Dr Li Wenliang, 34, was an ophthalmologist who worked at a hospital in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic. On 30th December, he shared messages on a chat group warning other doctors regarding patients who had been quarantined in his hospital with a respiratory disease that resembled SARS, another type of coronavirus that killed hundreds of people in China in the early 2000s. Now one might assume that this incident is archetypal of a doctor who is fulfilling his duty towards saving lives. A few days later when screenshots of the messages he sent went viral on Chinese social media platforms, Dr Li was summoned to the Public Security Bureau where he was told to sign a letter. In the letter, he was accused of "making false comments" and "disturbing social order". He was warned that severe consequences would befall him if he continued to spread such "lies".
Fast forward to 7th February 2020, Dr Li passed away early in the morning after a protracted battle with the novel coronavirus. By now the virus had spread rampantly throughout China and beyond. Outraged by the Chinese government's mishandling of the virus and their attempts to cover-up and suppress the information presented by Dr Li, the hashtag "I want freedom of speech" was trending on Weibo, a popular Chinese blogging site. It had 2 million hits in less than 90 minutes after his death.
The posts disappeared by sunrise!
They weren't deleted by the people who posted them because they had a change of heart. They were deleted by the Chinese government which was fighting a war. Not a war against the corona virus or the rapidly declining economy but a war on the psychological front. A war of narratives to establish the "true" and "authentic" version of events. This incident is just one of the myriad of tactics employed by the Chinese government in its attempt to control information flow.
Why is the Chinese government so hell-bent on winning the war of narratives?
Aside from the damage to international reputation that it is trying to repair, the phrasing of the story is important to the Chinese government to maintain "order" in the region. For China’s leaders, the corona virus tragedy is threatening because it summons raw human emotion — and when that emotion fixes purposefully on the shortcomings of the government, it becomes its own destructive wave, with the potential to undermine political legitimacy.
How does the Chinese government wage the narrative war?
As the saying goes, fight fire with fire, the Chinese government is trying to push its own narrative against the one presented by the "West". It uses propaganda to try and establish "true happenings". Now the propaganda promulgated by the Chinese party is controlled and regulated by a separate wing known as the Central Propaganda Department (CPD). This department was established in 1924, just three years after the establishment of the Communist Party of China. It is under the direct control of President Xi Jinping and is full of party loyalists from top to bottom.
China Central Television Headquarters in Beijing, China.
Yes! This beautiful building houses the CCTV, a media division that is controlled by the Central Propaganda Department. In fact, the CPD controls every media house in China. A perusal of the structure of this department gives us a deeper insight into how it controls every information domain in China.
There are four separate wings in this department. Each wing is responsible for one information medium.
This medium is under the control of the CPD news bureau. The Chinese Party newspaper system is an offshoot of this department.
It is managed by the state administration of radio and television. This body controls the likes of CCTV and other local subsidiaries.
It is managed by the CPD press.
It is controlled by the cyberspace administration of China. This is the central propaganda department's ecosystem.
This implies that the communist party wields decisive and final control over every media activity in China. There is no free media. This entire ecosystem is responsible for the narrative of any and all information that is disseminated.
Every major media house in China reports to the Communist party. There are several party agencies at different levels that control the media. There is no concept of independent and critical thinking in such an ecosystem. There is no mention of anything remotely negative about the government or the crimes that it commits. The "media" in China exists only to convince its citizens and the world about the Communist Party's legitimacy.
What China calls journalism is basically Public Relations to the rest of the world.
Now that you are apprised of the Chinese state machinery that promulgates propaganda and stems information that it deems harmful, let us now look at some of the tactics it has used in order to shift the blame of the virus and save face.
1. Conspiracy Creation
The Chinese took a page out of Russian-style disinformation tactics in order to further their propaganda effort. This is clear from statements made by prominent Chinese officials and pieces published in their local newspapers. The obvious aim with this tactic is to divert attention from the main narrative and to create confusion among the people. Baseless theories such as the origin of the virus in Italy and the US army carrying the disease to Wuhan are examples of some of the news headlines making rounds in China.
2. Counter Punching
The CPD followed a simple tactic. Pump up and spread the good news about the party and suppress the bad. This is why those 2 million tweets were deleted. One facet of this tactic was to show the efficacy of the Chinese government in handling the COVID crisis and how it has fared better than other countries in its response. The most aggressive trolling and blame game came in video form. The state-run news agency Xinhua “Once Upon a Virus” video featuring animated Legos— racked up more than 15,000 retweets when it was posted by the Chinese embassy in France. It was a dig at the haphazard response of the United States and other European countries to the outbreak.
3. Stirring Nationalism
This has been one of the main tactics employed by Chinese state machinery. State propaganda has begun to portray the dead not as victims of a crisis that could have been averted if not for the Chinese government's bumbling response, but as martyrs of a war against an invisible enemy. Foreign governments that are demanding compensation to the rest of the world are painted as tools used by the West to undermine Chinese power. Many are speculating that the standoff with Indian soldiers at the Indo-China border is an attempt to direct the attention of people away from the aftermath of the virus and towards an "external enemy".
China mourns for its ‘martyrs’.
So what’s at stake here?
The real danger with the sort of influence the Chinese party yields is not in its inherent ability to force people to do things and take away their rights. It is in its ability to redirect public opinion. It simply does not "censor" or "cut" questionable content but harnesses public opinion. It has the power to shape and mould the perceptions of millions of people in the mainland and beyond in a way that it deems to be for the "good of the state".
This grim reality should also lead us to question our own perceptions and belief systems. To question where we get our information from and whether it is unbiased or tainted with ulterior motives. It is now just as important to know the source of information as the information itself.
The Chinese model of governance is rife with flaws and is the embodiment of the limitations and control over public life. The flip-side to this style of governance is the meteoric rise and success of the Chinese economy, which led to the debate of economic prosperity vs individual freedom. Stay tuned for the next edition of this series where we chart out the red hot growth of the Chinese economy.