NEW DELHI: COVID-19, the pandemic has led to more than half a million infections and more than 20,000 deaths. It may lead to global recession if the outbreak is not controlled in time. Amidst this, China is trying to change the narrative on COVID-19 to feign culpability for its initial botched tackling and covering up of the virus outbreak, by sowing confusion. The party-state has gone on a propaganda overdrive to disassociate Wuhan and China from the origin of the virus and shift the blame on the US, to highlight that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by its Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping, has won the people’s war against COVID-19 and to illustrate that China, unlike the US and the EU, is a global leader and a reliable and responsible partner in combating COVID-19. Chinese state media outlets have been churning out propaganda round the clock. Chinese diplomats and the spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have written more than 300 articles, conducted more than 400 interviews and posted more than 1,000 tweets in a bid to change the narrative. The Chinese government and Chinese companies such as Alibaba, Huawei, Oppo and Xiaomi among others have provided aid to countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania and the US in order to change the narrative.
Will China be successful in this effort? Some analysts believe that China will be more successful domestically than internationally in influencing or changing the narrative. I argue that the CCP has not been completely successful in changing the narrative in China. Chinese citizens realise that these are efforts to hide the worst aspects of the command and control system under Xi. Considering the wave of anger and criticism against the CCP led by President Xi, it will be difficult for the people to forgive and forget.
China has also not been successful in changing the narrative internationally. Apart from Italy, Spain and Serbia, no country in the West has bought into the Chinese propaganda of China winning the war against COVID-19. The three countries have been influenced by China’s aid and provision of medical supplies after they were shunned by the EU initially. The US and the EU have been extremely critical of China’s policy and attempts at changing the narrative. There is a realization that the policy of “mask diplomacy” has geopolitical underpinnings. Josep Borrell, EU’s highest ranked diplomat, has criticized China for discrediting the EU and branding Europeans as the carriers of the virus. Although countries in Asia, Africa and Europe have agreed not to label COVID-19 as “China virus” or “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus”, there is a realization across the globe that China is culpable for the pandemic and CCP is also not winning the propaganda war domestically.
China’s heavy-handed attempts to change the narrative will also backfire as the pandemic worsens. Anti-China and anti-Chinese sentiment will rise. Unfortunately, it will lead to increase in xenophobia, racist attacks and violence against overseas Chinese and those who appear to be Chinese.
(The author is Associate Professor, School of International Relations at Huaquio University in China. Views are personal.)