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China: Rewriting the History of COVID-19

Making the government the improbable hero of the tale

As the world reels amid the COVID-19 (formerly, coronavirus) pandemic, the government of China wants us to know that 1) the virus didn’t originate in China and 2) President Xi stopped it in its tracks. And that we should all be thankful to him.

The people of the city of Wuhan, where the virus was first identified, have expressed anger at the decision to censor doctors who warned the public about a SARS-like virus and to delay issuing a warning that the virus was contagious. Although the first case was identified around December 10, 2019, for seven weeks, local officials did nothing to inform Wuhan residents or curb travel in and out of the city. On the contrary, they carried on with their plans for an annual congress in January, thereby creating doubt as to whether concern was justified.

Dr. Li Wenliang, who was punished for letting colleagues know of the new pathogen on December 30, has since died of what is now officially called COVID-19, leaving behind a wife and young children. Many Chinese regard him as a martyr; thus any mention of him on WeChat is censored by the government as a “public opinion incident”:

The coronavirus epidemic has been a serious test of the Chinese Communist Party’s capacity to “guide public opinion,” a phrase it uses to describe the work of controlling and redirecting information in order to maintain political stability and the Party’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Efforts by an often rigid and unresponsive Party-state media system to turn the tide of criticism away from the government have often backfired, encouraging anger and resentment with the leadership’s apparent interest in managing appearances over acknowledging and grappling with problems.

David Bandurski, “When propaganda bites back” at China Media Project (March 8, 2020)

Dr. Ai Fen , director of emergency at Wuhan Central Hospital, has recently come out with more information in an interview on how the Chinese government censored any reports on the coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak:

On 30 December, after seeing several patients with flu-like symptoms and resistant to usual treatment methods, Ai received the lab results of one case, which contained the word: “Sars coronavirus.” Ai, reading the report several times, says she broke out into a cold sweat.

Lily Kuo, “Coronavirus: Wuhan doctor speaks out against authorities” at The Guardian (March 11, 2020)

She took a photo of the lab report and sent it a colleague from medical school at another Wuhan hospital. The photo, shared by Li Wenliang, was circulated among several medical groups. The result? The doctors were reprimanded for “spreading rumors” and “harming stability.”

Against this backdrop, the people of Wuhan were asked to undergo “gratitude education,” to learn how to thank President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China for saving them from the virus. Many chose to voice their outrage on Weibo and WeChat instead, mainly directed at Wuhan party secretary Wang Zhonglin for proposing the idea (Lily Kuo The Guardian, March 9, 2020)

Wang’s statements met with such public backlash that the state-controlled Wuhan newspaper, Changjiang Daily, was told to remove the offending article. Bandurski terms this “a full-blown public opinion crisis for the Party and the wound was self-inflicted.”

Bandurski sees the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to control and redirect information “in order to maintain political stability and the Party’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public” as counterproductive:

Efforts by an often rigid and unresponsive Party-state media system to turn the tide of criticism away from the government have often backfired, encouraging anger and resentment with the leadership’s apparent interest in managing appearances over acknowledging and grappling with problems.

David Bandurski, “When propaganda bites back” at China Media Project (March 8, 2020)

Making the government the hero of the tale

Chinese scientists worked together swiftly and seamlessly to sequence the virus, (completed February 25), even as the government was downplaying the extent of the problem and silencing doctors who attempted to warn colleagues and the public. Among other things, the sequencing team discovered that COVID-19 is probably one of the viruses that jump to humans from bats. The occasional flareups of racism in various places in the meantime seem even more unfortunate than usual, a clear case of confusing the people of China with their government.

Speaking of the government, China was on track to become a world superpower but the pandemic has forced many countries to question their increasingly cozy relationship with the economic powerhouse. As a result, the propaganda department is sending the embarrassing history of the virus back for a global rewrite:

The world is facing a potential global economic recession that can trace its roots to specific decisions by Chinese authorities. Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to prevent that narrative from taking hold.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “ Beijing’s coronavirus propaganda blitz goes global” at Axios (March 11, 2020)

The government’s two major talking points are:

  • The coronavirus did not necessarily originate in China. The propaganda department is saying that the virus was discovered in China, but originated elsewhere. And that those who say the virus started in China have political or racist motives. (Evidence from other sources traces the virus to an animal market in Wuhan.)
  • China’s excellent response to the virus bought time for the rest of the world. Considerable evidence shows that official attempts to hide the extent of the virus in the crucial early days of the outbreak in December led to it getting out of control and spreading widely.

Bitter Winter, an online magazine that reports on religious persecution in China, reports that leaked government documents sent to Chinese embassies tell staff to call the pathogen the “Italian virus” or the “Iranian virus” in a none-too-subtle attempt to distance China’s rulers from its spread. The documents also forbid any mention of the origin of COVID-19 in China. And they don’t forget to put in a plug for autocracy:

The CCP-controlled media keep explaining that democratic countries could not have taken such decisive measures against [the virus] as China did, because Western-style democracy limits the powers of the governments. This should prove, once again, the superiority of the Chinese non-democratic system.

Massimo Introvigne, “De-Sinicizing the Virus: How CCP Propaganda is rewriting history” at Bitter Winter (March 9, 2020)

Furthermore, journalists in China who spoke to Bitter Winter on condition of anonymity, said they are required to print the story the government wants them to print irrespective of known facts. For example, if the government wants them to say everyone is going back to work and the viral spread has been curbed, they must report that.

According to one of their sources:

The guiding principle for reporting now is to show the public support for the government’s policy that businesses have to return to work… But media outlets can’t, under no circumstances, report that some of the returned people have a fever and are suspected of being infected because this would be against the policy that people should return to work… As China’s news outlets, in essence, serve the regime, you can only read whatever news the government allows you to read, and you have to think in a way it allows you to think.

Zhang Feng, “Media Reports about Coronavirus Heavily Censored in China” at Bitter Winter (March 17, 2020)

However incredulously such messages may be received outside China and its environs, the propaganda that the virus did not originate there seems to be taking hold within the country. Some friends of mine who live overseas have found that in China and nearby Asia-Pacific countries, foreigners are subject to discrimination because people believe the virus came from foreigners. In China, many fear that foreigners will “bring the virus back” and undermine the government’s efforts to eradicate it.

And, to further cement the official narrative, China is also publishing a book about how Xi Jinping’s leadership defeated the coronavirus:

Party officials have tried to spin the crisis as a testament to the strength of China’s authoritarian system and its hard-line leader, Xi Jinping, even announcing plans to publish a book in six languages about the outbreak that portrays him as a ‘major power leader’ with ‘care for the people.’

Javier C. Hernandez, “China Spins Coronavirus Crisis, Hailing Itself as a Global Leader” at New York Times (February 28, 2020/updated March 3, 2020)

While declaring victory over the virus, China has expelled American journalists from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post (New York Times, March 18, 2020).

These aggressive efforts at controlling the narrative indicate that the Chinese government is worried about the fallout from its management of the pandemic. Elizabeth C. Economy, Director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times that the rebranding is a “a last-ditch effort by Xi to deflect blame and avoid a demand by the international community for an honest accounting of what actually transpired.” He must hope that the world has a very short memory.


More from Heather Zeiger: on the role lack of transparency has played in the spread of the pandemic:

Further reading on COVID-19 in China (Heather Zeiger)

Coronavirus in world without trust In China, medical heroism thrives despite both paranoia and justified mistrust of authorities.

Censorship? But coronavirus doesn’t care! Back when SARS was a threat, social media wasn’t the giant it is today. Censorship, secrecy, and detention are less effective tools of control now.

and

Serious media in China have gone strangely silent. With a compulsory new app, the government can potentially access journalists’ phones, both for surveillance and capturing data. Liu Hu sums up the scene in a few words: “Outside of China, journalists are fired for writing false reports… Inside China, they are fired for telling the truth.”


Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

China: Rewriting the History of COVID-19