07 May 2020

The world in „hutong”. Propaganda during coronavirus

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

No context, not even an armed conflict matches the use of propaganda techniques better than the one created by the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus is not properly analyzed, people still debate on the moment, place and reason of its emergence, it is still unclear how it works, how we will get rid of it and when will that happen or how will the world look after its end. It is like a true war the humankind is having against this “invisible enemy”, as called by president Trump, that also seems to be faced, even by the strongest countries, concurrently with their own bilateral ideological, economic, political and diplomatic conflicts. It is easy to sell propagandistic messages during difficult times, as people are more vulnerable, they only think the exceptional, they go behind catchphrases or scenarios, just like in a “hutong” – the small old Beijing streets – even if, there is a tangible world out there, easier to verify and better built. And particularly because it is easy – everyone, but especially the key players, US and China – are using propagandistic methods to transform their defeats in victories, their delays in preventive measures and their shortcomings in well-intended austerity.

Image source: Profi Media

When “seasonal influenza” turned into a pandemic

The China crisis initially looked like a medical crisis to US, but it quickly turned into a political matter. From a seasonal influenza, “which will pass” it turned into a diagnostic of the regime. Analysts quickly started to talk about how this crisis will create troubles for the Beijing regime, from an ideological perspective, affecting the authoritarian system, yet they did not pay attention to the medical, and later economic, consequences that this may have, if they will not limit virus’s spread.

Virus’s characteristics delayed the response and, then, it turned to be hardly manageable: it spreads easily but, at the same time, selectively. Most of the carriers are, also, asymptomatic, therefore they do not know when they are infected and they do not seem affected.

It took two-three weeks until China understood the seriousness of the moment and started to act. Other states, which observed Beijing’s measures just as watching a horror movie, needed more than a month. Even so, when there were already clear the easiness the virus was spreading with and its high risks, decisions were late.

When the situation in the US and other Western states became serious, many officials responsible with managing the situation, the same who hoped the virus will stop before crossing the Chinese borders, came back for explanations to China’s few “lost” weeks, at the beginning of the crisis. The approach allows to move the blame and to hide indecisions in terms of the measures that could have limited the epidemic’s spread. “If they would have done their job, we would not be here”, is the simplest explanation, adopted both from the political perspective and the common perception.

And propaganda only helps identifying a foreign offender, when in the inside things get complicated.

On the other hand, paradoxically, although the situation seems under control now in China, the only remaining cases being the ones who entered the territory from abroad, a possible comeback of the virus, predicted somewhere in the cold season, also brings the internal propaganda to a common denominator with the Western one: the new was will be foreigners’ fault.

This crisis could have been the best opportunity for states to cooperate and solve a global problem, to coordinate their national responses, complement their efforts and methods. Blaming others – here, the propagandistic techniques are intensely used – helps the political officials to justify in front of their nations, but they bring additional international tensions and allegations, which will affects the post-crisis period.

American critics…

If initially the American critics on Beijing were following the normal line- the disloyal economic competition, the authoritarian state, the human rights’ breaches – once the Covid-19 pandemic developed, the medical tendencies were added to the following messages:

- the diseases emerged in China because that’s where the environment allowed it (plus other connections with the medical and local food conditions);

-China hided for weeks the information on virus’s existence, which allowed its spread and stopped the world from taking the preventive measures;

-China minimized the loses (some analysts say were are talking about an increase, that is to multiply the official number of infections and deaths to 10), which created the false impression about the danger of the pandemic and, once more, stopped the world from adopting proper medical policies;

-China continues to show lack of transparency in terms of the researches made during the epidemic, to hide the situations where the crisis management did not as planned, which stops other countries from having all the necessary data that could help them cope better, from the medical and protection and prevention perspectives, with the disease;

-China uses its influence within the World Health Organization (the name of the current executive, the Ethiopian Tedros Ahdanom  Ghebreyesus, being particularly invoked) to impose procedures that match their crisis management method and to ignore their mistakes in the process;

The rumors spread on the official channels were also important in the allegations process between the two coasts of the Pacific. “According to sources” there were information about the Chinese army researches on the creation of a biological weapon, in a research centre from Hubei province. The Chinese reactions was mismatched, visceral, but it revealed how much Beijing was affected: we are referring to the diplomatic retorts on the intentional spread of the virus after the presence on the Chinese territory of a team of military sportsmen to a competition, which took place in 2019, in Hubei, Wuhan capital.

As the US is close to a presidential campaign, the two candidates and their teams did everything possible to connect the enemy’s name to a political initiative, a contractual relation, and a Chinese company. Any connection with China became, all of a sudden, synonymic with coming to terms with the enemy.

The problem, and not the only one, is that the US and China are already economically tied to an extent that influences how these two states work, including in their national security issues.  And important aspect was only recently revealed, in a field that influenced the current crisis: both states’ capacity to produce medical equipment and medicines, their capacity to provide the researches for the elaboration of the so-needed vaccine. And even if the US continues to be the most developed country in the field, the dependency on Chinese products is still major.

This was a revelation for many American conservatives, which then increased allegations’ level. The catchphrases like “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” became something natural. Also the allegations on China’s matching perspective with the World Health Organization on how to manage the crisis.

…and the Chinese propagandistic response

The Chinese narrative of countering questions and concerns, most of them legitimate, coming from the rest of the world, had both general approaches and one-off answers.

Another aspect is noteworthy: as the battle with Covid-19 is close to its end in China, Beijing is stepping up its propaganda campaign, engaging in fighting the allegations it faced during the pandemic. Sometimes with arguments, sometimes with threats:

the problem of the number of people infected and subsequently died as a result of the action of the virus. The figures were adjusted in Hubei Province to show that, yes, there were problems with the data management system, but to a lesser extent compared to the criticism. The message was that the measures taken, although extremely harsh, were the ones that stopped the epidemic;

the accusation that foreign aid was “dedicated” either to friendly states or to mask geopolitical ambitions. What irritated Beijing, however accustomed to these accusations, was that some accusations came from officials of partner states, such as Iran or Brazil. The feverishness with which these aids took place, combined with the inconsistency of some of the equipment, also provoked irritated responses from some international and regional organizations. The head of European diplomacy, the Spanish Josep Borrell, warned that through this "generosity policy", China is in fact trying to undermine European solidarity.

The Chinese response has been, once again, soft: the number of aid recipient states has increased, the intensity of propaganda through diplomatic missions has stabilized;

The success of fighting the crisis is attributed to the "competent and decisive" way the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party acted with. There are no nuances here, because it is about reaffirming the superiority of the specifically Chinese organization in approaching the issue. The regime needs to be legitimized internally, after the critical phase from the beginning and the immense suffering produced in the two months of blockade and fully successful externally.

In this respect, things are, paradoxically, simpler: the crisis management model, adopted by the vast majority of states, is the one used by China, and the statistical figures work in its favor.

The exceptions, such as Sweden, through the more relaxed and socially conscious regime of isolation measures, or South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, through the breadth of applied technologies and mass testing, do not change the problem’s data. These are particular examples for companies that do not fit into the general logic. The rest of the world has adopted the severe, sometimes medieval, regime of social and economic blockade used by China in Wuhan.

According to Beijing's narrative, the war on the virus is won through discipline and strength. Exactly what the Chinese authoritarian system possesses and what Western democracies are unable to implement. During his visit to Wuhan, Xi Jinping said for the ears of those who want to hear:  "daring to fight and daring to win is the Chinese Communist Party's distinct political character, and our distinct political advantage”.

● and, when it thougt that it was the case, Beijing warned that it could also act in the hard version:

- a leading representative of the Chinese leadership raised the issue of stricter products control in the pharmaceutical industry, drugs or components, which are exported to the US;

- Iranian and Brazilian officials who were critical of China's handling of the Covid-19 crisis retracted previous statements (the Iranian official returned, stating that "Chinese aid will never be forgotten");

- a European Union report on Chinese misinformation on the Covid-19 pandemic was "brought to the fore" following repeated interventions by Beijing, which threatened that its publication, in its original form, could have consequences for bilateral cooperation .

All's well, but no one knows how it ends

The propaganda war is ongoing, but there is also an optimistic side to the situation: bilateral cooperation between the parties has continued in many areas, including the identification of a medical antidote - vaccine, treatment, medicines - to combat coronavirus.

States are starting to resume their activities and the experience gained by the most affected Asian countries, China, South Korea, Taiwan, can provide the rest of the world with procedures for the use of technologies, social implementation products to further ensure physical distance, of identifying and monitoring those infected.

Some will be able to be applied with restrictions in Western states, due to the specifics of social organization and individual rights, but it is a platform that can be adapted to these "limitations" that democratic societies contain and that are the essence of their functioning.

But the invectives, public accusations exchanges will leave traces. The mutual accusations exchanges will continue to suffer losses on both sides. Some states, institutions and individuals are determined to sue China in international courts and demand huge compensation for the losses suffered during the pandemic. It is a course of action to which Beijing will probably respond with ignorance. But that will allow, for many of the possible petitioners, to identify a culprit.

On the other hand, there are messages according to which nothing will be the same as before the crisis. Dominic Raab, the British foreign minister, who was also acting prime minister for a while, even said just a few weeks ago: But there is no doubt we can't have business as usual after this crisis, and we will have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn’t have been stopped earlier”.

Maybe the questions will be asked, it is not certain, however, if they will have answers. Propaganda messages will be replaced, in part, by military operations and technology in the post-crisis period. And insecurity, not only of individuals, but even of states, could become the norm in a world that wants models and perspectives for development.

The war the Chinese leader was referring to during his visit to Wuhan is not just one against a two-week-old virus and a well-managed epidemic that ends in a few months. It is a conflict between two social, economic and political models. Who he wins the battle against the virus resets the global public agenda for the next period. And he will have the rest of the world lined up on the narrow street, the "hutong," marching to the lighted end with a piece of paper.

History is written by winners, and China wants to be, this time, among them.

Translated by Andreea Soare