The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is infamous for suppressing any public freedoms that threaten its political control, marked by mass surveillance and “re-education camps” in Xinjiang and Tibet. Preceded by such a poor record on freedom of expression, the CCP’s censorship has reached a new low in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. The government covered up the initial reports of the virus in Wuhan, exposing Chinese citizens — and then the world — to a calamity that could have been significantly diminished in magnitude.
When the rumors of a SARS-like virus in Wuhan started spreading on social media, the CCP downplayed the gravity of the outbreak and detained whistleblowers who warned about the disease. In late December, several Chinese genomics companies discovered similarities between the unknown disease and SARS, and around the same time, the late Dr. Li Wenliang sent a message to his colleagues warning them about its potential human-to-human transmission. But the warning signs of a deadly outbreak, however, were largely kept from the public. After reporting the results to the Hubei Provincial Health Commission, companies were ordered to stop testing any related cases and to destroy all existing samples. Moreover, Dr. Li was investigated by the police for “making false comments” and “spreading rumors”. Chinese central government officials only formally recognized cases of human-to-human transmission on January 20, seven weeks after the first case of the coronavirus was reported. Three days later, they ordered the lockdown of Wuhan, but that was after five million people had already left the city. A study by the University of Southampton estimates that intervention by China one, two, or three weeks earlier could have reduced coronavirus cases in China by 66, 86, and 95 percent respectively. It is evident that the delayed response by the Chinese officials accelerated the course of the pandemic.
It has been shown during the pandemic that the CCP not only censors information but also controls the dissemination of information — or, what many would call, misinformation. While the rest of the world now struggles to fight against the coronavirus, China is struggling to repaint its initial lack of response. The CCP recently deployed 300 reporters to Wuhan to report uplifting stories about the government’s battle against the coronavirus. Numerous Chinese state-run media sources are actively generating propaganda, appealing to nationalism and praising Xi Jinping’s actions against the outbreak. For instance, Xinhua reported that “the People’s Liberation Army dared to fight hard, becoming an indispensable force in the heroic city’s anti-epidemic army.” The even more alarming reality, however, is that China’s propaganda machine is global. China’s use of many social media platforms banned in the country, is an example of the government’s attempt to shift the global narrative of its lack of response against COVID-19. On March 12, Chinese Foreign Spokesman Zhao Lijian republished a video of the US Congressional committee on Twitter, commenting, “It might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be Transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” Other Chinese state media such as CCTV and Global Times followed by reposting the video, fueling the conspiracy theory on the origins of the coronavirus. With rising controversy on the matter, China’s Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai clarified his stance, calling the conspiracy theory “crazy”. In contrast to such controversy, Chinese state run media also feature more subtle propaganda, such as emotional YouTube videos of doctors reunifying with their families, as well as videos of foreign officials praising China’s response to the pandemic. Moving stories of ordinary people, though seemingly benign, is the crux of China’s propaganda generating “positive energy” to mitigate public discourse and promote national solidarity.
A beacon of hope remains, however, as Chinese journalists and citizens fight for their right to freedom of speech. Reporters have been seeking creative methods of coverage, such as focusing on mistakes by local officials rather than national leaders in order that they remain uncensored, and sharing sources with rival organizations. Regular internet users are also endeavoring to bypass the infamous “Great Firewall of China” by using emojis, morse code, and obscure language to bring censored stories back to life on the web. The government’s rare admission of error regarding the improper treatment of Dr. Li seems to be a result of such unprecedented public outrage. However, the relaxation of the CCP’s stringent controls undoubtedly requires a much greater challenge than public dissent. Recent reports from 60 Minutes Australia are raising suspicion that Dr. Ai Fen, another whistleblower of the initial outbreak, may have disappeared after an interview where she criticized her hospital’s dismissal of the early signs of the coronavirus. China’s censorship campaign is just as enduring as the pandemic.
There is a Chinese idiom, “yi shou zhou tian,” that means blocking out the sky with one hand and pretending it is not there. Despite the consequences of the cover-up of the SARS coronavirus back in 2003, the Chinese government is regressing to authoritarian measures more than ever, censoring information and disseminating misinformation on a global scale. Of course, this is not to suggest that the blame for the pandemic should be placed on a single country; many other governments also downplayed COVID-19, throwing away the little time left to put a brake on this accelerating crisis. However, such a systematic and manipulative campaign of misinformation with ramifications of this magnitude is unparalleled. The CCP must recognize that while their continued censorship may prevent short term political repercussions, it will undermine the little credibility they retain in the global political landscape. China stands at crossroads that will redefine or reinforce its infamous identity. But the chances for change are bleak.