Scenes from a Chinese propaganda campaign


This afternoon I came across this excellent timeline highlighting the ways in which China has used it’s propaganda resources to reframe the story of the coronavirus outbreak. The entire thing is quite long and can’t be easily summarized, but I think a few highlights help to point out the way in which China has been operating:

January 9

CCP TV calls it ‘Wuhan virus.’ China Central TV reports that a strain of the coronavirus that CCTV calls “Wuhan virus” has broken out in the city of Wuhan.


January 16

Wuhan officials say health crisis is over, and encourage large public gatherings. Wuhan residents go to a government sponsored fair, citing government statements that the health crisis is over.


January 20

In a major shift in policy, CCP leader Xi Jinping makes the first public comment about the virus. Xinhua issues statement to show Xi as a bold, decisive leader: “President Xi Jinping has ordered resolute efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that caused cases of pneumonia.”…

As we enter February, the virus has already spread around the world including to the United States. Meanwhile the CCP crackdown on criticism of President Xi continues:

February 6

Dr. Li dies of the coronavirus.

Regime censors hashtags supportive of Dr Li. The top two trending hashtags on Weibo, where Li had posted his story, were the Chinese characters that said, “Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want freedom of speech.” The BBC reports, “Both hashtags were quickly censored. When the BBC searched Weibo on Friday morning, hundreds of thousands of comments had already been wiped.”


February 14

Two underground journalists disappear along with their websites. The BBC reports that the social media sites of two Chinese citizen journalists in Wuhan have been shut down and that friends fear that the journalists have “disappeared.” The journalists, Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, used virtual private networks and other means to circumvent CCP censorship.

At this point, many news outlets around the world are still referring to this as the “Wuhan virus” but on February 24th the WHO encourages the media not to “attach locations or ethnicity” to the disease. This sets up the next phase of China’s PR push.

February 27

Propaganda line begins that the virus might not have originated in China. Zhong Nanshan, a pulmonologist allowed to speak to reporters in China, holds a news conference and alleges, “the coronavirus first appeared in China but may not have originated in China.”


March 4

Canadian anti-NATO site publishes article by (Shanghai-based) writer alleging US origin of virus. A western writer who has lived in Shanghai for 15 years publishes an article on an anti-NATO website alleging that the coronavirus may have originated in the United States. This writer becomes the source of Chinese Foreign Ministry allegations that the US military spread the virus.


March 7

Chinese diplomat: Virus is not from China. China’s ambassador to South Africa hints that the virus originated outside China. “Although the epidemic first broke out in China, it did not necessarily mean that the virus is originated from China, let alone ‘made in China,’” the ambassador said on Twitter.

On March 9, a French news site reports on the propaganda campaign saying the CCP is laying the groudwork to blame the U.S. for the virus.

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In the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), that China could have been singled out as the source of the coronavirus is unacceptable. Everything that links China to the virus must be questioned and disappear from all history books. Thus, all Chinese ambassadors abroad have the imperative to spread the following message from their Twitter account (which is prohibited in China) or in foreign media: ” If the coronavirus has been successfully deployed from Wuhan, its real origin remains unknown. We are looking for where it comes from exactly. ”

In the same vein, Chinese diplomats insist on the fact that “ the animal market of Wuhan, (Editor’s note completely cleaned today and perhaps about to be destroyed, without any trace) which we thought at the beginning to be at the origin of the epidemic ”, is no longer the epicenter of the epidemic. Instilling doubt in people’s minds is a first step which allows us to feed all the conspiracy theories which are currently circulating on an American origin of this virus.

And sure enough that’s what happens next. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry suggests the virus originated in the US. This same message is spread on Chinese social media where it is seen tens of millions of times:

On the same day, CNN’s Jim Acosta questions Trump’s reference to a “foreign virus” and says the remark sounds “xenophobic.” Chinese outlets also begin complaining (in English) that calling the virus “Chinese” is racist. The U.S. media echoes these complaints, in most cases failing to mention that China has been attempting to blame the virus on U.S. soldiers:

March 14

Trump is racist for criticizing Chinese government, CCP outlet says. English-language CCP outlet says Trump’s criticism is racist, accuses the US of not being “transparent” about its response to the virus, and praises Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman for accusing the US military of originating the virus.


March 17

Foreign Ministry says China is being ‘stigmatized.’Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang says that the term “Chinese Virus” is unacceptable: “Recently, some U.S. politicians linked the novel coronavirus to China. This stigmatizes China. We are strongly indignant about it and firmly object to it. … We urge the United States to fix its mistakes immediately and stop the groundless blaming against China immediately.”


March 18

ABC News & other journalists object to Trump naming the virus by its origin. At a White House press conference, Cecilia Vega of ABC News hints that President Trump is racist by using the term “China Virus.” She asks Trump why he uses the term.

  • “Because it comes from China,” Trump replies. “It’s not racist at all. No, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.”
  • PBS White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor questions Trump’s use of attributing the virus’ origin to China.
  • CNN says “China Virus” label is propaganda. CNN White House correspondent Jeremy Diamond rips a fellow White House reporter for calling out journalists who agree with the president’s use of “China Virus.” CNN calls the reporter “a propagandist from a conservative outlet.”
  • CNN “opinion” headline: “Trump’s malicious use of ‘Chinese Virus.”
  • Associated Press headline: “Trump dubs COVID-19 ‘Chinese Virus’ despite hate crime risks.”


March 19

Accusations: Trump is an angry racist who’s ‘wantonly escalating conflicts with China.’ “US President Donald Trump has been repeatedly and deliberately using the term ‘Chinese Virus,’ which is considered racist,” the CCP’s Global Times says. “This shows that trump and his team are panicking and misbehaving. They have not found any good way to take the pandemic and the market sentiment under control. As a result, they wantonly escalated conflicts with China, trying to escape Americans’ questions over their incompetence, making China a target of their anger.”

CNN’s Jim Acosta stays on the case:

And the CCP propaganda campaign continues to capitalize on U.S. media figures:

March 21

CCP organs urges people to echo Paul Krugman’s ‘Trump pandemic’ in New York Times. Becoming more militant in tone, CCP organs are now accusing President Trump personally of being responsible for the virus. Global Times urges CCP followers to use the term “Trump Pandemic,” which it credits to Paul Krugman’s column in the March 19 New York Times.


March 25

CNN’s Chris Cuomo attacks Trump, says virus ‘could have come from anywhere.’ CNN host Chris Cuomo excoriates President Trump for saying “China Virus” and repeats the line that the virus might not have originated in China. He says on his evening show, “it could have come from anywhere.”

The virus couldn’t have come from anywhere and in fact didn’t start just anywhere. Just like the SARS virus before it, it leaped from a non-human source to humans at a Chinese wet market, in this case a market in Wuhan, China.

You have to admit it’s an impressive performance by the Chinese Communist Party. They covered up the virus for nearly two months then, implausibly, began claiming the source of the virus was a mystery and later that it was the United States. Despite this terrible opening hand they have essentially battled this to a public stalemate. Trump has stopped referring to the “Chinese virus” even as China continues to spread the idea it originated in the U.S.

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