China’s epidemic of lies

Xi Jinping has not had a good coronavirus crisis.

As the epidemic exploded and quarantines were ordered, he was even absent from the front page of the People’s Daily for about a week, which is akin to the Vatican Daily failing to mention the Pope. All very odd for a strongman leader who scrapped term-limits and inserted “Xi Jinping Thought” into the Chinese constitution – almost like he wants to all the praise and none of the blame.

Then the anger when the “whistle-blower doctor” Li Wienlang died was genuine, widespread and fierce. People who ordinarily never comment on politics were taking to WeChat to protest and memorialise him. On Weibo, the Twitter-like social media app, the top two hashtags were “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want freedom of speech”. Questions about China’s mismanagement of the coronavirus – including arresting those who were raising the alarm – suggested it might have inadvertently unleashed an epidemic throughout the world

This led to rather overexcited conjecturing about the possible decline and fall of the Communist party. Would coronavirus be China’s Chernobyl? Would the scales finally fall from the eyes of 1.3billion people?

Well, no, as it turned out. At times of heightened political conflict, heated commentary is allowed for a short time. I’ve seen it following the Wenzhou high speed rail crash, the downfall of Bo Xilai, the milk contamination scandal, and when the environmental documentary Under The Dome was released (then banned). Heated denunciation is permitted, as long as the central government remains off limits, until the hammer falls once passions are vented.

So while many were undoubtedly angry, the Communist Party had several levers to pull. A political institution that has survived three years of one of the worst famines in human history, 10 years of political chaos and brutality, and a bloody, televised assault on its own students, knows a thing or two about maintaining power.

The playbook was almost predictable. But it has also been eye-poppingly audacious.

First, local leaders were canned. Disasters need their scapegoats. Zhang Jin, the party chief of Hubei health commission and Liu Yingzi, its director, were both fired. Two days later Jiang Chaoliang, the party chief for Hubei, was relieved of his post.

Then the propaganda wheels began to turn. The fight against coronavirus was presented as a great national endeavour. Other countries, the government said, should be congratulating China for its huge success. A book entitled A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combating Covid-19 in 2020, celebrating Xi Jinping’s great leadership, was prepared.

So far, so predictable. But then on Wednesday, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian claimed that “confirmed cases of #COVID19 were first found in China, but its origin is not necessarily in China” and that “We are still tracing the origin”. On the same day China Daily tweeted that:

The Huanan Seafood Market is undergoing cleaning and disinfection work in #Wuhan, #China. The wet market was once believed to be the origin of the novel #coronavirus.

“Once believed”? “Tracing the origin”? Huh?

It is clear that the origin of the epidemic is Wuhan, where 67,466 cases out of a total of 80,565 in China have been observed (as of yesterday), and to where early initial cases in other countries and provinces were traced. But the Chinese government is clearly attempting to shift the story of its origin away from Wuhan, away from China, and away from itself. How can this be happening? And why?

The how is simple. Beijing maintains a strict monopoly on information. This has been tightened continuously throughout Xi’s reign. Foreign apps and websites have been systematically blocked; social media has been emasculated (Weibo, which once helped hold leaders to account, with users for example highlighting the expensive watches of political delegates, is now a shadow of its former anarchic self); academics and think-tanks with the slightest streak of independence have been silenced. What is often called ‘state media’ in China is in fact owned by the party, and its allegiance, as Xi Jinping made clear on a visit to the CCTV news station in 2016, resides there, rather than with the people.

In this strict information ecosystem, the only significant voice belongs to the party. This means even what seem like excruciating absurdities cannot be gainsaid. Which brings us to the why – why is the Chinese government pulling this 180° manoeuvre, in the face of all science and common sense?

It’s not just a matter of national pride or of shirking blame. The Communist Party positions itself as the rejuvenator of China, with Xi making great play of “the China Dream”. Implicit in this is delivering advances in public health and hygiene. Epidemics like SARS and coronavirus undermine this both the Communist Party’s aura of competence and, more importantly, its claim to deliver modernity and development to China. Controlling this narrative is fundamental to the party’s claim to power. Thus, hints about China not being the origin of the virus allow China’s astroturfers (the wu-mao dang or “fifty-cent army”) to irradiate social media sites and infect them with disinformation.

And it works. Gerry Shih of the Washington Post quotes Xiao Qiang, a professor at the University of California: “Go on WeChat, go on Weibo, look on Baidu search, and it’s full of ‘look at all the other countries getting sick,’ or ‘the virus came from the United States,’ or all different levels of conspiracy theories.”

This is the point of disinformation: not so much to counterpoise the truth with another credible alternative as to undermine any sense of truthfulness at all. If everything becomes rumour, nothing can be believed – so government anxiety about being held to account fades. And another fine disinformation job is done, as truth is throttled amid an epidemic of lies.