From the moment Chinese leaders belatedly recognized that a deadly new pathogen was spreading rapidly in the city of Wuhan and beyond, it became apparent that the coronavirus would play a defining role in shaping the image and power of China and its regime for years to come. Beijing has been working overtime ever since not just to contain the virus at home, but to shape the narrative of the pandemic there and abroad, seeking to portray China and its rulers as wise, efficient, powerful and generous. China’s ultimate goal is to emerge from this crisis as a more powerful player on the global stage, by capitalizing on what looks like a hinge moment in history.
This effort has translated into an ongoing propaganda campaign to play up the performance of Chinese authorities, while disparaging the response by the United States and the West. The U.S., in turn, has pushed its own messaging war under the Trump administration. With little doubt that it is creating new balance of power paradigms, the pandemic has become the stark backdrop for a new brand of politics playing out before domestic and international audiences.
That was visible during this week’s contentious meeting of the World Health Organization’s governing body, where Washington and Beijing’s dueling narratives clashed. It is apparent also in the rising tension between China and the debtor nations of its gargantuan Belt and Road Initiative, and in the countless displays of soft and not-so-soft power playing out across the globe.
The result so far for China has been a roller coaster, with upward momentum suddenly reversed into steep dives, and unexpected turns that require authorities to hold tightly to avoid letting the propaganda campaign go completely off-track.
As has been well documented, China first sought to suppress information about the coronavirus during the initial outbreak in Wuhan, utilizing its old tools of repression to limit access to information. That didn’t last long, with the virus overpowering efforts to silence its impact. Before long, the world watched as China shut down swaths of the country in a largely successful effort to stop the virus’s spread.
By then, the coronavirus and the illness it causes, eventually named COVID-19, had started spreading into Europe and gradually to every corner of the planet. That’s when Beijing, already recovering, launched its new propaganda in earnest. At the time, China’s message seemed destined to triumph as Western countries, most of all the United States, fumbled with their response to the pandemic. But some two months later, China’s campaign has run into new obstacles.
Beijing’s goal is to leverage the pandemic to fortify its place internationally, by portraying itself as not only confident and efficient, but admirable, magnanimous and reliable. China’s Communist Party wants to highlight its performance and contrast it favorably with a seemingly hapless West, to make its autocratic system appear superior to democracy. It aims to tighten its hold on power at home by conveying to the population that it is fortunate to have its current rulers, while suppressing the voices of those who disagree.
The propaganda is obvious in state media in China, which has been rife with clumsy articles about China’s superiority. Take one in the Global Times, a tabloid published under the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece: “US seeks selfish gains as China goes all out to curtail the coronavirus spread.” It concluded bluntly that, the “US system is not nearly as efficient as the Chinese system.”
China’s ultimate goal is to emerge from this crisis as a more powerful player on the global stage, by capitalizing on what looks like a hinge moment in history.
As I noted in late March, it was precisely China’s authoritarian system that allowed the virus to take hold in Wuhan and spread so rapidly. And it was the authoritarian streak in President Donald Trump—manipulating information, silencing those whose warnings and expertise he found inconvenient and generally treating the pandemic as a political problem, rather than a public health crisis—that prevented the United States from mounting a more effective response.
China’s PR campaign included widely publicized flights carrying planeloads of medical supplies to hard-hit countries, such as Italy, which was struggling with little support from the European Union. At the time, Beijing’s propaganda met little resistance, but all that has since changed.
In order to protect himself from criticism of his failings, Trump fulminated against China’s handling of the virus. Not all of his criticism is valid, but the core of the argument—that China concealed the extent of the threat—is correct. Trump has made some progress in getting other countries to join in a push to have the WHO investigate the outbreak’s origin in China, and has drawn an unflattering spotlight on the reluctance of the WHO’s secretary-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to criticize Beijing. At this week’s meeting of the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s governing body, Tedros agreed to back an independent review of the global response to the pandemic, with China’s support.
For his part, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has benefited from Trump’s chaotic performance at home, including his widely criticized effort to cut U.S. funding for the WHO. At the WHO’s meeting Monday, Xi offered additional Chinese funding to the U.N. agency, which further weakened Washington’s threat to permanently halt all U.S. money.
At home, Xi is facing other difficulties. He remains the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, but he now presides over the first economic contraction acknowledged by official Chinese statistics in half a century, when Mao was still in power. Xi’s efforts to sideline Taiwan on the global stage have also been stymied by the international admiration heaped on Taiwan’s early and effective response to the pandemic. Now, dozens of countries, led by the U.S., are pushing to have the WHO admit Taiwan as an observer over Beijing’s objections.
Then, there’s the emerging crisis with China’s Belt and Road debtors. China has lent hundreds of billions of dollars for massive infrastructure projects around the world. The enormous loans are held in many cases by countries that can barely afford them in the best of times. Critics have called the program “debt-trap diplomacy.” The most alarming case came in Sri Lanka, where China took possession of a key port when Sri Lanka could not pay back the loan.
But that risky model is now in conflict with other strategic goals, at a time when economic headwinds are buffeting all of the countries along the Belt and Road at the same time. Beijing can ill afford to repossess infrastructure projects across Africa and Asia when it’s trying to sell itself as a benevolent superpower. Multiple countries are demanding debt forgiveness or easier terms, just as China’s own economy is in unfamiliar, troubled waters. Making matters worse for Beijing, the pandemic has awakened Western countries to the dangers of being overly reliant on Chinese manufacturing.
This crisis is already reshaping the global balance of power. China is trying to leverage it to reach its long-sought goal of translating its place as the world’s second-largest economy into one with commensurate influence.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.