By Ingrid Jiménez
Arrests, deportation of correspondents, delaying tactics towards the WHO and “international cooperation” are the components of Beijing’s disinformation strategy around the lethal virus enabling the expansion of its influence in the world.
Since the news of the respiratory virus affecting the city of Wuhan, China, in an already distant-looking January 2020, many questions have remained unanswered. The opacity and secrecy of the Chinese government regarding the coronavirus delayed the global response to this dangerous virus which, in a very short time, spread around the world and became a pandemic.
The first known case of censorship regarding the virus was that involving young ophthalmologist Li Wenliang (subsequently dying of coronavirus), who was reprimanded and forced to apologize just for issuing a warning about the lethal virus in a chat room.
As COVID-19 spread across Wuhan, citizen journalists began to probe what was going on behind the nonexistent official explanation. Zhang Zhan was one of the citizen journalists who went to Wuhan and began posting on social media her perception of what was happening in the city, showing the situation stemming from the virus in hospitals. Shortly thereafter, Zhan was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison under charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
Not only were citizen journalists and local reporters silenced, but foreign correspondents were also severely affected by restrictions on access to information. At the outset of the pandemic, the Chinese government expelled 16 correspondents, including journalists from such U.S. newspapers as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
Shortly before these deportations, the Trump administration decided to reduce the number of Chinese nationals authorized to work for their country’s media in the United States. The purpose of this measure was to prevent the propagandistic activity of these outlets.
As if this were not enough, the Chinese government restricted the information provided to the World Health Organization (WHO) and, exactly one year after the agency’s request to visit Wuhan, the government granted entry in February 2021. The objective of the mission, which worked with Chinese experts for a month, was to investigate the source of COVID-19.
The mission completed its work amid diplomatic tensions between the United States and the Asian country. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned that the conclusions of the experts’ report should be free from “alteration by the Chinese government”.
The head of the WHO experts, Peter Ben Embarek, pointed out the need to gather more data directly, especially on such diseases as pneumonia, influenza, and fever occurring in the city of Wuhan in the months prior to the start of the pandemic.
The truth is that, regardless of the outcome of the WHO mission, Chinese diplomacy – thanks to its total control over information in the country – has cunningly reduced the impact of suspicions of opacity on addressing the pandemic, by highlighting a positive narrative and cooperation with the international community. Chinese experts were sharing their healthcare expertise with numerous countries, tons of medical supplies were sent and various donations were made, which contributed to rapidly changing the perception of China worldwide.
Colombia-based international relations expert, Prof. Vladimir Rouvinski, claims that COVID-19 allowed authoritarian countries to refine repressive practices targeting their citizens and their information strategies targeting the West. As for China, its narrative is aimed at downplaying the efforts and measures of other governments to fight the pandemic, especially those of Europe and the United States, reaffirming its anti-Western discourse.
The situation regarding COVID-19 also reinforced the official narrative according to which the Chinese model is superior to liberal democracy. In practical terms, this translates into stressing how rapidly China defeated the virus compared to its Western counterparts.
China’s strategy of cooperation and solidarity towards Latin America, in the context of the pandemic, will translate into a substantial increase in the Asian country’s influence across region in the medium term. This goes beyond the already existing strong economic ties and increases its standing as a major player in the future stability of the region.
China has managed to reverse a seemingly nightmare scenario at the beginning of the pandemic, which threatened to damage its patiently earned prestige. The control over information coming out the country and the use of propaganda are paying off.