Jianli Yang, a mathematician and human rights activist, survived China's Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, after which he left China for the United States where he completed PhDs at Harvard and Berkeley before establishing the Foundation for China in the 21st Century non-profit organization. He returned to China in 2002, using a friend's passport, and was jailed between 2002 and 2007 for supporting the country's labor movement. He was intermittently held in solitary confinement for a total of 15 months – as detailed in a previous IranWire interview – and he returned to the US after his release.
In the first of a new weekly series for IranWire, Jianli Yang analyses Chinese disinformation around the origin of coronavirus and its handling to date.
China faces accusations that the coronavirus originated within the country and that its actions helped it spread around the world. The resulting international pressure on China has prompted its government to respond with a propaganda campaign to protect President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and to convince the international community that China is not responsible for the outbreak and is indeed indeed helping the world to tackle the pandemic.
The Chinese government has put its top minds on these two objectives – knowing full well that international criticism will first land on the CCP and its leadership both for its mishandling of the epidemic and for allowing it to spread, especially to Europe and the United States. Media coverage around the world has focused on different aspects of the crisis and the manner in which China has responded, ranging from criticism of the timing of the Chinese lockdown, to the fact that the scale and intensity of the problem was not made public for several weeks, as well as other issues.
China is also accused of unintentionally releasing the virus into the general population – and even of wilfully and opportunistically allowing infected citizens to travel abroad with the aim of infecting the global community and crippling the world economy to China’s advantage.
The criticism has been of such a scale that the CCP has had to move quickly to try to roll back the criticism. There is little doubt that President Xi’s leadership has been challenged over the last year, not only by coronavirus but by issues such as the Hong Kong protests, an economic slowdown, and the trade war with the United States. What China is facing today is the combined pressure that has built up over the last few years – and which has exploded with the coronavirus epidemic.
The Propaganda Campaign
One of the CCP’s “top minds” brought in to address the criticism is Zhao Lijian who has been appointed as a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zhao is a Twitter expert who is known partly for becoming engaged in a Twitter dispute with former US National Security Advisor and US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, in July 2019, about the Chinese government’s internment of Uighur Muslims. Rice called him a “racist disgrace” in disgust – such is the kind of people that the Chinese government is employing to defend itself from coronavirus criticism.
Zhao alleged on his Twitter feed in March that the US had inserted coronavirus into China during the Military Games held in Wuhan in September 2019.
Chinese propaganda has also insinuated, based on statements by an Italian doctor, that the first coronavirus infections had occurred in Italy in September 2019 before the virus appeared in Wuhan. The world knows full well that the first case of coronavirus appeared on November 17, 2019 in Wuhan; but Beijing said nothing about this.
A perusal of the types of strategies adopted by China to counter criticism of its handling of the outbreak reveals that the first step in promoting a counter-narrative is to generate multiple conspiracy theories on how the virus originated. The next step is to use third-party or “gray” voices to push this narrative. The final stage is to get Chinese embassies around the world to use social media, including Twitter, to push the counter-narrative into the mainstream. This process has been going on since early February. And the objective of this exercise is to deflect criticism from the CCP for its handling of the virus – and more importantly to obfuscate the origins of the virus.
The public health emergency has exposed Xi Jinping’s totalitarian politics. Since he took power in 2012, Xi has struck fear into intellectuals, journalists, and private business people. The message is simple: be loyal to the Party or face punishment. Censorship was once fragmented across government agencies, with cracks that nimble journalists and internet users could exploit to circulate information. But now the space for free speech and civil society has been squeezed to almost zero, turning back to the time of the 1960s and 1970s Cultural Revolution.
Inside the Party, officials have been told to be absolutely loyal, and to never question Xi’s policies. This keeps government officials in line – as well crippling their ability to govern. There is no incentive to blow the whistle on anything that has gone wrong, which has created the perfect storm for a pandemic. No one in the government would ever dare to suggest, against Xi Jinping’s will, that he must act immediately and urgently.
The CCP’s errors
A state-controlled journal has revealed that Xi knew about coronavirus epidemic on January 7, and that on that day, at a meeting of the Politburo, China’s most senior leadership body, Xi gave a comprehensive order for the government to respond.
We do not know what the order was exactly – but from the government’s actions over the next two weeks we can deduce that at the heart of his order was an extensive cover-up.
During that time, in Wuhan, both city and provincial governments convened meetings with about 1,200 people attending. The local government also organized a “family banquet” for 40,000 people to celebrate Chinese New Year. And even more outrageously, on January 23, the day when the Wuhan lockdown was declared, the People’s Daily newspaper did not mention the lockdown in its coverage; instead, its headline was the news that Xi Jinping had hosted a grand new year’s party, at which he did not mention a word about Wuhan or the virus outbreak (reported via WuhanMemo.com).
Challenges to President Xi
Xi Jinping finds himself lonely at the top and surrounded by sycophants who want to merely repeat what China’s paramount leader says. Is it possible, therefore, that the Chinese leader might lose his heavenly mandate? Perhaps it is this fear that has led the state to counter any criticism of the president.
Voice of Amerca’s Chinese radio posted on WeChat, a popular social media platform in China, an open letter on March 23 which called for an “Enlarged Meeting of the CCP Politburo” to decide whether President Xi is “suitable” to continue leading the party, the country and the military. The source of this letter is not known – but clearly it reflects a particular line of thought within China today. There is some speculation that it could be the handiwork of Ren Zhiqiang, a property tycoon who has been investigated by Chinese authorities in recent months because of his strident criticism of President Xi.
Xi’s Effort to Absolve Himself
The CCP has also replaced top officials in Hubei and Wuhan in its efforts to deflect criticism away from President Xi. The leader has, more or less, absolved himself of guilt, claiming to have given instructions to fight the outbreak, without explaining the nature of those orders. Xi has said that he asked Hubei province leaders, on January 22, to “implement comprehensive and stringent controls over the outflow of people.”
The Chinese government has also increasingly restricted the use of VPNs by Chinese citizens – which internet users can employ to circumvent blocked news or social media sites. Increased efforts to stop Chinese internet users from circumventing destructions are also expected in the future.
More Challenges to Xi
Radio Free Asia has quoted the former Tsinghua University politics lecturer, Wu Qiang, as saying that more and more “princelings” (CCP elites) are diverging from Xi Jinping.
The reason for the divergence is said to be Ren Zhiqiang’s criticism. Ren's had written an article in which he quipped that "The emperor is holding up a piece of cloth, trying to cover up the fact that he is wearing no clothes at all, although his ambition to be a strong leader is naked enough." There could be no better remark to sum up Xi’s current situation.
Critiques such as these are not, by themselves, likely to have much impact on the CCP’s leadership. And in fact the counter-propaganda by the Chinese state is so huge that it will probably swamp any criticism of the Party and its leaders.
But a stigma will remain – and it will take generations of Chinese to forget the huge blunders committed by President Xi Jinping which have led to the death of not only tens of thousands of Chinese but the spread of coronavirus around the world. Recall the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Anderson; China today has an emperor with no clothes. That should be apparent!
Also in this series: