China’s COVID-19 crisis may have peaked, but the propaganda machine is just getting started

Foreign Affairs

Even without the propaganda, China’s apparent success in containing COVID-19 is changing the global conversation.

Per the Economist (porous paywall), Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 “may find it hard to choose his moment to declare complete success. As people gradually get back to work, there is a risk that the virus may begin to spread more widely again in China.”

Nonetheless, the peak of the outbreak in China is “over,” according to China’s National Health Commission, Xinhua noted today (here in Chinese). The latest numbers show China reporting 80,932 infections: Only eight cases were reported in the epicenter, Hubei Province, on Wednesday. There were seven other new cases, “but six were imported from overseas.”

As the Party’s confidence grows that it has handled the crisis competently, propaganda organizations have got their work cut out for them to reshape the narrative about COVID-19, both in China and abroad.

The conspiracy theory that the virus did not originate in China — already encouraged by Chinese government officials, including top Chinese epidemiologist Zhōng Nánshān 钟南山, for more than a week now — is still being pushed.

The Trumpish, tweeting new Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 today once again suggested, “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” on Twitter. There is some evidence that Chinese embassies have been given instructions to refer to the “Italian virus” or “Japanese virus” in their communications.

China is also emphasizing its efforts to offer aid and advice to other countries. While these efforts are to be commended, they are very much part of a messaging program, as you can see in articles like this Xinhua piece.

Some domestic propaganda efforts seem to be failing: See Thank the government for controlling the virus? No, they should be thanking us on Caixin.

Even without the propaganda, China’s apparent success is changing the global conversation. While some global public-health officials had warned that China’s “iron-fisted approach ignored world-wide norms for responding to epidemics and could make things worse,” now “the nation’s hard-line response to the pathogen is challenging decades of conventional wisdom about how best to handle infectious diseases,” according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall).

Other COVID-19 news:

“Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong are ramping up their quarantine measures for those arriving from overseas,” reports Caixin. The norm is 14 days of compulsory isolation.

COVID-19 has “changed the conversation about Chinese journalism,” according to Sixth Tone:

Although Caixin has arguably gotten the most attention, a number of other respected but long-torpid publications, including China Newsweek and Sanlian Life Week, have also published detailed, hard-hitting reports from Wuhan. They’ve covered everything from residents going untreated as hospitals struggled to cope with a deluge of patients to malfeasance and incompetence at a local Red Cross Society of China branch.

—Jeremy Goldkorn