This was a bizarre salvo in China’s propaganda war with the United States over the coronavirus, and it showcased Beijing’s latest information weaponry. Misleading spin, obfuscation, concealment, and hyperbole have been hallmarks of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda campaign, before and during the coronavirus era. But the pandemic appears to have given rise to more forceful attacks on foreign governments, as well as a new level of flirtation with outright disinformation.
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The party has never waged a global struggle quite like this one—and its battle with the U.S. over where the virus came from and whose failures made the pandemic worse have marked a serious deterioration in the two countries’ ties. Just months ago, Trump was praising Xi Jinping for how he handled the outbreak; now Trump is toying with cutting off relations with the Chinese government altogether.
Seven decades ago, Mao Zedong publicly embraced a benevolent view of propaganda, as if he were a latter-day prophet spreading the communist gospel: “We should carry on constant propaganda among the people on the facts of world progress and the bright future ahead so that they will build their confidence in victory,” he mused in 1945. Just a few months ago, Xi Jinping urged state journalists to spread “positive propaganda” for the “correct guidance of public opinion.” Indeed, Beijing’s global propaganda efforts in recent years have been more about promoting China’s virtues than about spreading acrimony and confusion, à la Russian information ops and election meddling. Moscow wants a weakened and divided West, one that leaves Russia free to dominate its self-appointed sphere of influence—but Russia in 2016 was also an economically sluggish, oil-dependent nation with an economy a tenth the size of America’s, and lacked the resources to remake the world in its image.
Beijing has a much bigger prize in mind and a much longer-term plan to get it: The contest isn’t about who gets to run the U.S. It’s about who deserves to run the world. And China, with its economy poised to overtake that of the United States, has already plowed billions into crafting an image as a responsible global leader, and billions more into cultivating global dependence on Chinese investments and Chinese markets.
“While the [Chinese Communist Party] has long sought to be a global influencer, their efforts today are aggressive and sophisticated,” Bill Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, wrote in an email. “In short, they’re looking to reshape the history of coronavirus and protect their reputation at home and around the world.”
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Before the coronavirus hit, the party was becoming bolder in its propaganda efforts overseas as China grew richer and more powerful, trying to promote around the world the orthodoxy it enforced at home, about the beneficence and goodness of the CCP. This involved publicizing Chinese investments in the developing world, arm-twisting diplomats to toe a pro-China line, ruthlessly trying to stifle even other countries’ freedom to dissent—to the point of sanctioning Norway in 2010 when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its peace prize to the imprisoned democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, who died in 2017. Xi has elevated the role of propaganda even further as he has vowed to build China’s power and prosperity, declaring, “The superiority of our system will be fully demonstrated through a brighter future.”