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China's anti-coronavirus propaganda reveals its own insecurity

Communist party works overtime in shaping narrative to maintain grip on power

Chinese President Xi Jinping and the rest of the communist party cannot afford to admit that they botched their initial response to the coronavirus outbreak.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, recently admonished the U.S. and Europe in an editorial over their failure to contain the new coronavirus and implement adequate countermeasures.

The March 14 editorial was published under the auspices of the People's Daily newspaper, the main mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

Prior to the editorial, China had frequently trumpeted its response to the virus, almost demanding global gratitude for its efforts to slow the contagion. This is absurd.

The novel coronavirus, which has wrought so much pain for so many, originated in China. Expecting accolades for slowing its spread -- especially without acknowledging responsibility -- is akin to a person lighting a fire then seeking praise for helping extinguish it.

Last week, however, Beijing went to bizarre new lengths to distance itself from any responsibility for the pandemic. A senior official of the Chinese Foreign Ministry tweeted that the U.S. military may have been responsible for COVID-19 infecting China.

Understandably, the conspiracy theory provoked a strong protest from the U.S.

It is fairly common for China to unleash its propaganda machine to twist facts in order to portray itself in a glowing light and gain favor on the international stage. For example, as the U.S. retreats into protectionism, China claims to be the champion of free trade.

But what would prompt China to use a global pandemic for such over-the-top propaganda? Judging from official mouthpieces, the CCP wants to change the narrative as follows:

1. China delayed the spread of infections by limiting individual freedoms, providing the world precious time to prepare for the onslaught of the disease.

2. The U.S. and Europe, however, failed to introduce countermeasures as strong as China's, thus allowing the virus to spread.

3. The different responses clearly show that China's authoritarian government is superior to the democratic models of America and Europe.

Some Chinese embassies are regurgitating Beijing's narrative, according to diplomatic sources. This has raised suspicions in Tokyo and Washington, who are now on guard against further Chinese efforts to burnish the country's image by spewing more propaganda.

In fairness, China deserves to be commended for its vigorous response to contain the outbreak. But this hardly means it should be considered a shining example of how to fight the pandemic, or that it saved the day.

Rather, the world would be suffering far less had the communist leadership reacted promptly when news of the virus first broke last year in Wuhan, instead of concealing it.

Even as the crisis escalated in February, China was criticizing the U.S. and other countries for slapping entry restrictions on Chinese travelers, labeling the measures an "overreaction." It was bellicosity like this that caused other countries to pause in their response rather than jump into action.

This CCP's reckless behavior can only be attributed to one thing: fear. The fear of losing control over events at home to such an extent that the party could lose it stranglehold over the country.

Leaders in democracies earn de facto support and legitimacy for their actions because they are elected; not chosen by an exclusive, all-powerful party that only endorses its own.

To win Chinese hearts and minds, a leader must build a track record of success. Mao Zedong, who established People's Republic of China, was one. Deng Xiaoping, who vastly enriched the life of the people, was another. But subsequent leaders have failed to follow in their footsteps with any groundbreaking historical achievements.

Meanwhile, current leaders are handicapped by worsening domestic problems, such as the widening gap between rich and poor, scarcity of water, an aging population, and an overburdened health care system. The slowdown in economic growth will only be exacerbated by a population that is forecast to begin declining by 2030.

The shortage of water is hugely problematic, due mainly to contamination and drought. The Yellow River -- China's second-largest inland waterway -- has plunged to one-tenth the volume of that in 1940s. According to the United Nations, annual per capita water resources are absolutely scarce in eight Chinese provinces.

As early as 20 years ago, Wen Jiabao, who later served as premier, warned that the shortage of water would threaten "the very survival of the Chinese nation."

If the Chinese, most of whom have lived their entire lives with limited political freedom, feel the communists have failed to protect them, the government could see its support severely eroded. Hence, it is imperative the leadership maintain its "always right, never wrong" aura and not admit that it botched its response to the coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed more than 3,000 lives in the country.

Prior to the current crisis, a top official in the CCP told a foreign acquaintance that some party members envy politicians in the West. "In the west, when political leaders lose support from the people, they just need to step down after losing the election. But, we don't have such a system. And so, we can never fail. This places us under tremendous pressure to perform well," the official said.

If this is indeed true, then the CCP should show some humility and change the way it governs, especially in light of its inadequate response during the initial stages of the outbreak.

First would be to diminish the excessive power that President Xi Jinping and his close aides have accumulated, which has grown to such proportions that underlings may fail to transmit bad news out of fear of reprisal, preventing leaders from taking decisive action. In addition, the CCP should be less sensitive to criticism, including that expressed on the internet, so that constructive insights and information are not throttled before reaching the leadership.

After declaring on March 12 that domestic infections had peaked, China began cooperating with medical authorities in Iraq, Iran and Italy. While such support is valuable, the Chinese government should also learn from the outbreak to develop more effective governance to prevent another crisis of its own making.

This could be its best contribution to the international community.

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