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Fighting COVID-19 with Propaganda: The Chinese Response

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.