China is waging a double information war: one abroad and one for its own public, both led by the Chinese authorities with President Xi Jinping at its head. They apparently see the West as weak and submissive. We have been. (Photo by Naohiko Hatta - Pool/Getty Images)
The Chinese Communist Party is the "central threat of our times", US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo astutely said in January. Back then, coronavirus was already spreading throughout China and over the world; the Communist Party's attempt to hide the epidemic proved that Pompeo was more than right. "My concern is that this cover-up, this disinformation that the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in, is still denying the world the information it needs so that we can prevent further cases or something like this from recurring again", Pompeo added this week.
Had China responded to the outbreak three weeks earlier than it did, cases of coronavirus could have been reduced by 95%, according to a study by the University of Southampton. In those three weeks, China was busy hiding the truth. According to Steve Tsang, director of the University of London's SOAS China Institute, "It is the cover-up of the Communist Party for the first two months or so which created conditions to generate a global pandemic".
Chinese leaders, however, seemed obsessed only with the sustainability of their totalitarian regime, and as eager to silence any criticism as they have been in the past. Since January, the evidence of China's deliberate cover-up of the coronavirus in Wuhan has become a matter of public record. The Chinese government censored and detained brave doctors and whistleblowers who attempted to sound the alarm. One of China's richest entrepreneurs, Jack Ma, recently disclosed that China hid at least one-third of the coronavirus cases.
China has been able to grow into a superpower because it adopted economic practices from the West. No other country ever achieved such rapid economic and social progress for such a sustained period of time. However, hopes placed by the West in the Chinese market also nourished a dangerous mirage. We in the West thought that a modernizing China with a rising GDP would also democratize and come to respect transparency, pluralism and human rights. Instead, the mirage turned into a disaster as we watched China become even more of a "totalitarian state".
The nature of the Chinese regime -- its ban on the free press and all critical voices; the absolute domination of the Communist Party over social, spiritual and economic actors; imprisoning minorities and crushing freedom of conscience -- is also contributing to the emergence of this public health disaster. The cost, in terms of human lives and world's GDP, is immense.
The Chinese government's complicity in the pandemic is now an opportunity for the West to reevaluate its ties to Beijing. According to Guy Sorman, a French-American expert on China:
"Like useful idiots, we have not only helped the Party prosper but, even worse, we have given up on our humanitarian, democratic, and spiritual values in doing so."
"It is time", stated the American columnist, Marc A. Thiessen, "to immunize our economy and national security from our dependence on a deceitful regime".
China is waging a double information war: one abroad and one for its own public, both led by the Chinese authorities with President Xi Jinping at its head. They apparently see the West as weak and submissive. We have been.
China seems to believe that it is rising, while the West is in decline. "We find ourselves in what Germans call a Systemwettbewerb, a 'competition of systems' between liberal democracies and China's authoritarian state capitalism, which is increasingly projecting its absolute claim to power beyond its borders", said Thorsten Benner, co-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. The Cold War with Russia was clearer.
"We had an ideological and security antagonist who was not an economic competitor. There was a Chinese wall between the economies of the West and the Soviet Union. Today, we are confronted with an opponent who is a powerful economic competitor and intricately involved in the political economy of the West. At the same time, we also depend on cooperation with China on transnational issues such as climate change and pandemics. China's authoritarian state capitalist system with its hegemonic ambitions is by far the most difficult strategic challenge the West has faced to date".
According to historian Niall Ferguson, "China today poses a bigger economic challenge than the Soviet Union ever did". The Soviet Union could never rely on a dynamic private sector, as China is doing. In some markets -- such as technology -- China is already ahead of the United States. Not only that; the Chinese economy, the world's second-largest, is more closely integrated with the West than the Soviet one ever was. China's totalitarian one-party rule allows greater personal freedoms, at least at the moment, than the Soviet Union did. The coronavirus epidemic is, in fact, partly a consequence of the freedom of movement Chinese citizens enjoy.
China has also been able to convince much of the West that it is not an enemy. Beijing's goal has appeared to be to try to draw the West -- and the rest of the world -- into its economic and ideological orbit. China opened markets in the West while it offered to its own people a kind of devil's bargain: give up your ideas and principles and you will enjoy material improvement and societal security. Meanwhile, China became an industrial and technological behemoth, a feat the Soviet Union could only dream about.
Consider, for instance, pharmaceuticals. According to Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, Chinese companies supply the US with more than 90% of its antibiotics, vitamin C and ibuprofen, as well as 70% of acetaminophen and 40-45% of heparin. The US was never dependent on the Soviet Union for that.
In an article in Xinhua, one of the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpieces, Beijing threatened to halt pharmaceutical exports, after which the US would be "plunged into the mighty sea of coronavirus". The Xinhua article was actually entitled, "Be bold: the world owes China a thank you."
Fox News host Tucker Carlson was right to blast members of the American elite for selling out their country to Chinese economic interests.
China's leaders are probably hoping that you cannot challenge a powerhouse that is selling you most of your vital medications.
Italy, a country hit hard by China's coronavirus pandemic, is now at the center of a strategic Chinese propaganda campaign. Beijing has sent doctors and supplies to Italy and is doing the same all over Europe. In Italy, you can see posters saying, "Go, China!" ["Forza China!"] China is trying to buy our silence and complicity. Sadly, that is already taking place. In February, while some Italian officials (on the political right) were urging Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to quarantine schoolchildren in the north who were just returning from holidays in China, Italy's highest officials were busy trying to please Beijing. Italy's President, Sergio Mattarella; Minister for Culture, Dario Franceschini, and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Luigi Di Maio, hosted a concert in Rome for "Italian-Chinese friendship". China's President Xi Jinping warmly thanked them.
China is not helping at this point out of "solidarity". The Chinese regime is now seeking to portray itself as the world's savior. Beijing, at the beginning of the pandemic, did not care about the lives of even its own people: it was busy censoring the news.
"Hidden behind declarations of solidarity, China plans to buy out our troubled companies and infrastructure", according to Germany's leading newspaper, Bild. Italy was the first G-7 country to sign up for China's global investment program, a deal that rightly raised concerns in the US. China seems to be ready to continue its expansion into the Italy's economy and strategic interests.
China's Communist Party also seems to be at war with the free flow of information internationally. The regime, in the most sweeping media ejection from China since the death of Mao Zedong, recently expelled US journalists. Beijing has also tried to shift the blame for the pandemic to the US by saying that coronavirus originated with US military personnel in Wuhan. Lijian Zhao, spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, posted statements to that effect on Chinese social media and Twitter. The coronavirus crisis is now a battleground for Chinese propaganda.
The paradox is that the Global Times, a media outlet of the Chinese Communist Party, spreads false anti-US propaganda on Twitter, which is banned in China. Twitter, meanwhile, banned the website Zero Hedge, for publishing an article linking a Chinese scientist to the outbreak of coronavirus. Twitter also unfortunately decided that China's Communist Party does not violate the rules of social media by spreading lies against the US.
Already a few years ago, in 2013, a secret Chinese Communist Party directive known as Document No. 9 called for the rejection of seven Western ideas, such as "Western constitutional democracy", "universal values" of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market "neo-liberalism," and "nihilist" criticisms of the Party's questionable past. Targets to combat included "Western embassies, consulates, media operations and nongovernmental organizations". Huang Kunming, the Party's propaganda chief, attacks "some Western countries who use their technological advantages and dominance of discourse that they have accumulated over a long period to peddle so-called 'universal values'". China's Education Minister Yuan Guiren, a former president of Beijing Normal University, threw in: "Never let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classes".
In speeches and official documents, the President Xi talks about a struggle between "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and "Western anti-China forces" with their "extremely malicious" ideas of freedom, democracy and human rights. The West seems to be their target. According to a new study by the International Republican Institute:
"The Chinese Communist Party... is employing a unique set of tactics in the economic and information domains that undermines many developing countries' democratic institutions and future prosperity as their dependence on China grows."
China evidently understands how to use Western media for its own propaganda. "The Vatican and the Western business elite", wrote Michael Brendan Dougherty, "once instrumental in the West's winning the Cold War, have been brought to heel by the Chinese Communist party". The Chinese regime has succeeded where the Soviet regime failed. Last December, a six-year-old girl in London preparing Christmas cards found a message inside: "We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu Prison China, forced to work against our will", read the handwritten note. "Please help us and notify human rights organization". Western capitalism has even become complicit with Chinese slavery.
Western brands are not alone in caving in out of fear of "offending" the Communist Party. Western culture has been eagerly submitting itself to self-censorship about China. "The West is so tolerant, passive, accommodating and naive towards Beijing," said Liao Yiwu, a Chinese writer exiled in Berlin.
"Westerners look at China with incredulous eyes, they are seduced like an old man in front of a young girl. Everyone trembles before Chinese omnipotence. Europe shows all its weakness. It does not realize that the Chinese offensive threatens its freedom and values".
China's embassy in the Czech Republic is now financing a study course at Charles University, the most prestigious in the country. British universities are today largely dependent on Chinese students; conservative estimates put their combined tuition fees at about $1.75 billion. Australia is now even more reliant, with 200,000 Chinese students. If they go back to China or if Chinese donations stop coming to these faculties, they stand to lose about $4 billion.
The 1,500 branches of the Confucius Institute that China's regime has established in 140 countries offer language and "cultural" programs. However, according to Matt Schrader, a China analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, these institutes are "propaganda tools". Last October, Belgium banned the head of Confucius Institute in Brussels, Xinning Song, after security services accused him of spying for Beijing.
In 2013, when the University of Sydney shut down a talk by Tibet's Dalai Lama on campus, many saw the university's links to Chinese interests as being involved in the lobbying efforts to stop the previously approved event. Topics such as Tibet, Taiwan independence, or the dissident Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, are taboo.
According to a Bloomberg report, China is also infiltrating Europe's political landscape by supporting political parties and inviting politicians to China. President Xi, taking his ideological battle abroad, even donated a statue of Karl Marx to his German hometown Trier on the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth.
Beijing, unsurprisingly, has been using Western multilateral institutions to its own advantage. As Michael Collins detailed in a report for the Council on Foreign Relations, Beijing has expanded its presence in the World Health Organization. "China's WHO contributions have grown by 52% since 2014 to approximately $86 million", Collins states.
"This is largely due to China's increase in assessed contributions which are based on a country's economic development and population. However, China has also slightly increased voluntary contributions from $8.7 million in 2014 to approximately $10.2 million in 2019".
Like the former Soviet Union, China now seems to be building a giant apparatus of control. They call it the "Internet police". Try to imagine the former East Germany's secret police, the Stasi, using the most advanced surveillance system in the world: This is China in 2020.
Communist dictatorships always end up following the same script. The Soviet writer Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but the communist regime prevented him from receiving it. In China, literary critic, writer, poet, and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded Nobel Prize for Peace but was never able to receive it: he died under guard in a Chinese hospital. The Soviet Union had forced-labor camps just as China does. Chinese dissident Harry Wu, who endured 19 years in jail, compared the Chinese camps (laogai) to the Soviet gulag and Nazi concentration camps.
In the Soviet Union, writers, politicians, generals and doctors who were silenced and executed under Stalin, were later "rehabilitated" by the Soviet leaders after Stalin's death. The Chinese Communist Party just "exonerated" Dr. Li Wenliang who warned about the coronavirus outbreak. He was accused of "making false comments and disturbing the social order", then forced to recant, and soon after, at the age of 33, died of the disease. It is a shameful attempt by the Chinese officials to whitewash their own image.
In a column last week for the Spanish daily El Pais, the Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote about coronavirus:
"Nobody seems to be warning that none of this could have happened in the world if popular China were a free country and democratic rather than a dictatorship".
Vargas Llosa then likened the epidemic outbreak to Russia's Chernobyl disaster during the Soviet era. Both dictatorships censored and silenced information about the crises. In response, Beijing's regime not only called Vargas Llosa "irresponsible", but also banned his books from Chinese e-book platforms. Vargas Llosa has warned Western "fools" not to believe in China, "the free market with a political dictatorship", and that "what happened with the coronavirus should open the eyes of the blind".
The risk now is that, instead of Chernobyl which led, in part, to Soviet Union's downfall, China's communist regime will enjoy reinforcement -- especially if, due to the coronavirus crisis, the American people in November fail to support the first president in the last 40 years who has openly challenged China.
The Western dream of a "renaissance of the Chinese nation" has now turned into a globalized nightmare. Hundreds of millions across the world are in lockdown; thousands are dead; the economies of Western countries are paralyzed, with some on the verge of collapse. Empty shops and streets are commonplace.
This might be what analysts call "the end of liberal order". China's communists today are more capitalist than Marxist, at least at the state level. President Xi has adopted "market Leninism" -- mixing a state-run economy with a "terrifying form of totalitarianism". The West needs to wake up to China's duplicity.
Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.