In recent weeks, with new cases of COVID-19 virtually disappearing from its territory, China has embarked on a massive campaign to change the global narrative and perception of the pandemic. This campaign is waged on the front line of the information war — another war, based on the control of public opinion, launched by the Chinese authorities and led by President Xi Jinping alongside the “people’s war” against the virus itself.
The elements of this campaign are well known. The general narrative goes like this: There are doubts about the origins of the virus, and China has demonstrated its effectiveness in managing the crisis. Its authoritarian system is validated in the face of the supposed ineffectiveness of democratic values.
For Beijing, the control of information becomes a priority after an initial relaxation designed to provide a safety valve for a population facing a major humanitarian crisis. Already severe in China, this control has now been reinforced. Above all, the regime is also trying to silence all foreign experts guilty of deviating from the “official line,” denounced in the Chinese media as “anti-Chinese elements.”
The outside world could be impressed by the “reactivity” of a system capable of authoritatively confining tens of millions of people. Italy gratefully welcomed the arrival of a Chinese plane — in the presence of the Italian president and the Chinese ambassador — bringing several doctors and tons of equipment. The Serbian president also embraced Chinese aid, saying, “Hundreds of thousands of lives in Serbia will be saved thanks to the help that just came to us.”
Despite all this, the image of the regime’s efficiency and its superpower status has been severely damaged in the eyes of the Chinese population and, even more seriously, in the eyes of the world. This indeed is an emergency for the Chinese regime.
In China, the pandemic, and its disastrous handling in the initial phase that is crucial to disease control, threatens social and political stability and its effects could be long-lasting. For the Chinese, the “social contract” between an authoritarian but effective and protective regime and a population assured of a decent life has been broken. This crisis has also added to the negative elements already heightened by Xi Jinping’s offensive strategy, from an economic slowdown to a trade war with the United States and the challenges posed by Hong Kong and Taiwan.
By repressing vital information, costing the life of Dr. Li Wenliang among thousands of others, the authorities demonstrated yet again that the good of the Communist Party, and its image, comes before the well-being of the people it is supposed to serve.
Abroad, the fundamental basis of China’s influence is being questioned. At the diplomatic level, Taiwan’s exclusion as an observer at the World Health Organization is less and less understood, especially as the island, a vibrant democracy, has, like South Korea and Hong Kong, managed the crisis effectively. The ineluctability of China’s emergence, and its image as a power capable of imposing its standards and rules on the world, that is being challenged.
China has long been an easy, “win-win” solution for many foreign companies that found it an “efficient” partner, provided that they comply with China’s demands, including on technology transfer. In exchange, the Communist Party could offer almost nonexistent labor law, no independent trade unions, low environmental standards, and intermediaries to facilitate relations and “smooth out” difficulties. The hopes placed in the Chinese market long fed a dangerous mirage that saw a major part of the world economy rest on what is, behind all appearances of stability, an inherently unpredictable and fragile power.
For, in reality, that the epidemic appeared in China is not by chance or the result of mere bad luck. The nature of the regime, the ban on a free press, the domination of the Communist Party over all social and economic actors, Xi Jinping’s calls to further strengthen “the absolute leadership of the Communist Party over national security operations,” the fear of the authorities — all these factors contribute to the emergence of this type of catastrophe, whose cost in human lives and for the world economy will be immense. Systemic corruption and the lack of checks and balances make it difficult to believe in the implementation of new regulations, including health regulations that guarantee food safety. Banned in 2003 after the SARS crisis, live wild animal “wet markets” are banned again today, but there is no guarantee that it will be enforced this time either.
Chinese leaders have one priority: regime survival. The “China dream” of “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is a tool to achieve that objective. But the dream has turned into a global nightmare. Beijing has embarked on this desperate information war in an attempt to revive it.
Valérie Niquet is head of the Asia program at the Foundation for Strategic Research, Paris.