China was hit by the Covid-19 outbreak at the least convenient time this year. The disease spread across the country in January and its epicenter moved to Europe in March. The Chinese authorities claim the coronavirus has been successfully contained, the state media praise the way CCP dealt with the crisis and portray it as an example to the world.
„The results of the prevention and control work have once again demonstrated the notable advantages of the leadership of the CCP and the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.“
That is how Xi Jinping evaluated the outcome of the very strict measures Beijing implemented in Hubei province and to various extent all around China to prevent and control the spread of the Covid-19 disease. This happened one month after the new coronavirus outbreak had been officially detected in Wuhan. Xi Jinping praised the way CCP dealt with the situation while critical comments were censored on social media and so-called citizen journalists’ accounts went silent – Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi both disappeared around the time when the death toll in China exceeded the one from SARS epidemic and Beijing launched its propaganda campaign claiming that things were under control.
Now, when the epicenter of the outbreak moved from Wuhan to northern Italy and the disease is spreading very quickly across Europe, Chinese state media continue to assure the Chinese public that the epidemic has been successfully managed and the nation can now focus on bolstering the economy which according to Xi Jinping “won’t be affected by the outbreak” while the global growth will be hit very hard.
The successful containment of Covid-19 in China is not the only aspect the CCP-controlled media underline in their articles. Beijing is also trying to not only shift the blame to the United States as the original “source” of the new virus, but also to come out as much more competent in comparison with Western democracies whose response to the outbreak seems to be failing as number of victims in Italy is rising by hundreds daily.
Only thanks to CCP, only thanks to Xi
China passed the peak of the epidemic within less than two months since the official recognition of the outbreak. The measures of containment and prevention it implemented were undoubtedly effective. Nevertheless, the central government fails to admit it underestimated the situation in the beginning and commented on the new virus only on January 20 when it was too late to get the situation under control. Instead of a prompt start to deal with the new circumstances before it has worsened to a severe level, the authorities were busy silencing those who warned the public. Whistleblowing doctors were detained by the police for “spreading false rumors” and “seriously disrupting social order.” The CCP, however, cannot see anything it might have done differently, as the state-run media are spreading only praise on Xi Jinping’s leadership in the “people’s war” against the coronavirus.
According to Xinhua News Agency, China proceeded correctly and responsibly in the battle against the virus from the beginning – the biggest news agency even offers an itemized list of things China did right. Among other things, the list includes an assurance that the CCP’s initial response was accurate and those lower-level “local officials who failed their responsibility in containing the epidemic were fired and replaced.” Here we can see one of the patterns often seen in Chinese crisis scenarios repeating itself – the blame for the initial failure to prevent the spread of the virus is shifted to the lower-level officials, who also faced a dose of criticism on social media since late January. This public admonishment was tolerated as it was shifting the blame away from the CCP leadership. The central government could therefore later take credit for the victory in the battle against Covid-19 and present it as another indication of the “superiority of the Chinese one-party system.”
In Xinhua’s case, it seems it simply cannot be stressed enough that “the coronavirus’s defeat would not be possible without the unified and strong leadership of the CCP” with Xi Jinping as the commander-in-chief and the “backbone of the battle.” “Party leadership, Chinese people, openness and transparency, technology and science, early treatment, cooperation with the international community, and targeted and agile approach” formed an acronym “PROTECT” on which example Xinhua shows the key to victory, underlining the advantages of China’s political system in dealing with crises like this.
According to the article, China proved to be a responsible country as it “from the start acted openly and transparently in releasing relevant information to the world and seeking international cooperation to prevent the spread of the epidemic worldwide.” Now when the EU is more affected by the Covid-19 outbreak while the number of newly confirmed cases in China keeps shrinking and “imported cases” outnumbered domestically-transmitted cases, it is quite easy for Beijing to sustain the levels of praise for the government’s response and efforts to help the world while preventing the novel coronavirus from “re-entering” China.
Beijing saving the world?
The praise for China and its leadership is visible all over the Chinese media, and it is not coming only from inside of the country, but also from abroad. The articles on the Xinhua website feature “overseas experts” from Greece, Egypt or Russia praising the “responsible reaction” of the Chinese regime and the outcomes it has reached as well as the Xi Jinping’s “responsibility and care about his people.” The articles also quote foreign experts or officials saying that the prompt action coming from the CCP helped the rest of the world to gain time before the disease spread across the Chinese borders. Moreover, some of them claim that the experience China has gained while containing the virus within its territory is now crucial for the countries where the outbreak is yet to reach its peak.
The official Weibo account of China Global Television Network (CGTN) as well as Global Times both shared a piece of news showing Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić pleading for Beijing’s help during a state of emergency caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. “Vučić emphasized that during difficult times, Serbia cannot pin its hopes on the European Union, and the only one who will extend a helping hand to Serbia is China,” reads the article then providing the readers with numbers of surgical masks and ventilators that are ready to be sent to Serbia as a form of assistance. The comment section under the Weibo post is full of messages from Chinese netizens who pity the president of “former Yugoslavia”, shame “big countries like the USA” and praise their own country for its competence.
Similarly, People’s Daily shared a piece of news about Italians sending warm messages of gratitude to China on Facebook. The post shows screenshots of the official Facebook account of the Chinese embassy in Rome and China Eastern Airlines and the comment section under a post about China aiding Italy. While some comments on Weibo were sympathetic towards Italy and proud of China to help, others were not as encouraging: “Now we help Italy which ridiculed Chinese two days ago, I doubt they will remember our help.” The same attitude can be seen also in other posts and articles regarding aid to European countries, like the Czech Republic which was “unfriendly towards China before” and now is seeking help with “cheeky face.” The article mentions briefly all the “serious misconducts” Prague has committed since its new mayor Zdeněk Hřib was elected by the City Assembly in autumn 2019 as well as the “impudence” not to invite China to the international expert conference on the security of 5G networks which was held in Prague last May. “We must resolutely crack down on countries with anti-Chinese sentiments,” says the author stressing out the need to “distinguish love and hate between countries.”
Moreover, China Daily shared an article about China donating two types of traditional medicine which is believed to be “anti-epidemic” (抗疫中药) to European countries. “Chinese medical experts have brought a large amount of medical supplies to Italy, Iraq and other countries,” reads the report. Nonetheless, not every comment is supportive of the government’s decision to help other countries. In the comment section under a post about China providing surgical masks to Italy for a very low price, some netizens expressed their disagreement: “If there’s no business going on, what is the relationship between two countries even about? What help? Is Italy a province of China?” asks one of the netizens while others point out that there is a shortage of masks in China as well and “the government does not care about it.”
The state-run media do not only share news about Chinese know-how, testing kits, medical material and technology to be sent to the countries heavily affected by the pandemic, including South Korea, the Philippines, Iran, Iraq or Italy, Spain and the rest of the EU, but they also provide space for criticism towards the “incompetent West”.
The West to blame: US army bringing Covid-19 to Wuhan?
An article published by Global Times about Sweden being “extremely irresponsible” and labeling it “the first country to harm the world” can be one of the examples. The article which also compares the health care systems of Sweden and China in terms of capacity as well as their quality, stresses that China managed to overcome the epidemic and “never gave up” unlike Sweden whose decision “is a serious violation of humanitarian principles and it is shocking to witness a developed European country that advertises democracy and human rights to act in this way.” The author also referred to Sweden as a “black hole of Europe” where the virus could spread very easily.
The article was shared by People’s Daily on its official Facebook account. Under it, netizens called the Swedish government selfish and warned others about entering the country. Some also compared Stockholm’s reaction to that of London, which according to the comments “also gave up.” This way Chinese media retort the previous criticism in the West that China’s measures to contain the epidemic and put Wuhan under lockdown were “draconian” and ignored human rights.
However, the western European countries were not the only ones to face criticism. The USA became the real villain as the US military was directly accused by the foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian of creating and spreading the pathogen in Wuhan. “When did patient zero begin in US?” Zhao asked on his popular Twitter account, urging his followers to share an allegation from a conspiracy website about the new coronavirus originating in the USA. Not long after, a hashtag with the spokesman‘s name was trending on Weibo. However, a recent study of the virus’s genome published by Nature Medicine has concluded that “SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus.”
Another trend Weibo saw since the outbreak was comparing the way Western countries have been dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak. Netizens often posted about the situation in developed democratic countries and the measures they use to contain the virus. Some of the accounts pointed out with pride that Western countries can only learn from Beijing’s experience and “copy China’s homework (抄中国作业)”– to implement the same measures as China to successfully slow the epidemic down. Moreover, some were saying other countries were lucky that the virus was initially detected in Wuhan since China effectively managed to get the outbreak under control and now it “saves the world.” Others wondered why the developed world is “not able to copy the homework” China has already done “for them.”
The Global Times also instigated the USA “to learn from China,” quoting a professor at Renmin University of China Wang Hongwei saying that the USA is being slowed down by its “overconfidence and lack of knowledge on the virus.” Another article says “Washington’s performance does not deserve its global influence” as it has not shown any proactive attitude in containing the virus. CCTV similarly published a commentary defending China from “absurd arguments” made by the USA that “alleged the virus originated in China and demanded an apology” from Beijing. The author argues that “if there is anyone who owes the world an apology, it must be those who spread ‘political virus’ that smears Chinese people’s efforts against the epidemic and jeopardizes global solidarity.” Moreover, the Global Times turns its attention towards the situation in Europe, which it says is “far from optimistic” as some countries “do not take the situation seriously” and are being “led by the nose, with their moves always being one step after the spread of the virus.”
The Chinese regime or any other authoritarian regime in the world has not been known for its honesty or transparency with its citizens nor the outside world, especially when an unpredictable crisis takes over. The Chinese media have no choice but protect Beijing’s image, as they have always done. The CCP with Xi Jinping in the center is now being portrayed not only as very strong and competent but also as a savior of the world, as it is sharing its know-how and supplies with the Western countries. The regime has already seen it might be difficult to teach its own citizens how to correctly express their gratitude towards the Party. Teaching the rest of the world won’t get any easier.
Klára Dubravčíková is a CEIAS Research Fellow.