When Chinese scientists identified a mystery virus in December 2019, they were ordered to stop tests, destroy samples, and suppress the news. When Chinese medical professionals began to sound the alarm, they were seized by police. For weeks, when Chinese state media went on air or to print, they ignored the virus’s spread. When government cadres heard rumors of some new SARS-like virus, they kept their heads down and continued praising party leader Xi Jinping.
China’s strategy to fight COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, though later praised by the World Health Organization and scientists worldwide, consisted of cover-ups, lies, and repression. It also failed miserably, exposing the world to this deadly sickness.
After claiming yesterday to have no new cases of the virus, China is now trying to take a victory lap, emphasizing the strength of its response—and the United States’ apparent failures—while spreading conspiracies that the U.S. government manufactured the virus. And while U.S. President Donald Trump’s sluggishness toward the outbreak merits criticism, China’s endangering of the world with its initial incompetence is certainly more to blame. Some of Trump’s fiercest public critics, however, have in their condemnations of the president remarkably ignored China’s faults or even praised the Chinese Communist Party’s response. In doing so, they are propagating falsehoods—and Chinese propaganda.
The details of China’s critical missteps are long-running and have been widely reported. When academics in 2007 and 2019 warned that a SARS-like virus could emerge from China’s wet markets, the CCP allowed these markets to stay open. A February Washington Post analysis of Chinese statements, leaked accounts, and interviews with public health officials and medical experts concluded that China’s “bureaucratic culture that prioritizes political stability over all else probably allowed the virus to spread farther and faster.” A March study by researchers at the U.K.’s University of Southampton showed that if China had acted three weeks earlier than it did, the number of coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 95 percent and its geographic spread limited significantly.
Wuhan health officials by the end of December had confirmed nearly three dozen cases of the virus and closed a market they thought was related to its spread. And yet Chinese authorities spent January denying the virus could spread between humans—something doctors had known was happening since December—and allowed a Lunar New Year banquet involving tens of thousands of families to take place in Wuhan as planned. The Chinese government later let some 5 million people leave the city without screening.
Remarkably, according to even the CCP’s own account, Xi knew about the virus for two weeks before saying anything to the public. The CCP’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, mentioned the epidemic and Xi’s actions to fight it for the first time only on Jan. 21—the same day the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first coronavirus case in the United States.
China’s failure to contain the virus can be explained by the divergence between the country’s modernized public health system and its outdated autocratic political structures. The ills of the draconian latter negated the potential benefits of the former, allowing the virus to spread from Wuhan to Thailand and South Korea and beyond.
Trust for Xi’s regime is now waning within China and across the public health world. Some global leaders are increasingly doubting the reliability of China’s data and the usefulness of its guidance on combating the virus, but others, like Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, continue to praise Chinese assistance.
Seemingly hoping to preempt any potential loss of foreign trust, China’s propagandists have gone into overdrive, spectacularizing their country’s purported altruism and leadership: The Chinese Embassy in Italy, in a statement laden with South China Sea–related propaganda, claimed to be “donating” ventilators and sending experts to that country; journalists reported that China is sending similar “aid” to Spain; Chinese experts have carried out training sessions for 10 Pacific Island countries and dispatched medical experts, along with supplies of masks and virus detection kits, to Iran and Iraq.
This is all part of Xi’s wide-scale propaganda effort to gaslight the world into believing that China is not only not responsible for but is responding best to the pandemic, ultimately portraying his country as a magnanimous and trustworthy global leader.
But many of China’s claims are easily refuted. China did not stop the virus from spreading; Beijing’s negligence allowed the outbreak to go global. China is not donating but selling ventilators, face masks, and other goods to Italy and Spain. According to Italian media, an array of other European countries are also planning to purchase ventilators from China.
Xi’s regime, even amid a crisis it enabled, is just applying the same simple economic strategy as it does through the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s Marshall Plan–like state-backed global investment and marketing campaign: exporting domestic overcapacity abroad. China, home to too many unemployed workers and industrial firms, generally sends both to the global south through the initiative.
And now, as the world—thanks to Chinese state failure—gasps for air, China is there to sell us its excess ventilators and face masks. These sales will both serve as fodder for propaganda and help the country rejuvenate its shellshocked business sector.
While China charges the world for its assistance, it is, in fact, Trump’s United States that has already promised to provide up to $100 million of aid to China and other countries affected by the pandemic.*
And yet, despite all of this, more than a few Western thought leaders have aped Chinese falsehoods to critique Trump’s apparent failures and praise Xi’s purported successes.
Rachel Maddow on her show hosted New York Times reporter Donald McNeil, who opined that China had “enormous success in beating down its epidemic.” Maddow then thanked McNeil for detailing the “distance between” China’s response and “what we’re preparing for.” Her show, highlighting Trump’s failures compared with China’s supposed victories, later shared a clip of the segment on Twitter with the headline “How coronavirus testing works in a country that takes the problem seriously.”
In a tweet that garnered some 50,000 likes, Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum wrote: “China has reacted to the outbreak of coronavirus in Italy by sending aid. The US has reacted by suspending flights. Who is the superpower?”
American politicians and leaders have also broadly enabled China’s manipulation of concerns over racism to muddle the debate over who’s to blame for the virus’s spread. It is true that there’s no excuse for the use, including by Trump administration officials, of derogatory terms such as “Kung flu” or conspiracy theories suggesting the virus was grown in a Chinese lab, but there’s nothing inherently racist about stating that the virus originated in China.
And while there’s absolutely no excuse for the Trump administration’s dangerous stoking of anger at China to deflect criticism from its own failures, we also must not allow the Chinese regime—the same one holding over a million Muslims in concentration camps—to weaponize claims of racism. Indeed, China’s new accusations of xenophobia reflect little more than the political inconvenience of pointing out the virus’s geographical source.
This is all part of the CCP’s disinformation campaign designed “to deflect attention away from the very well-documented fact that the Chinese government deliberately delayed ringing the alarm bell on the coronavirus,” according to Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese politics. This strategy “dovetails very nicely with the persistent message from the Chinese government over the past few years that all of humanity is a ‘community of common destiny’ in which China is a leading power.”
The CCP’s messaging has produced mixed success at home. Many Chinese social media users, encouraged by a Chinese regime seeking to restore its legitimacy, have turned their frustration toward Trump and the U.S.; others, however, are now attacking state media, even though some prominent Chinese who criticized their own government have vanished under mysterious circumstances.
It’s evidently in Xi’s interest to play up Trump’s missteps and cast China as superior. And although it’s understandable that American thinkers want to criticize Trump’s poor response to the crisis, this does not excuse their being duped into spreading outright falsehoods and gifting China’s appalling authoritarian regime—the same one that recently revoked press credentials for numerous American journalists—praise of which it is certainly not deserving.
Our ideological arbiters, as they critique Trump, must engage more thoughtfully with the facts to avoid swallowing and spreading Chinese propaganda.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to this week’s episode of Slate Money.
Correction, March 22, 2020: This article originally misstated that the U.S. has given $100 million in aid to countries affected by the pandemic. The aid has been pledged, but not yet fully delivered.