China is promoting a propaganda narrative that its authoritarian system is uniquely capable of curbing the coronavirus, in contrast to the chaotic response of Europe and the United States.
Nevermind that the virus began in Wuhan and spread because Communist Party officials suppressed whistle-blowers. Beijing’s new story line stresses that its draconian lockdown of tens of millions of its people (and ability to build new 1,000-bed hospitals in 10 days) was able to control the virus, even as new cases are soaring in America.
This propaganda effort might seem unpromising, were it not for the fact that President Donald Trump has only just come to grips with the pandemic, leaving the United States dangerously behind in containing and mitigating the virus. This gives global appeal to the Chinese argument that authoritarianism works better than democratic governance.
Hopefully, the inner strengths of our democracy will see us through — as displayed by the governors, mayors, media and health experts who finally forced the president to pay attention. But depending on how things go here, the Chinese version of events could make global inroads — and increase Beijing’s geopolitical influence after the pandemic dies down.
The message the Chinese are trying to promote can be summarized by a March 12 article in the People’s Daily, which asks “why China can pull together the imagination and courage needed to deliver a blow to the virus while the United States struggles to handle the outbreak.”
The Chinese government is even attempting to argue that the disease didn’t originate in Wuhan. An official spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has tweeted that “it might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” (This is more official than the suggestion of Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) that the virus might be Chinese biowarfare. But it is probably in part an unfortunate response to Trump’s calling the disease the “Chinese virus,” which has more of a racist tinge than his use of “Wuhan virus.” In other words, each side is now politicizing the virus, with the Chinese hitting harder.)
Of course, this Chinese narrative “is also designed to take some of the heat off Xi Jinping at home, so he can say, look at us as compared to the feckless Americans,” says the University of Pennsylvania’s Jacques deLisle, director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China.
Toward that end, Beijing has just kicked out journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, perhaps in part because their reporting on the pandemic in Wuhan might have penetrated the great wall of Chinese censorship.
You might conclude, then, that the new Beijing narrative won’t get much global traction because it is a pretty transparent effort to airbrush Xi Jinping’s mistakes.
Yet, the U.S. response to the crisis until the past few days gives China’s propagandists a huge boost.
From late January through early March, Trump downplayed the coronavirus, insisting that it was “totally under control,” that it would “all work out well,” that “we have pretty much shut it down,” that “we have very few people with it and … they’re all getting better,” and that “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”
While the president’s Jan. 31 decision to ban travelers from China was important, he squandered its major benefit — providing the time to prepare for an inevitable outbreak here.
Trump misunderstood the disease and rejected the early warnings of health experts. He continues to insult journalists who question his endless misstatements.
And his false spin, echoed by Fox commentators, lulled his supporters into complacency. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll taken March 12-13 and released last weekend revealed that only 40% of Republicans believed the coronavirus was a real threat, compared with 76% of Democrats and 50% of independents.
No surprise then that, until late last week, the president failed to mobilize the nation and push through a national emergency plan for testing, which is just starting to ramp up.
And without widespread tests, or draconian Chinese-style lockdowns, it is impossible to measure and stop the spread.
Trump also failed, until the past few days, to rally the military and all government agencies to help states expand their inadequate medical facilities. He failed, until this week, to consult fully with governors desperate for national leadership (insulting them instead with labels like “snake”).
This has costs: The time lost — crucial to testing and containing the virus in order to avoid a national shutdown — cannot be made up.
Now, belatedly, the White House is organizing the whole of government. And listening to the experts. And taking the virus seriously, although the president continues to spin and spout untruths.
We don’t need the Chinese to point out that this is “embarrassing” for a great democracy.
But we do need to demonstrate, for our own sakes, that their propaganda claim about a hapless democracy unable to cope is false. Even if that coping comes belatedly and despite failed White House leadership.
The message of Chinese propaganda, contrary to Beijing’s intentions, is that democracy requires new White House leadership up to the task.