China’s Coronavirus Battle Is Waning. Its Propaganda Fight Is Not.

Not surprising:

For months the Chinese government’s propaganda machine had been fending off criticism of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, and finally, it seemed to be finding an audience. Voices from the World Health Organization to the Serbian government to the rapper Cardi B hailed China’s approach as decisive and responsible.

But China could not savor the praise for long. In recent days, foreign leaders, even in friendly nations like Iran, have questioned China’s reported infections and deaths. A top European diplomat warned that China’s aid to the continent was a mask for its geopolitical ambitions, while a Brazilian official suggested the pandemic was part of China’s plan to “dominate the world.”

As the pandemic unleashes the worst global crisis in decades, China has been locked in a public relations tug-of-war on the international stage.

China’s critics, including the Trump administration, have blamed the Communist Party’s authoritarian leadership for exacerbating the outbreak by initially trying to conceal it. But China is trying to rewrite its role, leveraging its increasingly sophisticated global propaganda machine to cast itself as the munificent, responsible leader that triumphed where others have stumbled.

What narrative prevails has implications far beyond an international blame game. When the outbreak subsides, governments worldwide will confront crippled economies, unknown death tolls and a profound loss of trust among many of their people. Whether Beijing can step into that void, or is pilloried for it, may determine the fate of its ambitions for global leadership.

“I think that the Chinese remain very fearful about what will happen when we finally all get on top of this virus, and there is going to be an investigation of how it started,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They’re just trying to repair the damage that was done very early on to China’s reputation.”

The crux of China’s narrative is its numbers. Since late March, the country has consistently reported zero or single-digit new local infections, and on Wednesday, it lifted its lockdown in Wuhan, where the outbreak began. In all, the country has reported nearly 84,000 infections and about 3,300 deaths — a stark contrast to the United States, which has reported more than 399,000 infections, and Spain and Italy, each with more than 135,000.

The numbers prove, China insists, that its response was quick and responsible, and its tactics a model for the rest of the world. During a visit last month to Wuhan, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, said that “daring to fight and daring to win is the Chinese Communist Party’s distinct political character, and our distinct political advantage.”

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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