Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective.
I. ‘Turning the Tide’
There are four broad trends associated with the Covid19 outbreak in China this week. First, China’s National Health Commission announced that the country recorded 8 new coronavirus cases and 7 deaths on Thursday. That’s a dramatic plunge. Caixin’s tracker records over 80,000 cases in China over the course of the past few months, with 3173 deaths. Earlier, the National Health Commission said that the peak of the epidemic in China was over. This announcement came as the WHO formally declared the outbreak a pandemic. Whatever your thoughts on data from China, there are clear signs that authorities believe the worst is well past now. For instance, there’s a new guideline on epidemic prevention in schools. This suggests that there is movement towards potentially reopening educational institutions. Also all 16 temporary hospitals that had been set up in Wuhan have now been closed. Note: One’s like to see travel restrictions and specific quarantines in China still, given that there will be new cases and imported cases as the economic kicks in and the outbreak spreads globally.
Another example of official confidence, of course, was Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan on Tuesday. This leads us to the next important trend, i.e., the propaganda blitz. State media coverage of Xi’s visit was littered with profuse praise. Xi landed for an inspection and “went straight to Huoshenshan Hospital after arriving in Wuhan,” as per Xinhua. In reality, he didn’t visit the hospital, but actually spoke to doctors and patients via video conferencing. He also visited a residential community. State media reports that he pledged “continuous fight toward victory as prevention and control efforts have ‘turned the tide’.”
Xinhua’s coverage adds: “Praising the people of Wuhan, Xi said the positive trend in epidemic control could not have been achieved without their sacrifice, devotion, perseverance and efforts. With their concrete actions, the people of Wuhan have demonstrated the strength and spirit of China, as well as the Chinese people’s love for their family and nation, which enables them to stick together through thick and thin.”
One part of the propaganda effort is to glorify Xi. He’s been called the commander in chief leading a people’s war against the virus. Another report claims that his visit and efforts show that the Chinese leader has a “pure heart like a newborn’s that always puts the people as his number one priority.” Or as evident by this attempt by Wang Zhonglin, Wuhan’s new Party Secretary and a Xi confidant, calling for a “gratitude education campaign” so that people can thank Xi and the party for their efforts in tackling the illness. This effort, however, has fallen flat. In fact, Caixin carried a translation of a piece by well-known author Fang Fang, lambasting the arrogance of top government officials:
“Yes, we need to feel genuinely thankful that the epidemic is now basically under control. But the ones who should be standing up and showing their gratitude are those in government. The government must express its gratitude to the thousands of families who have watched their loved ones die in the outbreak. Amid this unexpected disaster, which has left them without so much as a chance to give their deceased relatives a proper sendoff, they have endured great sorrow and exercised admirable restraint. Hardly anyone has made a fuss. The government must thank the more than 5,000 severely ill people still lying in hospitals, locked in a bitter fight with death. Their tenacity and persistence have stopped the list of the dead from lengthening more quickly. The government must thank all of the 40,000 medical personnel, both locals and those brought in from other parts of China, for snatching life after life from the clutches of death at great personal risk. The government must thank the organizers, laborers, and volunteers who rushed down every street and alley during the lockdown. Without them, this city wouldn’t have been able to function. And the government must be most thankful for the 9 million citizens in Wuhan, who stayed indoors and never ventured outside. Without their willingness to overcome serious difficulties and cooperate with the authorities, we’d never have been able to control the epidemic.”
The other part of the propaganda effort is to highlight the strengths of the Chinese governance system. Remember, Xi had termed the outbreak a “big test” for the Chinese system. So now, state media is arguing that the steps taken to contain the virus are “vivid manifestations of China’s system advantage, which ensures the whole country works together and stimulates the enthusiasm of all aspects to mobilize resources for major undertakings…”
The third, and perhaps most irresponsible aspect, of the propaganda effort is epitomized by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. Essentially, this is about the origins of the virus. SCMP’s Josephine Ma reported this week that the first identified coronavirus case in China could perhaps be traced back to November 17, 2019. That’s well before any steps were taken. Yet, Zhao’s floating conspiracies about the US military bringing the virus into China. At the heart of this is the argument that while cases may have first been reported in China, it’s not necessary that the virus originated in the country. All of this is also part of the back and forth with the US, which also entails the use of terms such as “Wuhan coronavirus” and “China virus.” Another strand of this propaganda contest is the argument that China’s actions bought the world time to prepare for the pandemic. This is something that’s only going to get greater traction as the West, particularly the US, stumbles in its efforts.
Read this excerpt from a Global Times piece, for example. Western countries “have misused the time China bought for them by blaming China for so-called ‘delays’ during the initial stage of the outbreak. A full month after the beginning of the out-break in China, the US still has not yet equipped itself with sufficient and reliable testing kits, missing the opportunity to identify cases and curbing the spread of the virus. Large public events and rallies are still being held in the US, despite the risk of mass infection…In the eyes of other members of the international community, it appears clear which country’s image has been dented.”
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