Although American intelligence and government officials conceded that Russian state media and diplomatic representatives have been more restrained in appropriating blame on the West for the COVID-19 outbreak than the obscure, conspiracy theory-espousing websites that they support, the same cannot be said for China. Beijing’s disinformation campaign over the coronavirus resembles its Russian counterpart in some ways – for instance, Chinese-affiliated websites support the same conspiracy theories – but overall its propaganda and fake news have are more aggressive in tone, and in some cases, infinitely more bizarre. The Chinese Foreign Ministry claims, for instance, that Italians – as a sign of gratitude for Chinese doctors traveling to Milan to help fight the virus – broke into a spontaneous rendition of the Chinese national anthem from their balconies. It apparently did not occur to the Chinese authorities that few Italians would have any notion of what the Chinese national anthem sounded like, and fewer still would be able to belt out the words with fraternal international gusto.
One of the principle aims of the Chinese propaganda machine has been to dispel the notion that the coronavirus originated in China. Since late February, Beijing has been suggesting that COVID-19 came from elsewhere, with its state-run media stating that the virus ‘did not necessarily originate in China’. This came as a result of Western criticism that China failed to adequately respond to and contain the initial outbreak of the virus.
A point that followed soon after was the Chinese rumor that the coronavirus is actually a weaponized diseased manufactured in the United States, with the United States Army secretly deploying it in Wuhan; shortly afterwards, Beijing-backed news sources shifted the blame to Italy, while simultaneously maintaining their own line that the origins of the virus are, in fact, a scientific question rather than a political issue, and should not be investigated further at this time. China’s determination to keep the discussion away from appropriating blame is perhaps best demonstrated by its expulsion of journalists who worked for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, while denouncing the United States for its lack of transparency.
The trust between China and the West has been quickly eroded: Beijing’s lies and half-truths over the virus have done significant damage and, according to one UK government official, will cause the West to ‘re-think’ its future relationship with China. Beijing’s inconsistencies over its handling of the pandemic has caused significant ire; for instance, despite only reporting approximately 3,304 deaths from the coronavirus, funeral homes in Wuhan alone have disposed of over 40,000 bodies since February. Internally, the Xi Jinping government maintains that it has already successfully contained and controlled the outbreak.
It is, of course, in China’s interest to spout lies that suit its own aims. The recent trade war with the United States and the deadly protests in Hong Kong have shown that the Communist system is not infallible, and so adopting the line that the coronavirus – despite ravaging the rest of the world – has met its match in the form of Xi Jinping’s brand of nationalist Chinese Communism may be seen as doing much to bolster the domestic reputation of the Party. Although Chinese officials’ anti-Western lines have mellowed somewhat in recent weeks, American officials are concerned that Beijing has abandoned these simply in favor of more subtle tactics favored by its Russian allies.
As concerning as the ongoing crisis is from both a healthcare and economic standpoint, consideration must be given to what future relations between the world’s biggest economies will look like when the coronavirus is finally curtailed; further Russian and Chinese unity is a cause for concern, as is the heightened tensions between East and West. Even gestures which are ostensibly altruistic are – with good reason – treated with suspicion: British officials have expressed the fear that China’s distribution of medical equipment is another attempt to expand its economic powers, and a number of European countries have rejected the products outright.
A sensible political forecast would predict frosty relations with little sign of thaw – and while the cyber battle is currently only centered on disinformation and propaganda, when the crisis passes and diplomatic relations are at all-time low, it can be expected that the cyber security Cold War will heat up fairly rapidly.