Over the past few months, the world has undergone major changes in almost every way. Millions of people have lost their family members, millions of people are now contagious and diseased, many more millions have lost their jobs, all because of the dreadful COVID-19 pandemic. China – being the first country where the COVID-19 virus emerged – is in a good position to help or guide not only leaders in Europe and the United States, but all those affected by the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) initial ‘cover-up’. However, till now, the CCP has failed to share vital information on the coronavirus with any country. Judging by the extent of the outbreak of COVID-19 in 201 countries now, it is fair to say that the CCP has succeeded in its attempt to cover-up the outbreak.
During the SARS pandemic in 2002-2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) had done a remarkable job. It was only after weeks of intense pressure from the WHO that the CCP decided to reveal vital information on SARS. However, this time, WHO, headed by Director General (DG) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus failed to scrutinise CCP. Instead, DG Tedros became the ‘pointsman’ of the CCP and President Xi Jinping.
Why Did Prof Huang Base His Rationale On Inauthentic Twitter Poll?
Amid all these happenings around the world, there are a few scholars who prefer to go by impression, rather than by examination. Professor Yanzhong Huang at the Council on Foreign Relations (Washington, DC), in his commentary titled ‘Xi Jinping Has Won the Coronavirus Crisis’ recognises the successful disinformation campaign waged by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian. However, it is ironic that Mr Huang's basis for this successful disinformation campaign waged by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian is on an informal poll conducted by Chinese celebrity blogger Cui Yongyuan on Twitter.
Now, Twitter happens to be completely banned and blocked in China for the common Chinese people.
Not only that, the informal poll, consisting of 10,000 respondents, couldn’t possibly represent the concerns of 1.4 billion Chinese people. At the time of writing this, Cui Yongyuan’s Twitter account (@CuiYongYuan2020, who joined in October 2019, when COVID-19 was around the corner) has 25.8K followers, and he happens to follow only one person – Spokesperson Zhao Lijian.
Recently, Charlie Campbell from Time magazine reported that on Twitter too, there have been cases of propaganda campaign by the CCP, where 46 percent of tweets using the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia (translates as “come on China and Italy”) were generated by automated bots.
According to the latest findings from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, the CCP has pushed out 90,000 tweets as an information offensive war since the beginning of April 2020, from 200 diplomatic and State-run media accounts.
Hence, the authenticity of the informal poll itself questionable.
CCP's ‘Masked’ Diplomacy: Too Many Strings Attached
The ‘masked diplomacy’ employed by the CCP is another propaganda campaign, which too has fallen flat on its face for different reasons. From early March to 10 April 2020, millions of face masks, surgical masks, pinprick antibody tests, ventilators, etc, supplied to Spain, Netherlands, UK, Australia, US, Canada, Finland, and Turkey were found to be defective and unfit for use. Not only that, in a number of cases, the CCP conflated aid and sales of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to the European countries, giving an impression that everything exported from China was CCP’s aid. One cannot win the hearts and minds of people without winning their trust. For the past few months, CCP's trust deficit has been enormously high all over the world, including in China. Recent 2020 polls taken by Pew research and the Gallup conclude the dramatic rise of Americans who had negative views on China – 66 percent in a Pew poll, and 67 percent in a Gallup poll. Not only that, even among Europeans, the picture is not rosy.
China Power reported that from 2016 to 2018, both Pew and BBC polling data show perception towards China across Europe as generally negative.
On 14 May 2020, Lowy Institute released its poll results called COVID Poll. The report found that: ‘Most Australians (68 percent) are less favourable towards China’s system of government as an authoritarian one-party state, when thinking about the COVID-19 outbreak and China's response to it’. Hence, the CCP’s initial cover-up during the COVID-19 outbreak and CCP's behaviour will further lead to the jump of people having negative views on China.
Xi and CCP’s ‘Endgame’ – And Death of Whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang
The writing on the digital walls at home and abroad convey similar messages about the cover-up and failures of the CCP and Xi Jinping. Because of rising political backlash at home and abroad, nearly for a week, President Xi did not appear on the front page of the party's mouthpiece, People's Daily. It all started with Dr Li Wenliang, who shared information on Weibo (the Chinese domestic version of WeChat) about the SARS-like pneumonia, on his group chat. He was later prosecuted for spreading ‘false rumours’, followed by the detainment of seven other doctors. Very soon rumours began to spread on social media and through ‘Xinwen Lianbo’ a newscast watched by tens of millions.
However, despite that, Wuhan Public Security Bureau called on all netizens to not spread rumours, not believe rumours and to not fabricate rumours.
On 23 January 2020, China’s Wuhan province was locked down. Soon, people in Wuhan realised the intensity of the virus’s outbreak and the authorities’ initial cover-up and misinformation. Social media platforms like Weibo became a virtual place to vent their emotions, leading to widespread displays of anger and frustration that one rarely sees here. Since most of the criticisms were directed at Wuhan authorities, central authorities lifted the censorship for one to two weeks.
The death of Dr Li Wenliang, because of coronavirus infection between 6-7 February, further angered the Chinese people. In fact, it sparked a level of collective anger and grief never before seen on Chinese social media. The last post left by Dr Li Wenliang on his Weibo account says: “Today the nucleic acid test result is positive. The dust has settled and the diagnosis is finally confirmed.” On his last post, Weibo users have left more than 870,000 comments. According to the New York Times correspondent Li Yuan, “only posts of China’s biggest actors and pop stars can match those numbers, even those lack the visceral response that Dr Li's last post has drawn.” In short, even the stars couldn’t match the visceral comments left by thousands and thousands of mourners. Hence, the death of Dr Li Wenliang became the most talked-about topic on WeChat and Weibo (China’s two biggest social media platforms), attracting millions of posts and searches and garnering an estimated 1.5bn views.
State Censorship of Corona Outbreak in China & Digital Outpouring of Frustration
In an interview with Deutsche Welle (DW), Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer based in Beijing, said: “The death of Dr Li Wenliang became a moment of awakening for the Chinese people.” The Chinese people realised the importance of freedom of expression and access to free flow of information. It was the absence of these rights that led to the death of Dr Li Wenliang and the spread of the coronavirus in China.
Hence, the demand for freedom of speech and expression became the most searched-for and the subject of most posts on Weibo.
The screenshots of posts on Weibo were captured and posted by Muyi Xiao, a reporter at Visual Investigations of the New York Times (Twitter account @muyixiao), on her twitter posts where she writes: “It’s 5 am in China right now, but many people did not sleep tonight — ‘I want freedom of speech’ started to trend on Weibo from 1 AM, and now has nearly 2 million views”. Another Twitter post by her reads: “While hashtag ‘we want freedom of speech’ got censored, ‘we DEMAND freedom of speech’ started trending. The popularity of the topic began to surge from 6 am in China, around when the other hashtag got censored. It got 3 million views.h/t @shenlulushen.” Hence, the digital wall in China became China’s wailing wall for the Chinese people to share their sadness, frustration and aspirations with someone they trusted and loved. These frustrations are not limited to the cyberspace. It extends beyond the digital wall.
Xi’s Belt & Road Initiative Will Also Be Put to Test
Around two months before The Guardian posted a video on 5 March 2020, where Vice-Premier and member of 19th Politburo Standing Committee, Sun Chunlan, was inspecting, was heckled by the residential community in the Qingshan district of Wuhan. This incident hinted at growing frustration and distrust towards the CCP and top leaders. Five days later, for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak, President Xi Jinping physically visited Wuhan. By then the COVID-19 epidemic had turned into a pandemic.
Around one month prior, Reuters got a whiff of an alleged internal report prepared by China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think-tank affiliated with the Ministry of State Security, China's top intelligence body. The report concluded that global anti-China sentiments were at its highest since the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and the likelihood of confrontation with America. However, this time, it is a totally different scenario. The repercussion of the CCP's cover-ups and disinformation over COVID-19 has brought the global economy to its knees, leading to the infection of over 4 million, and around 298,322 deaths worldwide. In the months to come, the impact of the coronavirus will be felt more sharply across the economic and political systems of China. Xi’s dream project – ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ – will be put to test too. In short, the crises for President Xi Jinping and the CCP has just begun, and their ‘party’ is about to get over.
(Tenzin Tsultrim, PhD, is a former research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute, a think tank of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala, India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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