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Dragon Propaganda: How Communist China Increases its Influence During a Pandemic

China propaganda

When it comes to Chinese influence, the economy is most often mentioned: the location of multinational corporations in China, investments from China, the “One Way” project, one zone, and so on. Until recently, the illusion prevailed that Beijing had little interest in the information spaces’ presence in the Western world. But in fact, China tried harder to “silence” inconvenient narratives rather than to articulate its own.

An illustrative example is the marginalisation of the Tibetan topics. The Dalai Lama was once a respected figure in the West (for China, he is a separatist), but now Western politicians largely avoid contact with him. When the spiritual leader of Tibet went on his European voyage, only a few Lithuanian deputies dared to meet him; the rest of the representatives of the EU establishment “did not notice” this tour. The same goes for business. According to the German newspaper Die Welt, the Daimler company (owners of the Mercedes-Benz car brand) in 2018 used the words of the Dalai Lama to advertise the new Mercedes: “Look at the situation from all sides, and you will become more open.” However, after official protests of Chinese diplomats, the representatives of the company apologised for this allegedly unsuccessful advertisement.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a new stage in the spread of Chinese propaganda. Only now has Beijing relied not on the silencing discussion of certain topics, but instead on the aggressive promotion of its messages in the global, and especially the Western, information space. When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the introduction of quarantine, he said: “China’s experience shows that unpopular and tough decisions overcome the virus and save lives. The experience of other countries shows that softness and liberality are allies of the coronavirus. Therefore, we will act harshly, immediately, perhaps unpopularly, but for the sake of one thing – the life and health of Ukrainians.” After these words, the top of the Chinese Communist Party should applaud the Ukrainian leader’s standing. After all, he voiced the main theses of China’s propaganda: authoritarian China fought the epidemic most effectively, a tough hand was the best way to curb the virus, and a weak and relaxed democratic West was incapable of accepting the challenge.

The myth of a strong China that overcame the pandemic and generously helps other countries fight the coronavirus is a propaganda ploy that pushes to the background the information that China had become the first epicentre of the disease. The People’s Republic of China is an authoritarian communist country subject to severe censorship, so its official statistics should be evaluated carefully. In April of this year, Bloomberg published data from a US intelligence report that, first, Beijing initially hid information about the beginning of the epidemic, and, secondly, it reduced mortality and morbidity. An international investigation would help establish the truth, but China is aggressively resisting the very idea. When the initiative came from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, his country was threatened with a boycott of goods made in Australia, while strict tariffs were imposed, or threatened to be imposed, on Australian wheat, barley, and wine exports.

Volodymyr Zelensky is far from the only political leader who has directly expressed his admiration for Chinese methods and thanked China for its help. Controversial European leaders such as Czech President Milos Zeman and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have spoken out in support of China, thanking it for its support during the pandemic.

Billboards “Thank you, Brother Xi” even appeared in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, this spring, and AlexandarVučić , the country’s leader, speaks of China’s president as a brother. It is not just about medicines or protective equipment provided by China (often these goods are of inadequate quality, as shown by the scandal with the tests of Chinese production in Spain when these products were returned to China). Beijing operates systematically in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. If we take the above example of Serbia: the Chinese company Hesteel bought the Železara Smederevo plant there for €46 million with a commitment to invest up to $1 billion, and another company from China, Shandong Linglong Tire, will invest €800 million in Serbia by 2025 and open 1,200 workplaces. Chinese investors, unlike Western ones, care little about the country’s market transparency, the level of corruption, and government regulation. Beijing’s interest is different. Investments in Serbian metallurgy are offset by political and information bonuses. For example, at the New Author’s Film Festival in Belgrade, the film “Summer Palace,” which was directed by Lou Ye and which mentions the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, was to be shown. The appeal of the Chinese embassy to the Serbian Foreign Ministry was enough to remove the film from the festival program. Not surprisingly, during the information campaign in the midst of the pandemic, the Chinese Communists had “brothers” in Serbia.

Another way to absolve oneself of responsibility for the emergence and spread of COVID-19 is to find the culprits outside China. China’s main opponent in the modern Cold War, the United States, is best suited for this role. Celestial diplomats speak openly about the “military-bacteriological activity” of the United States abroad, particularly in South Korea. This statement was made in particular by the representative of the Chinese diplomatic mission Wang Wenbin through the Xinhua news agency on 4 August 2020. Russian propaganda makes similar narratives: the local media, as well as the Ukrainian pro-Kremlin media, spread information about secret American laboratories in Georgia and Ukraine. The purpose of such manipulations is obvious: to accuse the United States of secret experiments, which are allegedly the source of dangerous infections, and therefore to prove that COVID-19 is not of Chinese but of artificial American origin.

China has a considerable set of forces and means to advance its interests. First of all, this mission is entrusted to diplomats, who are sometimes called “wolf warriors.” They attack quite aggressively if the Western press criticises China. There have been incidents in Sweden, Germany and other countries where Chinese ambassadors had accused journalists of “stupid taste” when they dared to talk about China’s responsibility for spreading the pandemic. Such a remark was received, for example, by the German newspaper “Bild.” China also has its own “soft power.” It is represented by more than 500 Confucius Institutes around the world: in Ukraine alone, there are five such institutes. At first glance, these are just cultural and educational centres, but they are often suspected of promoting propaganda messages (silencing awkward topics and promoting Beijing-friendly narratives), in the United States they are in the field of view of the secret services. According to David Shambo, a professor of political science and international relations at George Washington University, China spends about $10 billion a year on soft power instruments. There is also the notion of “friends of China”: there can be both right-wing and left-wing criticism of the West and anti-Americanism. In this sense, Russia and China use similar approaches. Undoubtedly, the most powerful tool of Chinese influence is business. The most striking example is Huawei and its role in building the 5G network. If overseas it is often perceived as openly espionage, then in Europe, especially in Germany, it is quite friendly.

In February, at the Munich Security Conference, Edward Lucas, Senior Vice President of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), delivered a report entitled “Firming up democracy’s soft underbelly. Authoritarian influence and media vulnerability,” in which he noted that Chinese and Russian propagandists use the weak links of the open media market for propaganda purposes. According to Lucas, the only way out could be the uniform rules of the game, which would require the media to disclose their ultimate owners, increased counterintelligence attention to hostile information influences, refusal to publish advertising materials from representatives of authoritarian governments (this technique is actively used by Russian and Chinese politicians) and the development of media literacy of people.

Stepan Nazarenko is a Ukrainian journalist, publicist and volunteer. 

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