Many have surely heard the claim that in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters: one representing danger and the other, opportunity.
Even though people with good knowledge of the Chinese language (unlike myself) have long since dismissed this as a misinterpretation, the Chinese government and their authoritarian friends in the Kremlin seem to have adopted its message during the outbreak of the coronavirus.
According to the World Health Organization, the COVID-19 pandemic was followed by an information pandemic of lies and rumors spreading all across the world.
The coronavirus originated from so-called wet markets in China, and the initial outbreak in the city of Wuhan was followed by a deliberate cover-up from the Chinese authorities. This is a matter of fact, not opinion. We can now see how the same authority that detained the Wuhan doctor, Li Wenliang – an honorable man who tried to raise awareness about the deadly disease and subsequently died from it – and keeps close to 1 million of its citizens in “reeducation” camps for the crime of being Muslim, is trying to weaponize the language of racism against any attempts to rightfully criticize the Chinese state for its culpability.
If this was not bad enough, official Chinese government channels are also engaged in a disinformation campaign that the U.S. Army somehow introduced the virus.
These kinds of lies are disgusting, but also, unfortunately, rather clever. The Chinese communist party is fully aware how sensitive accusations of racism are in America. We have seen how they have previously, rather successfully, employed them against voices that raise awareness on Chinese human rights violations, its policies against Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, the Uighurs, etc.
Accusing the U.S. military for being behind COVID-19 bears an eerie resemblance to the KGB-instigated conspiracy theory that AIDS was created in CIA-run labs. Dubbed Operation Infection (was the department of creative names on holiday?), this fairytale is still believed by some today despite being debunked decades ago.
Speaking of Russia, an internal EU-report shows how Russian propaganda channels, such as Sputnik and RT, are pushing stories that undermine trust in European health care systems, thus making an effective response to the virus harder. They also claim that capitalists behind big pharma are working to benefit from the virus, a trope that always finds an audience. As usual, Russian propaganda often goes for many different themes that sometimes contradict each other. The goal is not to convince, but to confuse.
China’s motives are easy to figure out. As a rising power, they are trying to clean up their reputation at home and abroad. As far as Russia, they would simply never miss an opportunity to undermine Western societies. The Kremlin also desperately wants to draw attention away from the upcoming trial on the MH17-crash, since all the evidence points to Russia being responsible for downing the plane. What both of these authoritarian governments share is a fear that their citizens might one day get tired of the oppression. Truth is, therefore, more deadly to them than COVID-19.
Is this the right time to blame China? Yes, it is. A recent study shows that if Chinese authorities had acted against the coronavirus three weeks earlier than they did, the number of cases could have been reduced by 95%. Its geographic spread would then have been limited instead of hitting close to 100 countries. As early as 2007, in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak, Chinese experts tried to warm the authorities that the country’s wet markets were “a time bomb,” and that a new virus was bound to originate from them. Unless we want to see this kind of crisis every decade, some things in China have to change.
A new study from the Swedish think tank the Stockholm Free World Forum shows how the Chinese are picking up some of the propaganda tricks used by the Russians – flooding the information space with falsehoods. Those here who believe calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” is racist seem not to grasp how propaganda works. Whereas concerns over Chinese people in the West becoming targets are understandable, we must also realize that not pushing back against China’s attempts to avoid guilt risks their lies about the virus becoming entrenched. In most parts of the world, people don’t know or care much about Western political correctness or “wokeness” and see instead, emphatic claims from China being met with a lack of resolve.
Besides that, there are other things we can do better to stop an information pandemic. Western journalists need to treat statements from state-run propaganda channels like Global Times, Sputnik and RT for what they are – not a news source but a tool for those governments to promote authoritarianism over democracy. Communication from our leaders and authorities about the virus also needs to be stringent in order not to spread unnecessary confusion in addition to not provide our enemies with ammunition.
Our goal is to stop the coronavirus and save people. Unfortunately, we know that dictators care only about staying in power and never miss an opportunity to secure that. Even if it means using lies that can kill.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.