“I’m sure that the Americans were behind it.” It chilled my bones to hear an elderly family friend say that on the phone a few weeks ago. She has no connections to China and follows the news only at a distance. Yet days before the British press had started to report the rumour, she heard and repeated the allegation – cited by senior Chinese ambassadors and a foreign ministry spokesman – that the United States planted the novel coronavirus in Wuhan.
In a matter of weeks, if not days, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) has managed to convince hundreds of millions of people across the world that it is the hero of the pandemic. Few disinformation campaigns have been as pervasive, menacing or successful as that now being run by the CCP. And the attack lines ruminating in political discourse are familiar.
“We warned you about this. You should have prepared.”
You didn’t. You reassured us that you had it all under control and that it couldn’t spread. You begged us not to close our borders. When countries took action, you accused them of creating and spreading fear.
“We acted effectively. Your government hasn’t.”
You didn’t. You suppressed knowledge of the initial outbreak, silencing medical experts and journalists trying to protect the public, whom you later called “martyrs”. You ordered laboratories to destroy early samples of the virus and cease tests. But it’s no use blaming this on a handful of rotten officials in Wuhan. It’s a response that is institutionally incentivised.
Then you pretended and assumed uncritically, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, that the virus was non-transmissible between humans. That allowed it to spread undetected. Three weeks after alerting the world to the outbreak, you organised a banquet for 40,000 Wuhanese families.
Only afterwards, following weeks of silence from President Xi Jinping, did you impose lockdowns, some of which were appallingly implemented and allowed hundreds of thousands of potential carriers to escape.
“We led international research.”
You ignored offers of medical teams from the US and the World Health Organisation. You closed the Shanghai laboratory that sequenced the virus. You were slow to share data with the international community. You expelled foreign journalists commenting on the effectiveness of your response.
And you are still systematically incentivising doctors and bureaucrats to underdiagnose and underreport cases and deaths by a factor of up to 40. Your coronavirus case definition, which you have changed eight times, excludes asymptomatic patients that have tested positive. Minutes from an advisory group suggest that your misleading, inadequate and incomplete data lost Britain weeks of preparation.
“Look at all the medical equipment we’ve donated to you.”
Not all of this is certain, of course. There is more robust evidence for some of these claims than there is for others. It is difficult to trust data and eyewitness reports collected from an authoritarian regime. We do not yet know the full story. And hindsight is 20/20.
In normal times, it would be prudent to wait until the virus is defeated. Afterwards, we could gather up all the available evidence and scrutinise our accusations in a fair public enquiry, and only then recognise mistakes.
Yet, even while we are burying our dead, the CCP’s propaganda machine is busy rewriting history. Ignoring the superior responses of its eastern neighbours, it argues that its effective response to the pandemic is an exemplary model for other countries to follow.
Take Italy. Its state broadcaster has granted far too much airtime to Chinese donations compared to more generous contributions from the United States and European countries. Foreign minister and leading Five Star politician Luigi di Maio has publicly confused Chinese commercial deals with donations from the Chinese Red Cross.
Furthermore, 36 per cent of Italians say that Italy should look to China for intercontinental relations, compared to 30 per cent for the United States. And 42 per cent want to leave the European Union.
Chinese state media, meanwhile, has been publicising an unconfirmed claim from an Italian professor that the virus may have circulated in Lombardy before the Wuhan outbreak became public knowledge. The professor never meant to question the origin of the virus, only whether it circulated earlier than first reported.
Whatever the result of any future inquiry, however objective and impartial, the CCP is racing to avoid blame in the hearts and minds of the world’s public. Challenging its narratives and raising questions about its response to the virus cannot wait.
There are two notes of caution to be added to this.
First, some commentators, such as Labour’s Richard Burgon, argue that criticism of the CCP is just an attempt to distract us from the failings of our domestic governments. Perhaps. But we can – and should – scrutinise the decisions of our government, the NHS and other institutions while also remaining on guard against the CCP’s disinformation and deception.
Citizens must never be held indiscriminately responsible for the actions of their government. The Chinese Communist party is not China. The rhetoric of a “Chinese virus” is not acceptable. Racism is bad and anti-Chinese sentiment is bad. Criticising the CCP, however, is not racist, and nor is it whipping up racism. It’s about holding an authoritarian regime – not a people – to account. We should be helping and empowering the people that live under the CCP’s tyrannical rule.
What anguishes me the most is that there is a fundamental virtue that is being violated: responsibility. You recognise and apologise for your mistakes. You make changes to ensure that they don’t happen again. You do not, however, surreptitiously cover them up, not least while the rest of the world is distracted fighting a deadly virus that – had you not committed those mistakes – you might have been able to delay, if not contain.
The gulf between “contained” and “beyond control” is immense. This virus will now be with us forever. It will mutate continually. Even once we find a vaccine, it will kill thousands of people every year, like influenza. Our children and our grandchildren may die of it. Perhaps all for the sake of a series of institutional mistakes that would never have been made in any liberal capitalist country.
Two months ago, the editorial of a Chinese state-owned newspaper trumpeted: “Were it not for the unique institutional advantages of the Chinese system, the world might be battling a devastating pandemic.” Thanks to the CCP’s propaganda war, our children’s history books may never question that tale of events.