By David O. Shullman
During the past two weeks, Serbia’s president has hailed Chinese President Xi Jinping as his “brother” and kissed the Chinese flag, while leaders across Africa and Latin America have effusively praised China’s generosity. The Chinese government throughout the past year pursued a series of largely ineffective efforts to manipulate global narratives regarding its crackdown on democracy protests in Hong Kong and detention of more than one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now undertaking its most audacious effort yet at shaping international perceptions, looking to produce a soft power victory out of a pandemic of its own making.
Beijing’s use of the COVID-19 crisis to position itself as a responsible global leader is not only the height of chutzpah, but also a clear marker of a new phase in China’s manipulation of the global information space.
The CCP is employing a propaganda and disinformation blitz not just to protect its reputation, but to go on the offensive. Chinese leaders appear set to translate their manipulation of the global narrative and provision of medical equipment to countries hit hard by COVID-19 to their concrete benefit, including through advantageous investment deals with the European Union and individual countries. Deliveries of ventilators, masks, and virus test kits — many of which might not work properly — may come packaged with pressure on countries that have been reluctant to adopt China’s terms, or integrate Huawei equipment in their 5G infrastructure.
The CCP’s manipulation of the current crisis is, however, just one manifestation of its broader impact on the fundamental relationship between information, governments, and populations in countries around the world. China is exporting its authoritarian approach to information control, and bolstering the notion that regimes of all types have the right to manipulate or even shut down their sovereign information spaces to protect their rule.
This obsession with maintaining control over information is the very approach that produced the current pandemic. The Chinese government’s silencing of those sounding the alarm about COVID-19, and suppression of critical research, delayed interventions that could have significantly reduced the virus’s spread. By seeding that same obsession in fragile democracies and autocratic nations around the world — and sharing the tools to act upon it — the CCP is raising the likelihood of future transnational crises.
Beijing is poised to capitalize on the mounting challenges that governments around the world will face as a result of COVID-19, promoting authoritarian methods to leaders looking to placate or control frustrated publics. The United States should counter China’s efforts by redoubling support for democratic solutions to those challenges, underscoring the success of democracies like Taiwan and South Korea in responding to the virus, and demonstrating that democracies are best positioned to resuscitate their economies and societies in the wake of this crisis.
Popularizing Autocracy, Devaluing Truth
From Cambodia to Serbia to Uganda, China is offering large-scale training on how to manipulate public opinion, censor and surveil journalists and civil society activists, and implement CCP-style cybersecurity policies. The Chinese government is inspiring a growing number of governments — including Vietnam, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — to better control and even shut down their internet to maintain their grip on power. Illiberal leaders are gaining the technology and knowhow to monitor and target individuals who challenge the official narrative, as the CCP did with COVID-19 whistleblowers Li Wenliang and Ai Fen in Wuhan. China’s growing influence over news production and content in foreign countries is also undercutting democratic governance and media freedom.
In essence, China is exporting the notion that that the only legitimate information — within countries’ borders, in the international media, and from international institutions — is that which those in power deem convenient to their continued rule. To paraphrase George Orwell, it is becoming less profitable to speak and write truths that do not comport with official government narratives.
China’s model of information control is alluring to critics of democracy, for whom Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — rife with human rights abuses — looks like another proof point for authoritarianism. China’s tightened grip on its media, internet, and civil society is an inspiration for illiberal leaders insecure in their popular legitimacy and afraid of open debate among their own citizens. The CCP’s crackdown has shut down or silenced media outlets and advocacy groups who held the Chinese government accountable for the SARS outbreak in 2003, and which could have sounded the alarm on COVID-19.
Silencing Future Whistleblowers
There are tangible risks to China’s enabling of information controls across a growing set of countries, any of which could be the locus of the next transnational crisis. In many cases, China’s support for authoritarian leaders is exacerbating problems with information flow that are inherent to non-democratic rule.
Autocratic governments are less likely to receive information critical to stamping out incipient health and other crises because, as occurred in Wuhan during the early days of COVID-19, lower-level officials fear the repercussions of sharing bad news. The laboratory in Shanghai that first published the COVID-19 genome sequence in early January was quickly ordered to close for “rectification,” which hampered scientists’ research aimed at controlling the outbreak. Insecure in the legitimacy of their rule, authoritarian leaders are also more likely to silence members of the media and prevent them from unearthing critical information that might help to avert major problems.
Authoritarian leaders also are less likely to share vital information with other countries, permit observation and assistance from foreign experts, or collaborate internationally to nip emerging crises in the bud. China withheld information about community spread of the virus in late December and did not inform the World Health Organization until nearly three weeks later. The global institution has offered glowing judgment of China’s “transparency” in handling the crisis, raising questions about China’s influence over the organization. Meanwhile, China’s blocking of Taiwan’s access to the World Health Organization meant that Taiwan’s reports on community spread were not fed into the global public health system; the organization’s Director General refused last week to even discuss the effectiveness of Taiwan’s response to the pandemic. Furthermore, data shared by authoritarian regimes such as the CCP is frequently unreliable. These governments are often well-practiced at doctoring GDP data, pollution measurements, and other statistics at the best of times and can hardly be trusted to share accurate information during a crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that the dysfunctions of authoritarianism in one country can wreak havoc around the world. In an increasingly connected world in which local challenges can quickly metastasize into global crises, the United States and its democratic allies cannot afford to have a growing number of governments prioritize their grip on power above the safety of their citizens.
Transparency and the Next Pandemic
At a time when the CCP is presenting its response to COVID-19 as evidence of the superiority of its authoritarian system, the United States and its partners should continue to push back on China’s manipulation of the narrative. Washington can underscore the CCP’s responsibility for this pandemic — and its draconian methods to control the virus — without stoking racism or undermining global collaboration needed to combat COVID-19. Indeed, America’s international leadership in responding to the pandemic would underline democracies’ continued role in tackling global challenges and avoid ceding the field to China. Such leadership, combined with a demonstration of the United States’ and its allies’ capacity to effectively combat COVID-19, is critical to answering the CCP’s propaganda push. The necessity for greater U.S.-China cooperation to battle COVID-19, including through the sharing of scientific research and data, does not negate the importance of thwarting Beijing’s efforts to use this crisis to promote authoritarianism.
While countering this particularly egregious instance of CCP propaganda is important, Washington must also look beyond this moment. The United States should prepare for a future certain to be characterized by increasingly frequent Chinese government efforts to dominate the global narrative, and the expansion of CCP-style information controls across a growing number of countries.
American efforts to mitigate such risks and counter the export of China’s model of information control will require playing the long game — including by supporting civil society and independent media as the guarantors of transparency in countries around the world. Organizations such as Reporters without Borders and Freedom House continue to document closing information spaces, while partners on the ground are training journalists and mobilizing popular awareness of the hazards of creeping information controls by government leaders, elected or not. Washington should increase support for these groups on the front line of democracies’ battle against the advocates of authoritarianism. Perhaps most importantly, the United States and its partners must demonstrate that democracies can respond effectively to crises of this magnitude, and that their model is best-equipped to cope with and recover from its long-term effects.