Chinese President Xi Jinping (File pic)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (File pic)

Virus exposes Xi's feet of clay

ANI | Updated: Mar 30, 2020 13:06 IST

Hong Kong, Mar 30 (ANI): The world is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, and few have been harder hit than the image of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chairman Xi Jinping. Such is the battering that China has been receiving, that the party propaganda machine has slammed into top gear to roll back the criticism.

For much of his presidency, it seemed Xi could do no wrong. The party's golden boy benefitted from a carefully concocted domestic and international propaganda campaign. It seemed that China's rise was inexorable, and master tactician Xi was allowed to sweep away past traditions and to grasp the reins of power for a lifetime.

Adam Ni, Director of the China Policy Centre, an independent non-profit research organization based in Canberra, spoke to ANI about how Xi has been impacted by China's mishandling of the health crisis. "Regarding Xi's popularity amid COVID-19, I think there are two sides to this. The earlier misstep by the Chinese authorities and the absence of Xi from the public limelight for days on end towards the early stages of this crisis has hit Xi's popularity."

Ni added, "Xi's political star has certainly been challenged over the past twelve months with challenges across a spectrum of issues, including a slowing economy, Hong Kong, cross-strait relations with Taiwan, US-China relations and China's international reputation. All in all, COVID-19 and these other challenges and blunders have made Xi vulnerable to criticism. He is less politically unassailable than he was at the start of 2019, for example."

Xi's and the CCP's peculiar feeling of vulnerability is underscored dramatically by the remorseless propaganda campaign that China is now waging. In Mao Zedong's time, this was called a "tongue war" but now much of it is being fought on Western online and media platforms.

Efforts by Chinese diplomats, ministers, department spokespersons and other lackeys to push "alternative truths" have reached unprecedented levels. These figureheads have been widely using Facebook and Twitter to spread their nefarious messages, even though such platforms are banned within China. Their singular purpose is to deflect blame for bungling the response to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

China Neican, a weekly China information newsletter published weekly by Adam Ni and Yun Jiang, summarized: "The Chinese authorities' first instinct was the suppression of information. After realizing that paper cannot stifle a fire, it then turned its propaganda effort to mobilization - how the government has acted decisively to build hospitals in record times and lockdown entire cities. For two weeks, it allows some non-state-sanctioned information to flow. The authorities then clamped down hard on information control again, with the emphasis being placed on telling positive stories. So the heroic efforts of frontline workers were highlighted while the sufferings of the patients were downplayed."

Ni commented to ANI: "There was deep frustration and resentment at the Chineseauthorities' early response to COVID-19. But I think the current extreme measures have wide public support because they are seen as effective measures against the virus. The CCP is now spinning its own narrative about the virus, focusing in on its achievements while deflecting blame. Chinese officials have even gone as far as to spread conspiracy theories about how the virus originated in the USA."

One example is Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lijian Zhao who tweeted a conspiracy theory that the virus came from a US military bio-lab. WeChat articles alleging the virus had a US origin were also permitted to disseminate.

Summarizing the CCP's propaganda efforts to shape the COVID-19 narrative, Ni shared with ANI: "In my mind, there are four key elements to its narrative efforts, essentially all for the purpose of bolstering the legitimacy of the party at a time of heightened uncertainty for the Chinese people."

The first point mentioned by the Australia-based academic is blame avoidance. "The party has sought to deflect blame by scapegoating other expandable actors, such as local authorities. It has also sought to minimize attention to its early missteps. Some of China's diplomats have even gone as far as supporting conspiracy theories about where the virus came from."

Secondly, Ni mentioned the leveraging of nationalistic sentiment. "Through the narratives about a 'People's War' against disease, and casting the crisis as a national struggle, the CCP is whipping up nationalism to bolster its legitimacy."The CCP thus enacted a new phase blaming "foreign hostile forces", a typical ploy.

Third is highlighting the supposed superiority of China's political and governance system. "The Chinese state-party has focused heavily on shortcomings of the international response to the virus, especially in Europe and the USA. In doing so, it is trying to convince the domestic public and the international community that China's political and governance system has superior features."

Latterly, China has been highlighting its global support for countries like Italy with deliveries of medical supplies and health workers. Beijing is busily posturing as a world leader in virus research and effective governance.

Ironically, the depths of its propaganda efforts demonstrate how unconfident the CCP is about its governance. It is very afraid of the people and of international criticism, showing Chinese communist is not a robust system. These are not the actions of a strong party state, but one that fears opprobrium.

Finally, Ni listed censorship. "The party is censoring dissenting views domestically in an effort to sway public opinion and control the narrative environment in China. The success of this has been mixed as censors and netizens play an endless game of cat-and-mouse."

Many Chinese netizens went to great lengths despite censorship to spread the story of the crisis, illustrating that many Chinese do care for the truth rather than merely what supports the party apparatus. One blogger called Fang Fangbravely said, "The government should end its arrogance and humbly express gratitude to its masters - the millions of people in Wuhan." China Neican commented, "Real change in China comes from the accumulation of billions of actions by normal people within the country itself, instead of rhetoric from the West."

Michael George DeSombre, US Ambassador to Thailand, wrote in a State Department op-ed, "Accurate information must move freely - especially during crises. A government's duty is to save lives, not save face."

DeSombre catalogued errors by China, such as orders to deliberately destroy virus samples early on, and arresting people for sharing news of the outbreak online. Furthermore, seven million people left Wuhan in January before travel restrictions were finally imposed.

Ni concluded, "In essence, the party wants to make the best out of a terrible situation and spin the story in favor of the party by deflecting blame, sowing doubts on its culpability, whipping up nationalism and highlighting the superiority of the Chinese party-state."

Throughout December and most of January, Xi wanted only to stifle news of the outbreak. Thus, from 11-17 January, for example, an important pre-scheduled CCP meeting was held in Wuhan and, during that time, the provincial health commission oddly insisted there were no new virus cases.

Initially, Xi distanced himself from the crisis, because a degree of separatism would help disassociate him from any blame. In fact, Xi did not visit Wuhan until 10 March, although he sent Premier Li Keqiang in late January. When he did eventually bother to turn up in the epicenter, it was treated by media as something of a victory tour. Praising his paternal care, comments such as "his heart contains everyone" gushed forth.

However, Xi's delayed visit contrasts with past leaders who were usually relatively swift to arrive on the scene after disaster struck. The Wuhan party secretary general's earlier comments that all should be "grateful" to Xi and the CCP grossly backfired, so instead Xi praised the heroism of Wuhan citizens.

An important subplot was the case of Wuhan doctor and whistleblower Li Wenliang. He warned of the novel widespread attention, on 3 January he was arrested by the police and forced to say he had made "false comments". The 34-year-old doctor died of COVID-19 on 7 February, bringing forth a gush of public anger that posed an immediate threat to the CCP's image.

Chinese media were thus required to walk a fine line between telling Li's story but without casting aspersions on the government. To assuage anger, Wuhan's Public Security Bureau "solemnly apologized" for its mistake in admonishing Li. After allowing an initial period to vent mourning over Li's death, censorship clamped down again.

One thread in the unfolding narrative was that China had declared local victory over the virus, while other countries such as Italy were not coping nearly as well. Another narrative is captured by the following excerpt: "Were it not for the unique institutional advantages of the Chinesesystem, the world might be battling a devastating pandemic." Indeed, mankind was told it should be "grateful" to China for "buying the world time".

Unfortunately, because of ineptitude and ill-preparedness among many Western leaders, and the statements of sycophantic people like Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Ethiopian Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), China's narrative has been bolstered.

The immaturity of President Donald Trump's in calling it the "China virus" has exacerbated the issue and played into China's hands. Indeed, Beijing is quick to play the racist card, with the CCP adept at conflating the Chinese people with the party even though they are in fact different entities.

WHO did not declare a pandemic until 11 March, after parroting dubious assurances from China that all was under control. On 15 January, WHO infamously tweeted, "Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus..."

Xi, by centralizing power upon his own shoulders as supreme leader, has increased his degree of risk. With one crisis after another piling up on China's doorstep, his aura has diminished. This explains why the propaganda machine is pulling out all stops right now for face is of utmost importance to Asian culture in general, and for the ultra-sensitive CCP in particular.

Perhaps the most pertinent question to ask is how Xi's image will be affected in the months and years ahead.

Ni predicted: "It's unclear at this point how Xi's popularity will come out from this crisis. It depends on how the virus situation develops in China. Despite that it has now come under control, I think this crisis has some way to go yet with deep implications for Chinese society and the relationship between the people and the party. Most importantly, the party will likely arrive at the conclusion that, to prevent future such crisis, it needs more control over society."

This is a bleak prediction, although likely accurate. Under Xi, China has become increasingly Orwellian with intrusive surveillance and digitization of personal data. Religions - whether Buddhist, Christian, Falun Gong or Muslim - have all been targeted for stricter sanctions. Indeed, more than a million Uighurs are currently locked up in concentration camps. Regarding the latter, no information has trickled out over coronavirus outbreaks, but such overcrowded institutions represent a dangerous potential breeding ground.

China's economy will have been severely impacted by COVID-19. This will have a knock-on effect on Xi's blue-ribbon Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), for example. Nonetheless, Chinese authorities are trying to convince the world that the BRI will quickly get back on track.

The 2019 World Press Freedom Index awarded China 177th place out of 180 countries, eclipsed only by Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea. The country is an inveterate manipulator of the truth. Whilst simultaneously kicking out reporters from several American newspapers, China stated, "We call on foreign media outlets and journalists to play a positive role in advancing the mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world."

Beijing is not interested in the truth, but only in promoting its own ideology where the CCP and Xi reign supreme. It is therefore hypocritical of China to accuse the USA of "unwarranted restrictions" on Chinese state-owned media and "growing discrimination and politically motivated oppression" while it prosecutes a campaign of falsities to burnish its marred image. (ANI)