By Jonathan Berkshire Miller, March 30, 2020
Beijing has been working in overdrive in recent weeks to alter the narrative on the rapidly evolving crisis linked to the spread of the COVID-19 virus around the world. This past week, the United States officially passed China as the country with the largest reported number of viral infections. As Washington struggles to manage the outbreak on one hand, it is also trading barbs with China over a growing narrative from Beijing, which is aggressively looking to deflect criticism of its management of the outbreak. Senior Chinese diplomats have openly flaunted false narratives and conspiracy theories that the virus may have originated in the US, drawing a strong rebuke from Washington.
China has been looking to implement narrative-changing moves in other ways too. As the country appears to be recovering with less viral infections, it has begun “aid” shipments to several of those affected countries in Europe, such as Spain and Italy. The reality however is that these packages of protective equipment, masks, and tests are being sold, not given, and are intended to obscure China’s own mismanagement of the virus in its early stages. Even more worrisome has been recent reports that these supplies have been defective, leading some European countries to reject such “aid.”
Moreover, China’s largest state-backed telecommunications carrier, Huawei Technologies, has indicated that it will provide assistance to countries in Europe – such as Ireland – that are struggling to deal with a rise in viral infections. Huawei, a company that it is also vying to roll out 5G in many European countries, has claimed that it will donate personal protective equipment and other supplies as a “gift.”
Engaging in disinformation tactics is not a new playbook for Beijing, but the open and unsophisticated approach – as evidenced by the peddling of blatantly absurd conspiracy theories – is a change of method. Why is this the case? The reasons lie more at home than overseas for the Communist Party of China.
First, despite Beijing’s reassurances that the outbreak is under control and industrial work can resume as normal, Chinese citizens clearly remain deeply worried. According to some reports, mass transit in urban centres remains far off pre-outbreak levels and there have been more alarming reports of skirmishes at the border between China’s Hubei province – where the virus originated – and neighboring Jiangxi.
Second, the Chinese economy has been absolutely throttled as a result of the pandemic and even the earliest economic data shows that the hangover is likely to last well beyond the next few months. Economic data released this month, showing the January-February period, is simply horrific for stewards of power in Beijing. Exports were down 17.2 percent, industrial production down 13.5 percent, fixed asset investment down nearly 25 percent and – perhaps most alarming – retail sales were down 20.5 percent. Even with a predictable attempt to “cook the books” and hide economic troubles, Beijing will have little room to put a blanket over the economic hardships in the coming months.
The large multinational banks have already slashed China growth predictions. Goldman Sachs, Standard and Poors and Nomura are all forecasting that Chinese GDP growth will be – in the best-case scenario – halved at 3 percent (last year’s growth was reported at 6.1 percent, although many analysts agree that this too was inflated). Nomura has gone the furthest, indicating Chinese growth will drop to 1.3 percent – almost a four-fold drop from last year. And there is little hope of gaining much growth back in the coming months as China’s largest customer base and source of demand, in Europe and North America, continue to struggle with COVID-19 and batten down the hatches.
Brewing criticism of the central government’s handling of the crisis and the subsequent economic shocks have the real potential to be a threat multiplier to the Communist Party’s legitimacy. This desperation for a deflected and nationalist narrative is where the aggressive disinformation campaign ties in. It is also likely connected to China’s global ambitions, especially the regime’s fear that it will be blamed internationally for the pandemic in light of its botched initial response.
Despite the rosy view being painted for the outside, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his credibility is on the line and the careful – but genuine– jockeying within China’s politburo has already begun. The coming months will likely see no letup in US-China tensions and other regional security concerns, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, as Beijing attempts to distract from its own culpability and mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.
J. Berkshire Miller is a senior fellow and deputy director of MLI’s Centre for Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad.