There seems to be a direct correlation between freer press in a country and the number and severity of COVID-19 cases reported. If taken to its logically fallacious conclusion, you might even conclude that transparency exacerbates the novel coronavirus – stop the press and you’ll stop the virus growing. It is easy to spot the incredibly flawed logic in that.
Yet, there is an equally flawed and no less dangerous statement being bandied about, even by elements of the Western press – authoritarian regimes and methods have handled the COVID-19 outbreak better. A message that the Chinese government’s propaganda machine is only too happy to echo and amplify.
We see this sentiment in Malta too. Whether it’s cabin fever setting in, hysteria or a Maltese predisposition for giving up freedoms without so much of a fight, online discourse about COVID-19 measures is drifting into previously unheard of territory.
After a brief flirting with national populism, the mood has now become distinctly pro-authoritarian. People openly call for increased police presence, harsh prison sentences akin to the measures in Russia for persons even daring to leave their home and for the swift introduction of dystopian surveillance technology to “detect and track” potential coronavirus carriers.
— BugM (@bugdavem) March 25, 2020
Experts generally concur that a country’s governance regime has little to no relevance to the successful handling of a pandemic such as COVID-19 (factors such as public health systems and practices are far higher determinants as South Korea and Taiwan have shown). If anything, indications are that pandemics tend to be historically deadlier in less democratic regimes.
However, facts and statistics rarely stand in the way of an autocrat. More so if, like the Chinese government is attempting, a world crisis effectively of its own doing can be twisted into an opportunity to push its global agenda.
We are, as a result, witnessing a very public laundering of the narrative regarding COVID-19 by the Chinese government and its effects can hardly be overstated.
A pandemic caused by secrecy and denial
Data emerging from China indicates that the Chinese State had clear information about the emergence of a new Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-like virus as early as mid to late November 2019.
By December 2019, genomics laboratories in Wuhan had already sequenced the new virus and found that it resembled SARS, the virus that China also initially covered up and that went on to kill nearly 800 people in 2002 – 2003.
The Chinese State’s reaction was to confiscate and destroy all samples and gag the researchers. The official line was that there was nothing to worry about and human to human transmission of the virus had not yet occurred.
In spite of these public denials, a doctor in Wuhan (Li Wenliang) noticed in late December 2019 that human to human transmission was in fact taking place and tried to warn his medical colleagues.
The Chinese State’s reaction was to accuse Wenliang of “rumour mongering”, force him to sign a false confession and place him under house arrest. Wenliang died a month later after contracting the virus.
Other citizen journalists and critics in China such as Xu Zhangrun, Xu Zhiyong, Guo Quan, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin who tried to alert the public about the severity and mishandling of the outbreak, were similarly censored and have since disappeared or are under surveillance.
Researchers have concluded that had the Chinese government taken drastic action just one week earlier than they did, worldwide cases of COVID-19 would have been cut by 66%.
Had it taken such action just two weeks earlier, the entire pandemic would likely have been averted altogether with a shocking 95% reduction.
It was only on 20 January 2020, over two months after the Chinese government was first alerted of the emergence of a new SARS-like virus, that Chinese authorities finally conceded that coronavirus was transmissible between humans but failed to disclose that the virus had a two-month head start.
Wuhan stopped all flights and trains in and out of the city two days later. By that time, over 5 million residents of Wuhan had already left the city.
Irresponsibly, on 25 January, China also went ahead with its lunar new year celebrations, known as the world’s largest annual human migration due to the sheer number of people, close to 3 billion, that fly each year in and out of China around that time for the celebrations.
Thus it was only in February, once the true severity of the outbreak became apparent, that international flights in and out of China finally started being cancelled. At which point it was too late.
It is now April and the silenced whistleblowers’ early attempts at piercing the Chinese government’s veil of secrecy and its bungling attempts to cover up a major public health risk are slowly being forgotten.
It’s easy to see why. We have seen shows of force such as China building hospitals and hotels (some of which collapsed) in just over a week. We have read increasingly questionable improvements in statistics and we have heard of ambitious announcements of early lifting of lockdown and travel ban measures.
Even after being called out for not reporting thousands of asymptomatic (but equally contagious) cases or stonewalling questions about risks of contagion in its Uyghur camps, China is only too happy to spread the narrative that its main concern now is newly imported cases from outside China.
Part of a three part Xinhua propaganda video, “A City of Heroes”, showing the building of the new hospitals in Wuhan in 10 days.
The Chinese government has even sought to sow doubt about the origin of the virus itself, first covertly sowing disinformation and now openly claiming that the US military brought it into China.
We see this in Malta too with the tirades through the pages of the Times of Malta between on the one hand the US Chargé d’Affaires Mark Schapiro and the deputy chief of mission of the Chinese Embassy in Malta Wang Zhaofeng on the other.
In a letter in the Times of Malta, Zhaofeng pushes the narrative that it is still too early to conclude that the virus really did originate in China calling any claims to the contrary “disinformation”. Zhaofeng then goes on to praise the Communist Party and how the Chinese “political system enables [it] to mobilise resources on a grand scale in times of need” ignoring that these “resources” include what are essentially slave labourers.
This revisionism reached gaslighting levels this week when, in order to counter the very American class action in the US suing China for covering up and mishandling the virus, two allegedly State-backed Chinese lawyers started their own court cases in China against the US for ‘covering up’ COVID-19.
However, perhaps the most blatant soft power offensive currently underway is China’s face mask diplomacy.
Face mask diplomacy
After decades of offshoring of face mask production by western companies, China is now home to 80% of the world’s manufacturing supply of medical face masks and until a few weeks ago it had not exported any for months.
Back when the Chinese government was grappling with the outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese government requisitioned any supplies and blocked exports of what is now the second most in demand commodity after toilet paper.
Worse, in an act of support, the west shipped over tonnes of masks and other precious medical supplies to China to support its early efforts at containing what with hindsight was an already out of control medical disaster.
Then the tables turned dramatically. With the spread of the virus from China to Europe, Europe needed masks and other supplies desperately and China was sitting on tonnes of them.
Answering the call from Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partner Serbia to “send us anything you can… [because] European solidarity does not exist”, China saw and seized the opportunity.
China could complete the reframing of its role from the country that many believed was facing its Chernobyl moment to scoring geopolitical points by portraying itself as a global power while driving further wedges between western powers such as the European Union.
Despite a few setbacks, China has embarked on a massive drive to strategically send previously hoarded supplies to European countries (more so if BRI partners or if there was some Eurosceptic sentiment gathering steam) with messages of love and support.
Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, who appears to have reprised her role as China’s pallbearer using the Malta Trust Foundation (previously the President’s Trust) as a front, led the charge.
In a gushing advertorial published in the Times of Malta last week, Coleiro Preca heaped praise on “our friends from China” for donating 20,000 masks and providing their expertise through an online call with Wang Chen, described as a specialist “who has been in charge of strategy and implementation [in China] against the COVID-19 outbreak”.
Bizarrely, it took a gushing advertorial to finally discover who Sophie Chen is, described by Coleiro Preca as the “instrumental” international director at The Malta Trust Foundation, after just last year no one wanted to answer that very question.
Not to be outdone, Evarist Bartolo, now Foreign Minister, hastily organised a press conference on Monday to welcome a gift of 110,000 face masks (approximately costing some €5,000) from a Chinese film production company somehow linked to Aiken Ltd’s (of PL billboard fame) politically well-connected owners.
Strangely reminiscent of Serbia’s president’s comment, Bartolo was quoted as lamenting “a lack of solidarity from the EU” while posing in front of boxes with hearts and Chinese writing.
Naturally, neither Coleiro Preca nor Bartolo mentioned that Malta requested over 2 million medical supplies through the EU’s joint procurement process, that it will receive around €48 million in emergency funds.
Authoritarians follow in China’s wake
This latest pandemic, not the world’s first nor its last, catches us at a difficult juncture.
After the wave of populism that’s gripped us for the better part of this decade, we find Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, the leaders of the US and the UK, to be woefully inadequate at best.
Still reeling from its Brexit wounds as well as a multi-fronted assault from a Trumpian US, divisive China and the ever-lurking Russia, the European Union is struggling to regain its composure.
While there is little doubt that China’s actions caused COVID-19 to spiral into a pandemic, the world leaders’ hesitant actions and at times bungling measures have further exacerbated the crisis.
Through its narrative laundering efforts and soft power drive, China is seeking to fill that perceived leadership void. Authoritarian-minded leaders from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey are equally seeking to follow China’s lead.
Ever ready to exploit a crisis and the public hysteria that accompanies it, autocrats are further consolidating their power and silencing critical voices including healthcare workers.
Orban has indefinitely suspended Hungary’s parliament and elections, instead appropriating the power to rule by decree – he has criminalised “false” reporting about coronavirus or his government’s response to it.
It goes without saying that denial and silencing the press and critics is not an effective public health strategy. We should have learnt that lesson from Chernobyl.
Do we really need to learn the lesson that authoritarianism is not desirable from COVID-19’s aftermath?