“It might be US army [sic] who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” tweeted a Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson last week. He then followed up by tweeting a report from a conspiracy website, stating that it provided “further evidence that the virus originated in the US.”
There are no words to describe the absurdity of the accusation, but for those who monitor China’s ruling regime it comes as no surprise. Deflection and blame are par for the course, but what is surprising is how many in the United States media are inadvertently carrying water for Beijing.
Just take the hysteria over basic facts like the virus’s origins. Just a month ago, the New York Times regularly referred to it as the “Wuhan coronavirus,” as did the Associated Press, CNN, and others. A Foreign Policy editor, whom no one could reasonably accuse of insensitivity, referred to it as the “Wuhan virus” all the while warning “prejudices can fuel fear and racism” against the Chinese people. A month ago, no one thought twice because geographic elements were common parts of disease names; think Ebola, the Hong Kong flu, or the West Nile virus.
Of course, as the epidemic spread, international observers began to raise important questions about the outbreak and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) complete lack of transparency in its response. Outraged by the scrutiny, the CCP immediately launched a campaign to distract and bully foreign media and politicians. In order to disassociate the pandemic from their nation, Beijing has made the argument that referring to the disease as the “Wuhan coronavirus” before it even had an official name is racist.
The artificial divisiveness surrounding the name only further clouds the truth and distracts from the effort to fight the coronavirus — no doubt to the satisfaction of the CCP and any other malign actors working against America.
Xi Jinping is using state-directed media outlets to do more than blame America; he is orchestrating a campaign of disinformation across the globe and leveraging his nation’s economic and military heft to ensure other countries fall in line with the CCP’s messaging. He has done so since the virus’s initial outbreak, refusing to share vital information about its transmission, lethality, and other data — depriving other nations the opportunity to prepare for its inevitable spread in the process. Yet, some Western media outlets continue to insist China’s actions “bought America time” – a headline ripped straight from Beijing’s state-run media.
When the coronavirus did move from China into other East Asian nations, instead of shifting to more transparency, the CCP used the opportunity to box out adversaries and play geopolitical games. Not only did it manipulate the U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO) to block Taiwan from emergency meetings, the CCP pressured the WHO not to label the coronavirus a pandemic — a black mark the Party feared would hurt China’s image on the international stage. (Now, apparently looking to cut out the middleman, a state think-tank in China is mulling a CCP-led global health organization that could more effectively improve the nation’s image).
After the outbreak transformed into a full-fledged pandemic — which the WHO refused to designate it as until just a few days ago against its own regulations — China began to stymie its epidemic by devoting the whole of its manufacturing base to produce medical goods for its own population.
Last month, Xi made clear the CCP’s propaganda apparatus had to tell good stories about China and coronavirus.
Now, with transmission rates supposedly falling, the CCP can focus on attacking critical journalists via harassment campaigns and expulsions and bolstering its global image. Of course, when China does so, it also exerts leverage over weaker countries. For example, Beijing recently offered to sell the Italian government, which is home to a large population of overseas Chinese workers and suffering from a particularly severe coronavirus outbreak, medical supplies. It is unclear how many of those supplies now arriving in Italy are donations or selective sale, but the point is clear: China is rewarding countries that sent supplies the CCP chose to accept or remained open to Chinese citizens in the face of the initial outbreak.
To be clear, there’s nothing new about the CCP exploiting its powers to pressure other nations to stay silent about its human rights abuses. Just this week, the Chinese government demanded American lawmakers refrain from calling attention to the egregious human rights abuses happening in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — including the forced labor of ethnic and religious minorities.
But the coronavirus pandemic represents a shameless new chapter in China’s cynical campaign to control its own image. By working day in, day out to obfuscate details of the disaster, Beijing has only exacerbated the threat the virus poses to the world. These are not the actions of a responsible global power. The world is witnessing once again the familiar, Orwellian scheme from China’s playbook to control the narrative both at home and — with an assist from naive media actors — abroad.
America has worked to assist all countries — China very much included — suffering from this pandemic. But we cannot stand by as Beijing’s lies result in economic decline and in lives threatened across the world.
Senator Rubio (R-FL) is a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.