisms such as China’s social ratings program, enabled China’s control of social media and technology and allowed the CCP to carefully craft its narrative and assert dominance over citizens. 

The coronavirus crisis is laying this perception of dominance to waste. The Chinese government’s inability to stop, or even acknowledge, what ultimately became a global pandemic early enough led to truly catastrophic damage to China’s image and to the global economy. The CCP was slow to respond and simultaneously overbearing in its media censorship. The result was leaks — hundreds of them — about health care system failures, fatalities and “shadow banning” that exposed the censorship practices of the CCP. Immutable data have made that plain for the world to see.

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A shift in global perception

As a direct result, public opinion of China in the U.S. has never been so low. A recent Gallup Research poll shows that 67 percent of respondents do not have a favorable opinion of China — a low not seen since the Chinese government’s 1989 crackdown on student protestors in Tiananmen Square. What’s more, China’s growth on the global economic stage largely followed a longstanding trend towards globalization, and given the massive supply chain disruptions in China that have slowed the world’s economy, that era is clearly over. 

It is easy to construct a counterfactual narrative in which China seized the opportunity of the COVID-19 crisis to enhance its position. A more transparent response to the pandemic would have united the global scientific community and elicited sympathy and support from around the world. Instead, China acted on a Cold War-era disinformation campaign fueled by social media, and its reputation has suffered as a result. In the long run, the COVID-19 pandemic will highlight why free societies ultimately perform better and are more conducive to innovation. 

The question now is whether the U.S. is too domestically focused with COVID-19, protests in the streets and the upcoming presidential elections to improve its own global image and capitalize on China’s lack of popularity.

Tim Junio is the co-founder and CEO of Expanse, a San Francisco-based software company. A former CIA analyst and DARPA consultant, he has over a decade of operational and academic experience in cybersecurity and large-scale distributed sensing. In addition to the CIA and DARPA, he has worked at RAND Corporation and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.