(Photo by Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)
One of the foremost tasks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi Jinping is, at his directive, to "tell stories about China well and spread China's voice well; enable the world to see a multidimensional and colorful China; present China as a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, and an upholder of international order".
When the coronavirus pandemic broke out in December 2019 in Wuhan and the Chinese authorities allowed it to spread to the rest of the world, "telling China's story well" suddenly became an acute concern. It was necessary to save the regime's face, deflect blame and seek to portray China as heroically battling the pandemic, instead of the reality of having caused it. China went into an even more energetic propaganda mode than usual, seeking to control the narrative about the virus at every turn.
One efficient way to deflect blame is to change the topic, blame someone else, or preferably both. That is what China set out to do in multiple ways with a large-scale disinformation and propaganda effort. The CCP, however, could not rely on Chinese state media alone to do the job. It needed international cooperation. "If foreign audiences know that a piece of information comes from an official Chinese media source, they are likely to interpret it as 'propaganda' rather than 'news,'" wrote China expert Anne-Marie Brady in 2015.
Chairman Mao Zedong's strategy of "making the foreign serve China" remains an important tool in the CCP's propaganda toolbox. Fortunately for the CCP, China could rely on large segments of mainstream US media to help it with at least one central element of its multifaceted propaganda effort that has not received much attention thus far: Changing public discourse about China's role in the spread of the virus to one of Westerners "fueling racism" against Asians because of the virus.
Starting in early February, Chinese state media published a barrage of articles seeking to deflect public discourse from focusing on what China had done to make sure that the virus would not spread inside China but would be exported to the rest of the world. China's state media began by pushing a narrative of Westerners exploiting the coronavirus to fuel racism. It helped, of course, that this was the kind of narrative that many naïve Westerners were only too willing to help disseminate, perhaps unaware that they were doing Communist China's bidding.
Global Times, a mouthpiece for the CCP, started the propaganda campaign on January 31, 2020 with an article, "Racism shows ugly side as China fights coronavirus" -- nearly two months before U.S. President Donald J. Trump, in a March 17 tweet, called the disease the "Chinese virus". The piece accused the West of engaging in "'yellow peril' mythology" and went on to portray China as heroically battling the disease, while the Western media was supposedly caught up in racist "hysteria" and "racialization" of the pandemic.
Global Times followed up on February 2 with "Virus unleashes racism in Western societies", which accused Western media's coverage of the virus being made in China as racist:
"Amid a crucial period of fighting the novel coronavirus, some Western media outlets -- with a deep-rooted racist mind-set -- have lost their objectivity and rationality, issuing biased reports that would create panic among people and that may thus trigger more serious social problems".
The Xinhua News Agency, the official state-run press agency of China, followed up with a piece on February 7, "Racism worse enemy than epidemic" and another on February 11, "Racism a disease more difficult to eradicate" and yet another the next day, "Western media should quit racist reporting as China fights epidemic".
China could rely on two factors in distributing this narrative of the "virus fueling racism" in the US. First, there is the assured traction that the mere mention of racism immediately gets in the US for multiple reasons, chief among them the primacy of identity politics in public discourse. Second, the media conglomerates that own the major television networks in the US are deeply involved in business dealings with China and are therefore loathe to upset Beijing in any way that might jeopardize their access to the Chinese market of 1.4 billion potential customers.
The willingness of the media conglomerates to kowtow to the CCP has been abundantly demonstrated in the past decades by the Hollywood studios that these media conglomerates also own. The kowtowing of the studios comes in various forms of submission to CCP censorship and includes co-productions and partnerships with Chinese state-operated enterprises, such as that of Walt Disney Studios and Shanghai Disneyland Resort, which is majority-owned by Shanghai Shendi Group, a conglomerate of three companies owned by Shanghai's government.
According to an August 2020 report, Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing, by American PEN:
"The Chinese Communist Party... holds major sway over whether a Hollywood movie will be profitable or not—and studio executives know it. The result is a system in which Beijing bureaucrats can demand changes to Hollywood movies—or expect Hollywood insiders to anticipate and make these changes, unprompted—without any significant hue or cry over such censorship,"
Here is an extremely brief overview of some of the television networks owned by the media conglomerates:
- Warner Media, which owns the Warner Bros film studios, owns CNN worldwide in addition to a host of entertainment and sports networks.
- NBC Universal, which owns Universal Studios, owns a host of TV channels, among them NBC, CNBC, and MSNBC.
- ViacomCBS, which owns Paramount pictures, owns the CBS TV network, including CBS News, CBS Sports, Comedy Central and MTV.
- The Walt Disney Company, which owns Walt Disney Pictures, 20th Century Studios, Searchlight Pictures, Marvel and Lucas Film, owns the ABC news channel in addition to a host of entertainment channels.
Several of those television networks distributed China's propaganda message about Westerners fueling racism so well that Global Times put together a video highlighting just how well they had done.
In a tweet on March 23, just six days after Trump called the virus "the Chinese virus" for the first time, Global Times played a video with clips from American television networks accusing Donald Trump of racism.
The first clip was of ABC White House reporter Cecilia Vega, who asked Trump on March 18, "Why do you keep calling this the Chinese virus? Why do you keep doing this, a lot of people say it is racist?"
"Because," Trump replied, "it comes from China. It is not racist at all".
Next up on the Global Times video was a clip of Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent of NBC news, who said in a similar vein:
"It is easy to scapegoat people and this is what has always happened when there have been pandemics... This is a virus that came from the territory of China, but came from bats. This is a bat virus, not a China virus".
NBC news also ran a lengthy article about the exchange between Vega and Trump, in which NBC never once addressed China's responsibility for the spread of the virus, and instead quoted multiple sources saying that Trump was fueling racism.
The Global Times video also contained a clip with CNN anchor Chris Cuomo saying:
"The word coronavirus crossed out and changed to Chinese -- who does that help? We don't need an enemy. We have one: The virus... This isn't about China. It is about us".
The clips played by the Global Times provided textbook examples of American media hard at work, wittingly or not, helping the CCP to shape public opinion in the US. The Global Times video amplified the CCP message even further with quotes from Hillary Clinton, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and celebrities, all parroting the CCP narrative.
The CCP's use of the racism argument as an early element of its coronavirus propaganda campaign came to fashion public discourse about the virus significantly in the US, Europe and beyond. The CCP evidently knew the West well enough to calculate that framing the debate in terms of racism would be a highly successful strategy that would play into the divisive issue of identity politics in the US and Europe.
The CCP could not have done it, however, without the media's lack of critical judgment of China's behavior, as well as the media's utter lack of interest in the CCP's quest for global domination and, according to FBI Director Christopher Wray, its willingness to achieve it "by any means necessary."
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.