China is mobilizing to control the narrative on coronavirus

A cartoon of the coronavirus depicted as part of the Chinese national flag is pictured in a Danish newspaper. The Chinese embassy in Copenhagen said it “offends human conscience.”
A cartoon of the coronavirus depicted as part of the Chinese national flag is pictured in a Danish newspaper. The Chinese embassy in Copenhagen said it “offends human conscience.”
Image: Ritzau Scanpix/Ida Marie Odgaard via REUTERS
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About three weeks ago, Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO, submitted one of his bi-monthly columns to The Chicago Tribune for publication. In it, Daalder criticized China for choosing “secrecy and inaction” in dealing with Covid-19, as the disease caused by the coronavirus is officially known. He wrote that China had turned “the possibility of an epidemic into a reality.”

He also levied the kind of accusation against the Chinese Community Party and its leader, Xi Jinping, that neither is particularly fond of hearing: “Authoritarians are good at ducking responsibility and shifting blame,” Daalder wrote. “But people inside and out of China will have noticed that secrecy and control can be deadly, and will begin to question whether the system is in fact as effective as China’s leaders make it out to be.”

Four days later, the column was picked up by The Korea Herald, and then published by The Kathmandu Post in Nepal, alongside an illustration of Mao Zedong wearing a surgical mask. Pandemonium broke out.

Zhao Jian, China’s consul general in Chicago, sent a letter to the editor of the Tribune, accusing Daalder of inaccuracies and bias. In Nepal, the Chinese embassy issued a strongly-worded statement that said the Kathmandu Post was “malicious” in choosing to publish the editorial and the accompanying image, and accused its editor-in-chief of “becoming a parrot of some anti-China forces.” In response, editors from major publications across Nepal published an open letter calling the Chinese embassy’s actions “a direct threat to the Nepali people’s right to a free press.”

This is not the only fight against foreign media coverage of China’s handling of the coronavirus that Chinese diplomats have waged in recent weeks. Around the world, and especially in Europe, Chinese emissaries have written irate missives to major national publications and published statements on embassy websites criticizing—or, alternatively, lauding—the press for its coverage of the outbreak.

Experts on Europe’s relationship with China say this is part of a broader pattern of increased hostility from Chinese diplomats on issues ranging from coronavirus to Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

“Control the narrative”

France. Britain. Germany. Italy. Denmark.

Across Europe, Chinese embassies have gone after media reports criticizing China for its handling of coronavirus, seeking to promote the idea that the Communist Party’s response to the outbreak has in fact been transparent and effective.

The embassy in London accused The Economist of “hold[ing] a prejudice against China’s political system.” In Paris, the Chinese embassy said that, in some media outlets, “the reflex criticism of everything Chinese is bordering on paranoia.” In Berlin, the embassy accused the media of “continuing to stir up and spread panic.” In Copenhagen, the embassy demanded that a Danish newspaper “publicly apologize to the Chinese people” for publishing a cartoon depicting a Chinese flag with illustrations of a virus instead of stars.

Though the tone and content of these statements vary, “there are some clear talking points,” said Björn Jerdén, head of the Asia Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “They are concerned that people are connecting this virus to China. You can’t call it the China virus, or the Wuhan virus. You should see it as a global crisis faced by many countries, China being one of them.”

Chinese diplomats have also praised complimentary coverage, like in Bulgaria, where the embassy said in a press release: “[S]ome Western media, hostile organizations and cults funded by other countries are creating rumors and slandering China and deliberately panicking. We thank and appreciate the Bulgarian media’s adherence to professional ethics, which objectively and fairly reflect the epidemic situation and control measures in China.”

“What they want to do with this obviously is to control the narrative on coronavirus,” said Lucrezia Poggetti, EU-China relations analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies. This echoes efforts made within China, where the Communist Party clamped down on information shared about the disease and dispatched more than 300 people to generate positive news stories around the outbreak.

But while these efforts may achieve their aim within China, it’s not clear how successful they will be in Europe. “It’s not really workable in a democratic society to…tell everyone to shut up and correct their views, and that’s going to provoke people into…taking a more critical position against China,” argued Magnus Fiskesjö, an associate professor of anthropology at Cornell University and former second secretary at the Swedish Embassy in Beijing.

“Europe is a bit of a battle ground”

It’s not just coronavirus.

Experts say Chinese diplomacy has gotten more assertive—and in some cases, aggressive—in the past year, especially in Europe, where China is facing competition from an increasingly antagonistic United States.

Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College and former first secretary at the British Embassy in Beijing, said that Europe has become a “battleground” between the US and China. “China feels that it’s got to proactively and assertively put its position out there,” he said, especially on hot-button issues like Huawei and 5G technology.

But this approach has led to tensions. Chinese diplomats have sparked diplomatic crises in Sweden and Czechia. Meanwhile positive views of China among Europeans have fallen precipitously, and last year, the EU declared in a strategic communication (pdf) document that China is a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”

These diplomatic incidents are all the more important for their timing: 2020 is pivotal for the future of the EU-China relationship, with key agreements set to be signed by the end of the year. But Brown believes that Chinese diplomats will continue to pursue this kind of confrontational strategy in European countries because he sees instructions to do so as coming from the very top of China’s government.

“Chinese ambassadors are going to get career recognition for reporting back home that you have strongly asserted China’s interests,” Brown said. “The problem is of course, that in the bigger diplomatic context, it probably doesn’t really help.”