Toys have been drafted in the great-power competition between China and the United States.
On April 29, China’s state-run news agency Xinhua posted an animated video titled “Once Upon a Virus.” In it, Lego-like figures representing the two countries trade barbs. The Chinese side mocks America’s slow response to the coronavirus pandemic and paints Beijing’s response in a flattering light, with the ragtime classic “The Entertainer” playing in the background.
Relations between Beijing and Washington have become increasingly hostile over the past two years. They’ve worsened even more during the pandemic.
It’s believed the coronavirus outbreak originated in Wuhan, China, and there is evidence that authorities there initially covered up the problem. The US and its allies have called for a global investigation into the origin of the virus, an idea China has resisted. Officials in both countries have traded conspiracy theories over Twitter about who is responsible for the public health crisis, with a Chinese official accusing the US military of bringing the coronavirus to China, and Donald Trump promoting, without evidence, the theory that a virology lab in Wuhan accidentally released the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
In the video, which has been viewed 1.6 million times on Twitter, a warrior representing China repeatedly warns the US (represented by a rather obnoxious Statue of Liberty) about the severity of the problem. The US dismisses the warnings, echoing conservative talking points about lockdowns as a violation of human rights (paywall), and later criticizes China for not warning it sooner. By that point, the Statue of Liberty looks severely ill, and is hooked up to an IV. The video ends with her saying, “We are always correct, even when we contradict ourselves,” while China responds: “That’s what I love best about you Americans, your consistency.”
The video is effective because, like any good piece of propaganda, it mixes elements of truth with over-simplifications, exaggerations, and a lack of context. For example, the Chinese warrior accuses the US of pulling its funding from the World Health Organization (WHO) because of anti-China bias. While other countries have, like the US, accused the public health agency of being soft on China, America is the only one to suspend its funding, and experts say the decision will cripple the global response to the pandemic.
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Throughout the video, China says the US “did nothing for three months” after China notified the WHO on Dec. 31 of an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan. That, by and large, is true, though in early February the Trump administration did bar entry of foreign nationals who’d recently been to China, much to Beijing’s annoyance. A Washington Post investigation found that, for 70 days, “the US was beset by denial and dysfunction as the coronavirus raged.”
Of course, the video ignores the fact that Chinese officials delayed warning the public about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and disciplined doctors who tried to warn people via social media. As the Associated Press reports, “China’s rigid controls on information, bureaucratic hurdles and a reluctance to send bad news up the chain of command muffled early warnings.” But on these accusations, the otherwise chatty figures are mum.
The Lego Group, for its part, says it had nothing to do with the making of this video.
Correction: This post has been updated to note that “The Entertainer” plays in the video’s background, not a silent film score as previously stated. Thanks to the alert reader who pointed this out.