For the past few months, the world has undergone major changes in almost every aspects of life. Millions of people have lost their family members, millions of people are now infected, many more millions have lost their jobs, all because of the dreadful pandemic in the form of COVID-19. China, being the first country where the COVID-19 virus emerged, China is in a good position to help or guide not only leaders in Europe and the United States but all those affected by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) initial cover-up. However, till now CCP fails to share the vital information on coronavirus to any countries. Judging by the extent of the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus in 201 countries now, it is fair to say that the CCP has succeeded in its attempt to cover-up the outbreak.
During the SARS pandemic in 2002-2003, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had done a remarkable job. It was only after weeks of intense pressure from the WHO that CCP decided to reveal vital information on SARS. However, this time, WHO headed by Director General (DIR/GEN) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus failed to scrutinize CCP. Instead DIR/GEN Tedros became the point man of the CCP and President Xi Jinping.
Amid all these happenings around the world, there are few scholars who prefers to go by the impression, rather than by examination. Professor Yanzhong Huang at the Council on Foreign Relations (Washington D.C.) in his commentary titled “Xi Jinping has won the Coronavirus Crisis” recognises the successful disinformation campaign waged by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian. However it is ironic that Mr Huang’s basis for a successful disinformation campaign waged by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian is on an informal poll conducted by Chinese celebrity blogger Cui Yongyuan on twitter. Twitter is an American microblogging and social networking service on which users post and interact via messages known as “tweets”. However, this popular service is completely banned and blocked in China for the common Chinese people. Not only that, the informal poll consisting of 10,000 respondents couldn’t possibly represent the concerns of 1.4 billion Chinese people. At the time of writing this, Cui Yongyuan’s twitter account (@CuiYongYuan2020 who joined in October 2019 when now named COVID-19 was around the corner) has 25.8k followers and he happens to follow only one person, .i.e., Spokesperson Zhao Lijian. Recently Charlie Campbell from Time magazine reported that on Twitter too, there have been cases of a propaganda campaign by the CCP. Where 46% of tweets using the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia (translates as “come on China and Italy”) were generated by automated bots. According to the latest findings from Alliance for Securing Democracy, the CCP has pushed out 90,000 tweets as an information offensive war since the start of April from 200 diplomatic and state-run media accounts. Hence the authenticity of the informal poll itself is by nature questionable.
CCP’s Masked Diplomacy: Too Many Strings Attached
The “mask diplomacy” employed by the CCP is another propaganda campaign, which too has fallen flat on its face for different wrong reasons.
Because from early March to 10 April 2020, millions of face masks, surgical masks, pinprick antibody tests, ventilators, etc. supplied to Spain, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Australia, USA, Canada, Finland, and Turkey were found to be defective and unfit for use. Not only that, in the number of cases, the CCP conflated aid and sales of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to the European countries, giving an impression that everything exported from China was CCP’s aid. One cannot win the hearts and minds of people without winning their trusts. For the past few months, CCP’s trust deficit is enormously high all over the world, including China as well. Recent 2020 polls taken by the Pew research and the Gallup conclude the dramatic rise of Americans’ who had negative views on China, reaching as high as 66% in a Pew poll and 67% in a Gallup poll. Not only that even among Europeans, the picture is not rosy. China power reported that from 2016 to 2018, both Pew and BBC polling data show perception towards China across Europe to be generally negative.
Recently on 14 May 2020, Lowy Institute released its poll results called COVIDpoll. The report found that: most Australians (68%) are less favourable towards China’s system of government as an authoritarian one-party state when thinking about the COVID-19 outbreak and China’s response to it. Hence, the CCP’s initial cover-up during the COVID-19 outbreak and CCP’s behaviours will further lead to the jump of people having negative views on China.
Xi and CCP’s Endgame
The writings on the digital walls at home and abroad convey similar messages about the cover-up and failures of the CCP and Xi Jinping. Because of rising political backlash at home and abroad, nearly for a week, President Xi did not appear on the front page of the Party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily. It all started with Doctor Li Wenliang who shared information on Weibo (Chinese domestic version of WeChat) about the SARS like Pneumonia on his group chat. He was later prosecuted for spreading “false rumours,” followed by detaining of other seven doctors. Very soon rumours began to spread on social media and through “Xinwen Lianbo” a newscast watched by tens of millions. However despite that, Wuhan Public Security Bureau called on all netizens to not spread rumors, not believe rumors and not to fabricate rumors. On 23 January 2020 Wuhan was locked down. Soon Wuhan people realized the intensity of the virus’ outbreak and authorities’ initial cover-up and misinformation. Social media platform like Weibo, became a virtual place to vent their emotions, leading to widespread displays of anger and frustration that one rarely sees. Since most of the criticisms were directed at Wuhan authorities, central authorities lifted the censorship for one to two weeks. The death of Dr Li Wenliang because of coronavirus infection between February 6-7 further angered the Chinese people.
In fact it has sparked a level of collective anger and grief unseen on Chinese social media. The last post left by Dr. Li Wenliang on his Weibo account says: “Today the nucleic acid test result is positive. The dust has settled and the diagnosis is finally confirmed.” On his last post, Weibo users have left more than 870,000 comments. According to the New York Times correspondent Li Yuan, “only posts China’s biggest actors and pop stars can match those numbers, even those lack the visceral response that Dr. Li’s last post has drawn.” In short, even the stars couldn’t match the visceral comments left by thousand and thousands of mourners. Hence the death of Dr Li Wenliang became the most talked topic on WeChat and Weibo(China’s two biggest social media platforms) attracting millions of posts and searches and garnering an estimated 1.5bn views.
In an interview with Deutche Welle(DW), Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer based in Beijing, said: “The death of Dr. Li Wenliang became a moment of awakening for the Chinese people.” The Chinese people realized the importance of freedom of expression and access to free flow of information. It was because of an absence of these rights that led to the death of Dr. Li Wenliang and the spread of the coronavirus in China. Hence the demand for freedom of speech and expression became the most searched for and the subject of most posts on Weibo. The screenshots of posts on Weibo is captured and posted by Muyi Xiao a reporter at Visual Investigations of the New York Times (twitter account @muyixiao), on her twitter posts, where she writes: “It’s 5 am in China right now , but many people did not sleep tonight— “I want freedom speech” started to trend on Weibo from 1 am and now has nearly 2 million views. Her another twitter post says: “While hashtag “we want freedom of speech” got censored,” we DEMAND freedom of speech” started trending. The popularity of the topic began to surge from 6 am in China, around when the other hashtag got censored. It got ~3 million views.h/t @shenlulushen.”
Hence, the digital wall in China became China’s wailing Wall for the Chinese people to share their sadness, frustration and aspirations with someone they trusted and loved. These frustrations are not limited to the cyberspace. It extends beyond the digital wall.
Around two months before Guardian posted a video on 5 March 2020, where Vice-premier and member of 19th Politburo Standing Committee, Sun Chunlan who was inspecting, being heckled by the residential community in the Qingshan district of Wuhan. Hence this incident hinted a growing frustration and distrust towards the CCP and top leaders as well. Five days later, for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak, President Xi Jinping physically visited Wuhan. By then the COVID-19 epidemic had turned into a pandemic.
Around one month before, Reuters got a whiff of alleged internal report prepared by China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of State Security, China’s top Intelligence body. The report concluded that global anti-China sentiments is at its highest since Tiananmen Square crackdown and likelihood of confrontation with America. If one recalls, Tiananmen Square crackdown occurred within China leading to the global backlash. However, this time it is totally different scenario. The repercussion of the CCP’s cover-ups and disinformation over the COVID-19 has brought the global economy to its knees leading to the infection of over 4 million and killed around 298,322 people worldwide.
In the following months to come, the impacts of the coronavirus will be felt more sharply across the economic and political systems of China. Xi’s dream project Belt and Road Initiative too will be tested. In short, the crises for President Xi Jinping and the CCP has just begun and their party is about to get over.
Tenzin Tsultrim, PhD, is a former research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute, a think tank of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala, India.