Coronavirus News Asia

Beijing may be readying propaganda for virus ‘second wave’

Why are Chinese officials now peddling the sort of conspiracy theories that claim Covid-19 is a man-made virus engineered in US military bases and unleashed on to an unwitting China, or even that it originated in Italy as early as November? In many respects, it’s not all that surprising; for decades Communist Party propaganda has blamed hostile foreign forces for China’s ills, from instigating the uprisings in 1989 to last year’s Hong Kong protests. 

By spreading these conspiracies now, Beijing doesn’t just intend to mislead global debate and whip up nationalism at home; it is also laying the propaganda groundwork for what happens if (or when, according to some) there is another spike in Covid-19 cases within China. This time around, Beijing will say that it’s solely because of imported cases, elegantly shifting the blame abroad and away from the shoulders of the Communist Party leadership.

On Thursday, Chinese authorities announced that from midnight Saturday it will temporarily close its borders to all people returning from overseas, including foreign nationals with valid visas and residence permits, in order to prevent a “second wave” of infections. 

On the frontline of Beijing’s more-outlandish disinformation offensive is Zhao Lijian, a new spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was recently promoted to the job after his outspoken anti-American Twitter comments went viral. Zhao has become the loudest purveyor of Covid-19 conspiracy theories among Chinese officials, blurring the origin of the virus and even suggesting that the US military might be behind it. 

China specialists are currently in debate as to whether Zhao is something of a lone wolf within the Beijing bureaucracy, has the backing of those at the apex of the Communist Party of China (CPC), including President Xi Jinping, or has been allowed to get away with it, so far, because the bureaucracy is divided over his comments.

Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the US, appeared to rebuke Zhao’s rhetoric in an interview with US publication Axios last week. However, as Bill Bishop, of Sinocism, reported in his newsletter this week, Zhao’s messaging is often repeated by the state-run media with no censure. Xinhua ran a story headlined “Zhao Lijian, please keep asking the questions!” on March 23, for instance.

Meanwhile articles critical of Zhao have been censured, including one piece written by Dr Zhang Feng, of Hunan University of Technology. The Chinese Embassy in Paris has also repeated many of the same conspiracy theories on its Twitter feed in recent days – and none have been deleted afterward. 

As Bishop wrote in a newsletter on Tuesday, “Zhao appears popular among much of the Chinese public, and he has clearly answered Xi’s earlier call for more ‘fighting spirit’ from [Chinese] diplomats.”

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