DHARAMSHALA: As China is apparently recovering from the battle against the dreaded Covid-19 virus, Beijing has started an Information Warfare (IW) against the way the world perceives the Middle Kingdom. For several years, analysts have been predicting that IW would be an important part of any battle of tomorrow.
The first shot was fired by Zhao Lijian, one of China’s sharpshooters who was recently called upon to serve as one of the spokespersons of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. Zhao is known for his nasty Twitter attacks (or counter-attacks) against China’s critics. Already in 2003, China’s Central Military Commission approved the concept of ‘Three Warfares’, namely: coordinated use of strategic psychological operations; overt and covert media manipulation and legal warfare designed to manipulate perceptions of target audiences abroad.
In recent years, Beijing has been intensifying its ‘media manipulation’. After losing a battle in Wuhan, Beijing decided to counterattack. The phone call of Wang Yi, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister to his Indian counterpart Dr S Jaishankar should be seen in this perspective. Wang phoned just to urge India not to use ‘China’ to describe the novel coronavirus, saying it would stigmatize the country and would be detrimental to international cooperation.
According to The Hindustan Times, “the Chinese government has lately argued that it might have been found first in central China, but there was no proof it originated there…Chinese diplomats have led a worldwide campaign to convince host governments not to use the phrase ‘China virus’.” In fact, Sun Weidong, the Chinese ambassador to India, recently tweeted that Dr. Jaishankar had agreed with Wang ion this point.
The stakes are high for Beijing: externally, it does not want to appear as the bad guy who spread the virus all over the planet with the consequences seen today (more than three billion human beings are under confinement and there are unpredictable and incalculable economic implications), but also internally, where the role of President Xi Jinping is being more and more questioned within the Party.
We shall come back to this.
In her Axios China newsletter, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian commented: “The Chinese Communist Party has spent the past week publicly pushing conspiracy theories intended to cast doubt on the origins of the coronavirus, and thus deflect criticism over China’s early mishandling of the epidemic.”
The author saw Beijing emulating Russia’s disinformation playbook. She quoted Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States: who mentioned three main tactics used by Beijing in its IW campaign:
- The propagation of ‘multiple conflicting theories’.
- The amplification of conspiracy websites, or ‘gray sites’. Rosenberger said these are third-party sites that promote the same theories the State aims to boost.
- The coordinated use of diplomatic and embassy Twitter accounts and state-backed media to help boost the theories.
Apart from Zhao Lijian saying that it was US soldiers who brought the virus to China, the Chinese propaganda, amongst other arguments used the declarations of an Italian doctor affirming that the disease first appeared in Italy in November, before it appeared in Wuhan (though it has now been confirmed that the first case in Wuhan appeared on November 17).
The Mask Diplomacy
For Beijing this also translated by a ‘mask diplomacy’; for example, China sold US $467 million worth of medical supplies to Spain, which included 550 million masks, 5.5 million quick sets, 950 ventilators and 11 million gloves.
A few days ago, President Xi sent a message to President Macron of France to tell him that China stood ready to work with France to boost international cooperation in epidemic prevention and control and build a community of common health for mankind: “Xi extended his sincere sympathies on behalf of the Chinese government and people, to their French counterparts over the COVID-19 outbreak in the European country,” said Xinhua.
The issue has become so serious that the European Union’s top diplomat had to warn the other Europeans nations against China’s ‘politics of generosity’. This came “amid a growing sense of unease over Beijing’s targeted strategy to help certain European countries with medical supplies to fight Covid-19”, wrote The South China Morning Post which spoke of an unusual choice of language by EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell who called on EU countries to stand ready for a “struggle for influence in a global battle of narratives”.
Borell added: “There is a global battle of narratives going on in which timing is a crucial factor”. He further noted that the focus had shifted from Europe helping China, to the other way round: “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner.”
The Real Issue
The objective of the entire IW exercise is to help the world to forget to look for the real origin of the virus. Interestingly, a group of Chinese scholars led by Botao Xiao of the South China University of Technology wrote a paper in February for the Natural Science Foundation of China; it dealt with “The possible origins of 2019-nCoV coronavirus.”
After searching around the seafood market in Wuhan, said to be the epicentre of the outbreak, they identified two laboratories conducting research on bat coronavirus. The first one, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control & Prevention is located 280 meters from the market. The scientists found that “surgery was performed on the caged animals and the tissue samples were collected for DNA and RNA extraction and sequencing. The tissue samples and contaminated trashes were a source of pathogens.” It is not a proof, but a possibility to be studied fully.
The second laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is located 12 kilometers from the seafood market. It has been recently in the news, when Dr Chen Wei, a Major General in the People’s Liberation Army, took over the management (this raises serious questions, considering that the lab is partially funded by the French Government).
Xiao and his colleagues concluded: “Somebody was entangled with the evolution of 2019-nCoV coronavirus. In addition to origins of natural recombination and intermediate host, the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan. Safety level may need to be reinforced in high-risk bio-hazardous laboratories. Regulations may be taken to relocate these laboratories far away from city center and other densely populated places.”
All this means that more serious and independent studies need to be undertaken to find out more about the origin of the ‘international’ virus.
The Emperor May Lose His Clothes
It is what President Xi Jinping and his propaganda machine want to avoid at any cost, because the Emperor may lose his job. Let us not forget that dynasties in the Middle Kingdom go through cycles. The Emperor of a strong and just dynasty brings peace and prosperity to the people with the ‘Mandate of Heaven’. With time, the system becomes corrupt and the people start suffering. Disasters strike. The Emperor loses his mandate after a peasant (or people’s) revolt, leading to major changes, heralding a new era and the arrival of a wiser, fairer and more compassionate monarch or regime.
This is the second reason why China has started firing its first IW shots: Xi Jinping’s seat is highly insecure. Several serious websites such Radio France International (RFI), Deutsche Welle (DW) cited a WeChat posting calling for an “Emergency Enlarged Meeting of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) Politburo”. It appears that it spread like wildfire on Chinese social media. The meeting was to “discuss whether Xi Jinping is suitable to continue to be the President of the country, the CCP’s General Secretary, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.”
It suggested the formation a three-person group with Premier Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, the Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and Vice-President Wang Qishan to start the process. Chinascope, a well-informed website operating from the US, explained: “Some media used the screenshot of a repost of the article by Chen Ping, the founder of Sun TV who lives in Hong Kong. Chen said that he just received the article and felt it rational and thus reposted it. He did not know who wrote it.”
Some rumours circulated that the letter originated from someone high in the Party’s hierarchy. It listed several topics for discussions, including the fact that China had recently made too many enemies in too many countries and asked, “should China return to Deng Xiaoping’s policy of maintaining a low profile?” Some of the other questions were: “Is the CCP higher or is the law higher? Can the ruling party be above the Constitution? Should private companies be the main economic force in China or the state-owned enterprises? Should citizen’s rights be sacrificed for the government’s stability maintenance? Can the private sector run media? Should the judicial system be independent (from the CCP)? Can citizens criticize the government?” These were some of the questions.
Some media have also linked this article to another piece criticizing President Xi. Before disappearing, Ren Zhiqiang, a former real estate tycoon, who used to represent Beijing at the CPPCC wrote: “A Clown Who Stripped Naked and Insisted on Continuing to Be an Emperor.”
One understands that the apparition of the virus on the world scene has larger implications, it is the ‘peaceful rise of China’ and perhaps more crucially the continuation of the Chinese Communist Party, which seems at stake.
In the weeks to come, the present regime will not spare any effort to show the world that the coronavirus has no particular link with China and that the world should be grateful to the Communist Party. It is however doubtful if Beijing can succeed … but if it fails, there will be implications inside the Middle Kingdom.
(The author writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. Views are personal.)